(Reprinted from Jan/Feb 2011)

As I sat at my desk struggling with Saxon Algebra ½, wondering what a dangling participle was and fearing the “new” homeschool diet my mom was about to test on us, I certainly didn’t think that a few years later I’d be sitting in an $8 million aircraft learning how to avoid radar-guided missiles.

Since most of my friends were homeschooled and didn’t know a fist bump from a frat party, I wasn’t too focused on spending the next four years of my life in the halls of higher learning. But things seemed to change after I finished that stage after high school, where a boy likes to jump off tall things and break bones. Did I really need a degree to start a career? Did McDonald’s really have a retirement package? For those of you who aren’t content with a cubicle or helping your mom knit doilies on your 25th birthday, I may be able to help.

I had a desire. I loved flying and everything related to it. God blessed me with parents who drove me to the ends of the earth so I could get that hour in the rusty old airplane or go to that pancake fly-in and meet a “real” pilot. If God’s given you a natural talent for something and a passion to do it, maybe that’s His cue. It’s not always a thundering voice from heaven.

I didn’t really know exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew I needed to work hard to get it. I couldn’t rely on an $80,000 piece of paper from the state university telling others I was good at basket weaving. So instead of that, after high school I got a lot of life experience that definitely helped me get to where I am now. I worked many different jobs; I went into the woods for weeks, went on long hikes and figured out where my breaking point was. That’s not something a tenured professor can transfer into your soul.

I did everything from teaching flying and delivering boxes for UPS to driving the Amish to market. It wasn’t glorious, but it was valuable, and I had a résumé. I had more than two letters behind my name. So when I looked into flying helicopters for the Army, the “undergraduate degree” required to become an officer didn’t daunt me too much. Only a handful of people are selected, and pilots make up about 0.2% of the entire Army. When it came time for my interview with a colonel and a few majors, I heard it could take up to an hour to impress them. Mine lasted about four minutes. They said they were tired of seeing unemployed history majors with nothing to offer and were always looking for people with real life experience. And it only got easier after that. I finished at the top of my class in boot camp and was an honor graduate in primary flight training and the Blackhawk course. Yes, the vast majority of pilots have degrees, but they also have $60,000 of unpaid student loans and nowhere jobs in their field. I had a passion to fly and to serve our country and a degree didn’t stand in my way. Now, with so many alternatives to traditional college it almost seems pointless to lock yourself into four years of classes you don’t really need, with people who won’t help your career at all. Granted, there are many fields that require a four-plus year degree, but most can be done online or with distance programs that build a degree for you. Distance learning and real life experience are where it’s at. God gives us the dream and desire, but we have to be the owner, coach and cheerleader to get it done.

If you haven’t finished high school yet, or you’re in those awkward few years after and you just don’t know what to do, do anything that pushes you to the limit. You have stiff competition with the masses of scholared folk these days, and, as for me, I never regretted taking the jump off the edge.

Marc Cohen is the youngest son of Mel and Pat Cohen. Mel serves No Greater Joy as the General Manager.