Minnesota teen pursues alternative career path amid anxiety

Robb Murray
Mankato Free Press/AP

MANKATO, Minn. (AP) — To all of Zach Koser's Mankato West High School classmates, the ones who wondered where the heck the kid went . to all the teachers who may have shaken their heads in pity at the kid who "dropped out" . to all the parents who may have heard about Koser and spoke of his situation in hushed tones at cocktail parties .
This one's for you.

Zach Koser poses on a tractor on his hobby farm near Lake Crystal, Minn. Instead of enrolling in college, Koser took his college savings and bought the farm.

Because Zach Koser — the kid driving a tractor around his rural Lake Crystal farm site, the kid who, at 18, already has a mortgage, the kid who with the help of his family pulled a dilapidated rural house from the grips of destruction — is doing just fine. And he didn't drop out of high school.

But his case is a curious one. Because Koser didn't go the route anyone who knows his family would have predicted. The son of a Methodist pastor and a science teacher, most would have thought Koser would end up studying physics or chemistry at some selective college or university. Or at least going to some kind of college.

His life, however, steered him in a different direction. And no, that's not a subtle misunderstanding of how we're all free to make our own choices. Because in some cases, the things that have the biggest effect on our lives are things that we don't control. And that's where we'll start with Koser's story.

When a kid breaks from the norm, it's logical to ask "Why?" and to wonder, "What's wrong with that kid?"

In Koser's case, there's nothing wrong with him. But he did have challenges most young people don't have to deal with.

Koser struggles with social anxiety issues. He remembers feeling "different" as far back as preschool, when he held on a little tighter than normal to his mom's leg when she dropped him off.

Those feelings followed him to elementary and middle school, as well. And then finally, in high school, the problem grew to a point where something had to give.

"I left West because I was having anxiety about just being in the classroom," he said. "I had no idea why. But it would get to a point where I'd get into class and my mind would start to run and I'd have to leave. I ended up missing school like crazy."

Zach Koser drives his tractor up a gravel road in front of his home near Lake Crystal, Minn.

His anxiety, he said, affected his quality of life. He said there were many times when he'd want to go out with his friends or do something, but he'd talk himself out of it.
He left Mankato West High School after his sophomore year, and graduated from a St. Paul-based online high school, the Mankato Free Press reported. And while he may not have known it at the time, his last day at West would be his last day in a traditional classroom of any kind.

"School was never my thing, I never really enjoyed it," he said. "I ended up deciding I wasn't going to go to college. I found it more practical to purchase land such as this, as opposed to go into debt on college."

Koser said he's always learned better by doing. A hands-on learning approach, he said, is the best way to truly understand something. He loves working with his hands.

Handyman work, carpentry, farming — that's where his heart is. And while many brilliant careers began in a college classroom, Koser knew his path didn't need to go that route.
He's been working for a local farmer for a while and has gotten a taste of what farm life and work entails.

"I love the farm life, waking up early and feeding the animals, driving machinery," he said. "I spent the summer baling hay, which is a lot of work, but it's enjoyable; I'd rather pursue something like that than education. That path just wasn't for me."

So he started looking at crazy ideas.

"Can I get a farm? Is that an option? Is that a feasible idea?" he asked himself. And eventually he decided he was going to figure out a way to make this work.

He approached his mother first. And they came up with a plan to talk to his father.

"I usually would go to my mom when I was dealing with stuff at school because I always related better with her," he said. "My mom and I would talk and kind of come up with this plan and address it in a way where we wouldn't just throw it all at him at once.

"My mom was the dreamer: 'You can have pigs and goats and chickens!' And my dad would come in with, 'How are you going to pay for feed? Where are you going to put them? What's your income going to be?' So I kind of had these two different sides of my family, both supportive as can be, and they both helped me figure out this path I can go down."

After an unsuccessful debut bid on a place, Koser regrouped and found another place to bid on. This time it went through. And in January, he took out a mortgage to purchase more than 4 acres near Lake Crystal.

"It was an empty shell of a house and a barn, which," he said, "not many people thought that was a great idea. It's interesting trying to convince someone to pay a bunch of money for a barn and a house that has no roof, nothing in it, no electrical, no plumbing, walls are hit or miss. But I've had — through all of my anxiety and depression and decision to leave West — nothing but support from my family. They've had my back the entire way. And grandparents that are super supportive. And friends that are offering to come out and help me every weekend."

Feverishly he and his family worked to get the place ready. And a lot of work had to be done by professionals. He hired out foundation, electrical, HVAC, plumbing and sheetrock work.

Koser had a goal to have everything done by August, and he's nearly there. There are a few loose ends to tie up, but for the most part, Koser's living in the castle he'd dreamed of.

"Through lots and lots of work, I finally got it to the point where it is now," he said.

For now, Koser lives in the house with his dog, Louie. A handful of chickens squawk around in a cage next to a nearby cornfield. A ribbon of freshly laid gravel snakes up the driveway, around the house and over to the barn. A tractor, which he uses frequently, waits outside for Koser to climb back on.

In a ball cap, T-shirt and easygoing smile, no freshly minted high school graduate ever looked more at ease, more at peace, more at home.

There's a line from the Coen brothers film "The Big Lebowski" that sums up Koser's existence here: "Sometimes there's a man, he's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there."

That's Koser. He just looks like he belongs here, just like any backpack-toting engineering major looks at home on a college campus. He's going to be fine.

He's looking for full-time work. Plans on adding a renter in a month or so. Eventually, that hobby farm will become populated with a few pigs, a cow, maybe a horse. Because that's what Koser sees as his path. And if we've learned nothing else from Koser's story, it's that Koser is the kind of kid who knows what he wants, and gets it done.