Jumping off the college track


Noor Siddiqui, 18, poses for a picture at her home on July 23, 2012 in Clifton, Va. Noor is one of the winners of the Theil Fellowship. She receives one hundred thousand dollars not to attend college and pursue a project of her own design. (Ricky Carioti/WASHINGTON POST)
August 3, 2012

Noor Siddiqui doesn’t want to go to college yet.

She seems the very model of a college-bound student. The Clifton resident graduated from Robinson Secondary School in June with a stellar grade-point average of 4.5. She helped start a nonprofit organization that coordinates fundraisers and volunteers with various charities, as well as a scholarship for Afghan girls that funds schooling for a 13-year-old in a Kabul suburb.

Siddiqui, 18, was accepted to several universities. But she turned them all down. Siddiqui is a Thiel Fellow.

The Thiel Fellowship was named for founder and funder Peter Thiel (co-founder of PayPal, early investor in Facebook, billionaire). The program, in its second year, works like this: 20 teenage winners each get a $100,000 grant to pursue a project of his or her own design. For two years, Siddiqui can devote herself to her ambitious, if not exactly original, goal — to end poverty. There’s just one catch. Until the end of the fellowship, no college allowed.

Siddiqui hasn’t decided what she’ll do when her stint is over. “People want my opinion on higher education,” she said, but she has no interest in chiming in. “The truth is, this is just something I wanted to do.”

Her choice raises the very question Siddiqui won’t answer: Is college worth it?

That challenge is at odds with the widely held belief that a college degree is a prerequisite for success. But with tuition rising faster than inflation and many recent college grads facing massive debt as they struggle to find a job, the value of a college education is coming under scrutiny.

Siddiqui’s parents are Pakistani natives who moved to the United States to study at George Washington University. “That was their biggest ambition for us,” said Siddiqui. “Attending university, earning advanced degrees.” Her parents were so opposed to the fellowship that they told her not to apply.

Uzair Siddiqui, Noor’s father, disagreed with the Thiel method.

“You choose these kids,” he said. “They have no idea what their lives will be like. And you offer them all this money? My initial reaction was: It’s a terrible idea. Kids need to be in school.”

Undeterred, Siddiqui applied in secret and won her parents over once she’d been selected as a finalist. She plans to intern, speak at conferences, and write a book chronicling her efforts to “connect marginalized populations in the underdeveloped world to employers in the West.” Basically, she wants to match poor people with jobs.

Uzair Siddiqui and his wife, Rubina, have come around. The father is not worried about academics anymore. “Once she’s through with the fellowship, it will allow her to go wherever she wants,” he said.

Now, he is worried about boys.

His daughter is considering housing options. “There’s TheGlint,” she said, a live-work community in San Francisco. “My parents hated that.”

“It’s coed by bed!” her father said. “Her roommate could be a boy! I was not okay with that.”

Many fellows, like Siddiqui, move to Silicon Valley, but they’re allowed to live anywhere. Fellows are assigned mentors and convene throughout the year to compare notes, but the program is, essentially, that there is no program. “It parallels adult life,” Siddiqui said. “There’s more freedom, but there's also more responsibility.”

Some say teenagers need college to prepare for adulthood. But the Thiel Fellowship is fueled, in part, by a sense of urgency: The world can’t wait for the innovations the fellows could be building.

“I don’t think that to make a difference in the world, you have to have a college degree,” said Danielle Strachman, the fellowship’s program director. “If you have some ideas of where to start and the means to do it, we want you to be able to do that now.”

Strachman was impressed by Siddiqui’s ability to put her ideas into practice. There was the Hollow Trunk, the nonprofit group that Siddiqui and other students created. And there was the Advancement of Afghan Women’s Scholarship, which Strachman called telling. “It wasn’t that she wanted to do this scholarship,” she said. “It’s that she got it off the ground.”

At home, Siddiqui has carved out a sanctuary for work and study. “I call this my cave,” she said, opening the door to a small room in the basement.

In the cave, the two sides of Siddiqui’s personality literally intersect. One wall is plastered with magazine tear sheets, the kind of collage that graces the inside of many a teen girl’s locker. On the adjacent wall, which is coated with black chalkboard paint, Siddiqui has scrawled inspirational quotes in Crayola sidewalk chalk: Abraham Lincoln, Paulo Coelho, George Bernard Shaw, Coco Chanel.

Siddiqui does wonder about the college path. “There’s definitely a sense of what could have been.” But she believes many rites of passage are overrated. She skipped the prom and Beach Week, when seniors head to the coast for one last class hurrah. Nor is she concerned about missing undergrad scenes — cheering at homecoming games, pulling all-nighters, subsisting on pizza, ramen and beer.

“The biggest aspect of the college experience is networking with like-minded peers,” she said. She’s confident she’ll do that with other fellows.

Still Siddiqui, who has never spent more than a week away from home by herself, is not without reservations. “I think what I’m most worried about is, what if I do all this work and get what I want, and I’m not satisfied by it? That’s probably the scariest thing.”

She laughed. “But I don’t think that will happen.”

Siddiqui said fanfare about her fellowship is “sort of embarrassing. I haven’t really done anything yet.”

“This is just the beginning,” she said. “This is opening a door.”

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