When I was 23 years old I was accepted into Columbia University’s School of General Studies. After six years of modeling full-time, I knew the transition would be difficult. My agent knew this was something I was passionate about, and she assured me that we would somehow find a balance between work and school. I feel very lucky that I had her support, as many models I know were encouraged by their agents to leave high school, never mind interrupt a successful career to pursue a university degree. Often, a model’s career is over by her mid-twenties, so agencies want young girls to make the most of their teenaged years, before they are considered too old by the industry. As a result, many do not complete high school. Models under eighteen years old are not protected by the laws that give child actors tutors on set, and many girls I know don’t know what to do for a job when their time as a model inevitably winds down.

“Agencies want young girls to make the most of their teenaged years, before they are considered too old by the industry. As a result, many do not complete high school.”

Luckily, I had finished high school by correspondence, but I felt a desire for more education. My first semester at Columbia was tricky, for I was allowed to miss a maximum of five classes of university writing, which met twice a week from September to December. Initially I thought it would be impossible to meet that guideline, but somehow I managed. I even went to class with a terrible eye infection so that I could save my absences for workdays. I had to turn down many jobs, especially magazine editorials, because they do not pay very much though they are good for one’s career. My agent always said she understood, but I was worried that the agency would stop presenting me to clients, as they wouldn’t know if I’d be available. I still did catalogs and advertisements that paid well, so I wrote essays on overnight flights to Paris, rather than sleep for the job I’d have to do when I landed.

The last-minute nature of modeling jobs makes scheduling anything, even a doctor’s appointment, challenging, so I knew striking a balance between work and school would be hard. The professor wanted at least a week’s notice when we had to miss class, however, I never knew more than three days before whether I’d be working or not. She managed to accept my many apologies that semester.

Modeling schedules are very fluid, things change at the last minute, and everything from the price to the time to the place of a job is always in flux. In university, on the other hand, everything is very rigid: timetables and rules are set. It was hard to tell my agents that I could not miss class to go to a casting, even if it was for a very good client. Other models in school that I know ended up leaving their agencies because the agents would not accept that they had other commitments.

“Other models in school that I know ended up leaving their agencies because the agents would not accept that they had other commitments.”

Throughout the three years I’ve been at Columbia, the scheduling has not become any easier. I still have to turn down jobs that do not pay enough, but would have been good for my career. I did not have a typical university experience, for I would use my study week before exams to fly to Tokyo to work rather than cram for finals. I love modeling but I love school more. Before I went to university, I saw modeling as my career, but now I see modeling as a means to pay for my future.

I would encourage young women to try modeling, as I found it an incredibly rewarding experience. However, I would also encourage them to consider their future, as a model’s career span seems to shrink every season. I feel very lucky that I have had such a great career, but I am happy with my decision to put modeling on the back burner and return to school.

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4 Responses to Scaling Back On Modeling To Pursue Higher Education

  1. LaToyia says:

    I was looking up how to turn down a modeling job, because of the intensity of friction the one day brand ambassador work is causing in my already challenged marriage, and I found this article. At 33 years of age, after 3 children, and finally seriously going back to school for a career as a RN, I’m glad to hear testimonies from models that are serious about their education. We’re raising 3girls and it comforting to know that I can draw back on real life examples of successful models that also understand the importance of a college degree.

  2. HMI says:

    Interesting site, which I was steered to by one of my students.
    Some thoughts from related fields. For some 30 years I’ve been a high school tutor to kids in show biz, working on TV, film and Broadway sets (and I also teach at a university). Mostly I’ve worked with actors, singers, musicians and dancers. There have been a few models, but they have been a rarity, as there aren’t so many multi-day shoots with minors, and the law doesn’t really touch kids who miss class just for a day (they just need to deal with their school administration).
    What I have seen starkly with my former students has been the difficulty of getting a college degree. When I started out in the ’80s, few even bothered to try. Gradually, the vogue for college (if mostly Ivy League college) has steadily increased. But it’s a tough road, and I’ve watched significant numbers drop out in order to serve their careers. The ones who have made it through have one thing in common—they have wanted the education more than anything else, and have forced everything else to orbit around that desire.
    On the chance that some sort-of-related thoughts might be useful, I can pass along some practical advice I’ve gleaned over the years.
    The bigger the school, the more likely it is that you can organize a course load to allow for maximum free time. E.g., you can pile all your courses onto Tuesdays and Thursday, or you can find evening and weekend classes.
    I’ve seen multiple strategies for freeing up time. One is to go very part-time, expecting to take 6+ years to get a degree. Another is to alternate heavy and light semesters. Even many non-working students often take off an entire year between 2nd and 3rd years in school; I’ve seen actors use that time to concentrate on career, so that they don’t seem to be AWOL for too long. And many schools offer concentrated courses during summers and intersession (e.g. during January break) in which they cram an entire semester into 3 weeks. FWIW, USC in L.A. has been particularly good at helping to accommodate actors with on-and-off schedules. NYU’s Gallatin division can similarly be worth looking at. In any case, it makes sense to talk to the admissions office of any school you are interested in about what might be possible.
    Finally (as Elena points out above) distance learning is becoming more and more common. Maybe you’d like a more prestigious degree than one from Western Governors University, but there is no reason not to take at least some courses this way and then transfer credits to the school you eventually graduate from. If getting the degree means more than the “name brand” school, something like WGU is an extremely flexible program that works wherever you’ve got wifi.
    Hope something in here helps.

  3. Alexandra says:

    Hi!

    For me it’s quite the opposite. I have always been the geeky kind of girl interested only in studying and although I was secretly passionate about modelling, I never really got to do anything about it… until now.
    Obviously, not being in my teen years any more, I am aware that I have just a few chances for actually succeeding in this field, so considering that I am also on the course of finishing my degree it is nice to find out that some kind of balance can be achieved.

    Thanks a lot!

  4. Elena says:

    Thank you so much for this. I am a model currently studying university by correspondence and I found this article very encouraging. It is sometimes very hard to find the motivation to study since quite everybody around you has given up on school, and it is people like Lisa who remind me why I am doing this.

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