With summer upon us, recent high school graduates across this country are planning their next steps in life. About 69 percent of those teens will choose the path of traditional higher education. Yet only four-in-ten will graduate after four years.
The truth is, the standard American education system is far too rigid to foster success in all our young people. Most traditional universities have stringent application and admittance criteria and a similarly entrenched approach to building knowledge. But not everybody learns that way. And that is ok. As an 18-time Grammy winner, I am proof that struggling within the traditional system often has more to do with the system itself than the individual, and once you find a place that allows your creativity to thrive, success will follow.
I came to the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant as a child with my family that was fleeing a military dictatorship in Argentina. Though my parents valued education in our household, I was never a very good student. But while I lacked “book smarts,” I had a passion for music and creating. Unfortunately, without a stellar academic record, I didn’t have a lot of options after graduating high school. While I had a knack for creating music, a degree from a music school like Berklee College of Music or the University of Miami was out of reach for me. They required an audition on a main instrument, but I came at music from a different angle and was passionate about punk and alternative music. Combined with my average grades, below-average SAT scores, and the out-of-reach tuition expenses, those options were a non-starter for me.
The application process for most universities weeds out nontraditional students like me. We are smart and creative, but unable to excel in a system that values reductive thinking and conformity. With so few options, I ended up enrolling in a public university in Florida thanks to an Equal Opportunity Program for minority students.
It was like putting a square peg in a round hole.
My learning style is hands-on and I struggled there. I knew my true passion would always be music, but I was unsure how to make a living doing it. I knew I wasn’t in the right place. Then one day I stumbled upon a music career day that changed my life. There I found a school that catered to individuals like me.
That school was Full Sail University, and throughout my time in its recording arts program, I thrived. I had finally found a program built for students who did not learn in the traditional way, and where passion coursed through the veins of the faculty, staff, and the other students. Full Sail’s hands-on teaching approach allowed me to learn how to operate the technical equipment I would encounter throughout my career as a music producer and engineer. Thanks to the unique experience Full Sail offered, I was fully prepared for my first post-graduation job in Crescent Moon Studios, owned by Gloria & Emilio Estefan.
I started out as a coffee-fetching intern. But after years of hard work, I began working on projects for the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, and Shakira. I have been extremely fortunate to work with some of the biggest names in Latin music and I’m thankful to have won six Grammys and twelve Latin Grammys. I’ve even lectured at the very same music schools that wouldn’t have accepted me as a student.
As I look back at my education journey, I can say with certainty that the standard education system in our country marginalizes a large population of people that have a lot to give but are not wired to learn in the way that traditional schools teach. Had I listened to the system and believed I wasn’t capable of success I don’t know what I’d be doing now. But I probably wouldn’t be spending every day in the studio making music for people to enjoy.
As students look toward the future, I encourage everyone to keep in mind alternative education options. While a traditional university may be a good choice for some, others may need to look a little harder to find a school that is the right fit for them. Do not get discouraged and do not give up. And never let someone diminish your passion.