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From High School Dropout to College at 30: One Woman's Path to Success

A lot of people, for whatever reason, can’t make college happen at age 18. NBC News reporter Mary Emily O'Hara was one of those people.
Image: Mary Emily O'Hara
Reporter Mary Emily O'HaraNatalia Jimenez / NBC News
/ Source: NBC News

In an as-told-to essay for College Game Plan, NBC News Digital reporter Mary Emily O'Hara explains what she learned navigating the college admissions process as an adult.

A lot of people, for whatever reason, can’t make college happen at age 18. I was one of those people.

I made it to college, but my path wasn’t traditional. I learned the best way to do it as I went along — and matriculated at age 30. Here's my story.

'I’m smart enough to get a better job'

I was raised by a single mom. I come from a long line of women who did not graduate high school; they worked in the service industry as waitresses and hotel maids, piecing life together.

My mom, an artist, did her own thing, but she didn't go to college and dropped out of high school at 15 or 16 like her mother before her. I too left high school early, just before my 16th birthday.

Reporter Mary Emily O'HaraNatalia Jimenez / NBC News

Later, when I wanted to go to college, I had no idea how it was done, because I wasn’t raised with any information about it.

I got to a point where I was tired of working minimum wage jobs in the service industry. I hit a wall and thought, 'I’m smart enough to get a better job,' but I wouldn't have qualified for any because I didn't have a high school or college degree.

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It was frustrating, so at age 30, I went back to school. I started with community college.

Nearly half of all American undergraduates attend community colleges, according to 2016 statistics from the American Association of Community Colleges, and in 2014 there were 8.2 million college students ages 25 and over.

I got my GED and went to Portland Community College in Oregon. The first semester, I took just a couple of courses; I was working in bars and restaurants, so I only had so much time.

Finding my path to a four-year school

Once I was settled at community college, I began talking to admissions counselors at four-year schools in the area. At Portland's Reed College, an admissions counselor explained that as an adult first-generation student with no money, I would likely have to take out less in loans if I went to a private school. State schools have a limited pool of money and more students. Private schools are seeking a certain diversity and they have resources — scholarships and foundation money — more readily available.

The Reed counselor was right. If you could meet the requirements of a private school, they often had a policy in place where they covered tuition or the entire cost of attending. That’s how I wound up applying to Stanford, where if you make under $100,000 a year your tuition is free. And if you make $60,000 or less like I did, everything is free.

But as a dropout, you don’t really have a barometer for understanding where you fit in terms of competing with other college applicants. I wasn’t sure I would be be accepted to any four-year school. I applied to 10 different colleges, hell-bent on getting a scholarship.

I did well enough on the SATs, had close to a 4.0 GPA, and when the results started coming in, I was really surprised: I got into every school I applied to, except for the state schools, ironically enough.

Why I decided to turn down Stanford

Reed and Stanford offered me full scholarships. I was presented with a choice I'd never faced before.

Before that, my decisions looked like this: Do I want to work this terrible, minimum wage retail job, or this waitressing job where I never know how much money I'd make on any given shift? Suddenly, I had a full scholarship at one of the world’s best schools.

It came down to logistics: I was given an on-campus apartment as part of both scholarships, but Reed's apartment was the only one that permitted dogs, and I had one I loved very much. It also made sense with my life: I had been living in Portland for a few years, and already had connections, jobs and relationships. Off-campus housing in Palo Alto near Stanford wasn't a viable option as it's extremely hard to come by.

At Reed I could take my dog on campus, and apart from one school having a more prestigious name, the art history programs were basically the same. A lot of people told me I was crazy, and a Stanford admissions counselor told me she never heard of anyone turning down the transfer scholarship.

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But this is the thing about being a working-class person. You have to take finances into consideration. You have no choice. And if going to Stanford was going to be financially difficult, it wasn’t the right decision.

At Reed, a small school, I received a lot of support, a lot of attention from my professors and I actually really needed that. Plus, people had blue Mohawks and piercings, and I felt right at home.

I graduated in six years and now have a successful career. In the end, here’s what I learned:

  • Be an independent thinker: At Portland Community College, a transfer counselor tried to discourage me from applying to Reed or Stanford, saying I would never get in, and that I should go to state school. This guy’s job was to help me with my transfer application, and he was actively discouraging me from trying. He had no idea I was intelligent and had already done a bunch of stuff with my life. I thought, damn, what if I was a student who relied on this information? Learn to listen to the right people and believe in yourself.
  • Don’t let anyone tell you where you fit: I thought there was a chance I was smart and interesting enough to get into these schools, and the person who had initially tried to discourage me was just looking at a piece of paper and didn’t really understand my background or what I had to offer. Only you know your value in that sense, and it’s not always something that’s on paper. If you had looked at my school record and seen that I had dropped out and had barely any college experience, you wouldn’t have seen that I was a musician and an artist and a published writer.
  • Private schools can be cheaper in the long run: Like anybody else, I just looked at the price tags and said “Oh my God, it costs $50,000 a year to go to Reed or Stanford,” but the fact that those schools are actively looking for people like me is not something I would have known. If it hadn’t been for that one Reed transfer counselor, I would never have applied. If I had gone to a state school, I would have had more debt than I have now. Look at private schools and see if you qualify for those hefty scholarships.
  • Don’t overlook community college: In a lot of ways, PCC was comparable to a private four-year education, with small classes are and world-class instructors. My physics instructor had a doctorate from a very prestigious university and wanted to live in Portland and ride his bike to work every day. My fellow students were also typically adults — they took physics to go to nursing school or Oregon College of Oriental Medicine to be acupuncturists. There were always fascinating people around.

Amy Koplin contributed to this report.