From college dropout to JSK Fellow at Stanford: Learning to get past a missing line on my resume

Hi. My name is Don, and I don’t have a college degree.

In fact, I only completed two courses at two different colleges nearly 20 years ago.

This is something I have not been particularly proud of for a long time. I’ve done my best to paper over it on LinkedIn. I find clever ways to dodge the inevitable “where did you go to college” question. (If people ask where I went to school, I truthfully say Boise State. If instead they ask where my degree is from I use a bit of vocal sleight and say “I went to Boise State”).

These are the tricks of someone who is embarrassed.

And yet, here I am — classified as a post-doctoral fellow at Stanford University.

When I heard about the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship here, I was sure the program would require a college degree.

I searched the program website, waiting for my hopes to be dashed — ready to move on to the next Internet distraction.

jsk.stanford.edu

Then I read the ten words that changed my life:

We do not require applicants to have a college degree.

Well, OK then.

I’ve travelled a peculiar career path. Just shy of one month after my 18th birthday, KTVB-TV in Boise hired me to produce its nascent website KTVB.COM. I was still in high school.

Some folks took a chance on me and I always worked to deliver.

I enrolled in school the next fall, but I found the thrill of a job I loved (and the 60-hour-plus workweeks) to be way more interesting than classes.

“Why am I working on a degree to get a job I already have?” I rationalized.

“I’ll go back later,” I pretended.

With KTVB I steadily worked my way up over about 17 years, landing in management and overseeing a multi-million dollar budget. I won one of the top awards for TV journalism and was named to my company’s “president’s circle” for top sales achievement.

I did pretty well.

And then, after those 17 years? I quit.

As I decided what do next, I knew I had this little bugaboo on my resume.

No. Degree.

Pretty quickly it cost me an opportunity. A hiring manager who knew me well was dashed when reminded of this fact. Their company liked its people to have two- and three-letter notations after their names.

Don Day, LOL was as close as I could hope to get, in my mind at least.

Being a mid-career adult with some success and no college degree isn’t an easily solvable riddle. I could go back to school and get a degree of course. But I’d likely have to also work full-time for myself or someone else. Plus, tackling freshman- and sophomore-level classes wasn’t my idea of a productive exercise.

Instead I geared up and began a pair of entrepreneurial ventures. One, helping business navigate how to build their business in the digital space. The other, a micro-news site focused on the growing Boise, Idaho area.

A story from Fast Company struck a chord with me last week.

Employers in all industries are finally wising up to the limits of fancy credentials as predictors of on-the-job success. Too often, high test scores and degrees from elite universities signal wealthy parents and other forms of privilege at least as much as they signal competence and expertise.

Hear, hear.

Many hiring managers still put the degree requirement out there, and even use software like SuccessFactors to filter out resumes that don’t meet their degree criteria so they are not ever seen by a human being.

That’s a mistake. While I think college education is exceedingly valuable, the path was not right for me. Instead I have worked hard to fill the gap with experience and effort.

FastCo says the attitude is changing, though it can’t prove if the actions follow the words:

(F)ully 70% of hiring professionals agreed with the following statement: “If a candidate has the right skills for an open position, it doesn’t matter what type or format of education was used to get them.”

At JSK, I get the opportunity of a lifetime.

I spend my days attending classes with students at the Graduate School of Business and elsewhere. These are high performers and I’m a kid with just a high school diploma. While I learn a great deal from the interactions between students and others, I sometimes can feel like I don’t really belong here.

But I also know that my experience and understanding in the real world is every bit as valuable as what they may learn in the classroom. It’s something I have to work hard to remember and believe.

Most professionals have something about their CV that they’d like to improve. Careers are not perfect, and each person has to try and not get stuck talking themselves down.

Fortunately for me, the team at JSK, even in the august setting of Stanford University, realizes degrees aren’t everything.

If I’m lucky, they won’t be the last.

Don Day is a 2018 Stanford John S. Knight Fellow. He has twenty years experience in media — leading teams, producing award-winning journalism and innovating in the digital journalism space. He currently is the publisher of BoiseDev.com.

A midweek sunset lights up the sky near McClatchy Hall on the campus of Stanford University. Don Day photo.
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