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Opting out of college

Missouri high school seniors choose alternatives.
Wednesday, May 31, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:42 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Andrew Walters plans to spend the summer on horseback surrounded by mountains and sky. Amid such beautiful scenery, he doesn’t mind shoveling manure or bucking hay bales.

Stephanie Melloway plans to continue working at the nursing home where she currently works part-time.

These two high school seniors, Andrew from Rock Bridge High School and Stephanie from Hallsville High School, are only two of the nearly 60,000 graduating seniors in Missouri who will say goodbye to high school life this spring and welcome a new independence. But unlike most seniors, they see a future for themselves that may not include college, at least not right away.

Stephanie will immediately begin work towards her professional career while Andrew will see where his experience and adventurous side take him.

Stephanie’s plan includes paying off her car loan and eventually working in a hospital as a registered nurse. Andrew will work at the Cherokee Park Dude Ranch this summer in Livermore, Colorado. He remains unsure about whether he will go to college.

Stephanie said she had no idea about what she wanted to do with the rest of her life during her freshman and sophomore year of high school. But she did know that she wanted to help people.

Last year, Stephanie took that desire to help people and enrolled in the health-related professionals course at the Career Center in Columbia. She earned her CMA (Certified Medical Assistant) certification and now works at Lenoir Woods nursing home in Columbia.

At Lenoir Woods, Stephanie helps residents with Alzheimer’s in the Special Care Unit. “I get (residents) up, get them dressed and feed them. It’s more one-on-one care,” Stephanie said.

She plans to take at least a year off from school to take care of things such as her car payments and becoming more independent.

Then, Stephanie intends to get her nursing degree.

Stephanie’s high school guidance counselor, Cathy Hight, has known Stephanie for about four years and said Stephanie is an independent person.

“She never had any intention of going off to college right out of high school,” Hight said. “But what set her apart was making the commitment to go to the Career Center her junior year and making a commitment to work while she was in high school.”

In addition to her job at the nursing home, Stephanie works with kindergarteners for an hour every day in a cadet teaching program sponsored by the Hallsville School District.

She enjoys working with young children and hopes to one day combine her nursing role with helping kids. Although she finds her work at the nursing home rewarding, Stephanie wants to work with patients who are, as she said, “closer to the beginning of life.” “I want to work in the peds (pediatric) unit,” she said.

Andrew Walters, like a lot of high school kids, does not know where his dreams will take him, but he keeps his eyes open for clues. In his junior year he took a course on the history of the Old West. This class inspired him to pursue working on a ranch.

Andrew visited Cherokee Park Dude Ranch last summer for a family reunion and helped out while he was there. His ranching dream now had a place to begin.

Most days, Andrew wears tall cowboy boots and jeans to school. He stands out among his suburban high school peers dressed in baggy pants with sneakers or flip-flops.

After school, Andrew heads off to the farm where he works. His boots, jeans and hat make perfect sense as he spends his afternoons at the farm working and preparing for his stint at the Dude Ranch this summer.

“The cowboy thing really interests me lately,” Andrew said. “I found a way to spend time in the mountains and get paid for it.”

During the History of the Old West class, Andrew learned about Lewis and Clark, Native Americans and the settlement of the West. He loves the outdoors and a challenge, and the lifestyle presented in class appealed to him. His teacher, Bruce Wilson, furthered Andrew’s interests in the subject by offering an outside learning experience.

“He made an offer to the class to take kids horseback riding and I took him up on it,” he said. “We’ve pretty much built a friendship off of that, and we ride weekly.”

Wilson, who said he, too, dreamed of being a cowboy or ranch hand when he was younger, has helped Andrew learn more about horses by hiring Andrew to work at his farm in northeast Boone County. Wilson lets Andrew work with a three-year-old colt as if it were his own.

Wilson said Andrew has a natural intuition with the horses.

“He doesn’t get real excited, he doesn’t talk a lot and he just stays on an even keel all the time,” Wilson said. “As far as working with horses, that’s a great trait to have because it keeps the horses calm.”

Although Andrew thinks his experience working on the ranch will be successful, he does think he will attend college eventually.

“I don’t want to live off of someone else’s place for the rest of my life,” he said. I want to have my own spread eventually. And to make enough money to do that, I have to have a college degree.”

Andrew’s parents and Wilson fear Andrew might get too caught up in the ranching world and forget about getting a degree. “My dad is worried about me being a laborer because you can’t be a laborer all your life," said Andrew. "You’re going to get old some time.”

As high school comes to a close, Andrew is thinking about how exciting this summer will be. He will wake up early, take people on trail rides and have fun dancing and singing at night with the guests. Right now, Andrew wants to become a cowboy, and he knows he’s going to work hard to do it, but he believes that he is up for the challenge.

Andrew and Stephanie will walk across the stage during their respective high school graduations, receive their diplomas and venture off on to two different paths. Even with all of their plans, what comes next is uncertain. Andrew can’t wait.

“I’m a little afraid of screwing things up this summer, but you can’t hold back,” he said. “You gotta try it.”


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