I graduated from college 19 years ago.
It’s so bizarre to think that college for me was nearly two decades ago. Sometimes it feels like yesterday. Sometimes it feels like some other life. Anyway, it’s commencement time for colleges now, so it’s time for a little reflection on college…a time of a lot of growth and change and achievement for me, but also a time that’s indicative of the rest of my life in many ways. I was really severely lacking in self-awareness in college. It was a time I learned a lot about myself…my strengths and my limitations. This is going to be kind of a haphazard catch-all for my college experience.
I started out going away to a big state school about an hour away from home on partial scholarship and majoring in pre-med. Both of those things lasted one semester. My parents (and probably a lot of other people in my life) thought it was because I couldn’t hack it away from home. That I was homesick. That I was struggling in class. But that wasn’t it. What changed my major was, in Chem 101, my professor said about midway through the semester, ‘If you’re pre-med, you’ll want to pay attention to all the strategies with <this particular lesson>, because insurance companies will cover different things. It’s important to know options, because different treatments have different effects and effectiveness and each patient’s care will be determined by what their coverage allows…’ I stopped paying attention there. I cried after class. And I went ‘undeclared,’ something I never really thought of myself as being. I was supposed to have things together. I still made Dean’s List that semester, but I knew there was no way, if I was having a moral crisis in Chem 101, that I’d make it through the rigors of medical school with even semi-functional mental health.
What made me leave the state school an hour away to ‘come home’ wasn’t homesickness. It was a few other things, all social anxiety driven. I didn’t know what social anxiety was my first semester of college. It was a term I’d never heard. But that’s definitely what drove me home. My roommate was from a part of Kentucky much more rural than the region I grew up in…and she *never* locked the dorm room door. Not once. After I asked her to try and remember a bunch of times. I couldn’t trust her. So I didn’t sleep very often my first semester. Now, a lot of folks would argue that I should have just asked to change roommates. Get a new assignment. We weren’t a good match. But I could have gotten someone who made the anxiety and insomnia WORSE. And I couldn’t room with anyone I knew, because I was a freshman…required to live on campus…and all of my friends who went to the same college were young MEN. They’d never let me have a guy roommate, or let any of the guys room with ME, so…
And I had to sign in visitors and sign them out. I had to sign myself in after a certain hour each night. I mean, I get it. Security. Everyone else was down with that. Happy to be away and ‘living like an adult.’ But…I felt like I had LESS freedom away than I did at home. I’d grown accustomed to living with my parents, who basically provided me with no structure or accountability, to a place that required all of my friends leave a photo ID at the front desk to go watch a basketball game with me. I didn’t feel like this was a step forward into adulthood for me. I’d basically been living like an adult since I was 11. All of it just felt…off. So I went home.
I was pretty happy at the school I transferred to. I was still a scholarship kid, only this time it was full tuition, and I lived at home, so I graduated almost debt free (lucky me…seriously…I don’t have very many friends who graduated debt free or low debt and on time). I was pretty stressed out about grades, because I had to keep that scholarship, but I liked college. I liked the in depth learning about things I chose myself. I liked that I wasn’t required to take gym. (Ha!)
I didn’t really make any new friends in college. Like I’ve said before…I’m a friend keeper. But I did get closer to some of my high school friends (and some of them drifted away, as expected). I went out on some dates that didn’t amount to anything. But I guess they taught me what I didn’t want and that I was looking for commitment and emotional investment in a relationship. My new major was Political Science. I won the department’s Outstanding Senior Award before graduation. Two professors came to that ceremony, but my parents didn’t. I graduated Summa Cum Laude. I minored in Journalism, but I was only a few credits shy of a triple minor…Journalism, Psychology, and English. I didn’t want to walk for graduation. The school I went to was huge and we’d be graduating in a big downtown arena…thousands of graduates…even more in the audience. I didn’t particularly care for my high school graduation ceremony, which was practically mandatory unless you had some severe illness or injury or a death in your immediate family, and I didn’t *have* to walk to get my degree in college. They’d mail it to me, so I planned to not walk. But my mom wanted me to. She talked about it for weeks. See…my dad graduated from the same college (he worked himself through…it took him 8 years) the year I was born. And he didn’t walk, even though my mom wanted him to. I know this, because my mom has said this approximately 8 million times in my lifetime. “I wish you’d just do this for me,” she said. “But you won’t, because you’re just like your father.”
She’s right. I am just like my father. I’m introverted like him. I’m anxious like him. And I don’t have a very high tolerance for ceremony and manufactured social events like him. How I’m NOT like him is…she wore me down. So I walked. Three and a half HOURS of ceremony. By the time it was over I was a dehydrated, anxious wreck with a growling stomach. I’m not smiling in any of the photos (surprise!). To this day, I’ve never had the thought I know my mom wants me to have (hell, I want to have it…I wish I’d have it…) :
“I’m so glad I walked for my degree.” I’m not. I still wish I didn’t go. 19 years later.
I found out when I met J that he’d graduated from the same college (he worked himself through too…it took him 5 years and he started 2 years after graduating high school, because for those 2 years…he *just* worked…and saved…for school). We were on campus at the same time for exactly one semester (Damn, I wish I met him then…but he probably would have thought the 6.5 year age difference was too much then…maybe I would have too). And I found out HE didn’t walk graduation. We’ve already made an agreement to not force that on The Boy. If he wants to walk for his degree? We’ll be there and embarrass the shit out of him screaming and clapping and taking pictures and probably crying tears of pride and joy. But if he doesn’t? I don’t need an unhappy photo of him in a cap and gown to satisfy some arbitrary motherly checklist item completion.
To those of you who may be graduating college soon…heartfelt congratulations. Been there. It was hard. You deserve all the accolades you can get. But you don’t deserve a mountain of student debt that it will take you decades to repay and you don’t deserve the stress of the job search many if not all of you are now certainly undertaking. I wish you the least amount of burden possible dealing with that. And I wish all of you would get to view your college experience as a valuable time you learned about yourself and the world we live in, instead of a mad rush to pay back loans and get employed to get out from under your parents’ roof. And I hope if you want to walk for your degree, everyone you love is there and shows how proud they are of you. And I hope if you don’t want to walk for your degree, you don’t, and no one makes you feel guilty about it.