Today I graduated from college.
I don’t think it’s quite sunk in yet, this idea that the college door has closed. I didn’t cry as I drove away, and I completely thought I would. And now, when I look back and try to reflect upon the experience, I find that I can’t. I’m stuck, so pardon me if this takes a cheesy or melodramatic turn.
My first college experience was me auditioning to be a vocal major at UW-Whitewater. I was seventeen years old. I was accepted, which was exciting. But the problem was that I didn’t find out until it was too late; the acceptance package, with my housing and scholarship offers, was buried in a large pile of mail that I never received because I was away for the summer. The day I came back and got the letter was the day before everything was due. At that point, it seemed easier to just ignore it—neither accept nor decline—and just give up the college dream. So I did. I did what a lot of people do after high school graduation; I joined the workforce. In retail.
I worked retail management from 2002 to 2010 in a wide variety of jobs—Walmart, gas stations, pet stores. I bounced back and forth, never able to settle into any management position for more than a year or two. I just wasn’t happy. I was not meant for a career path that equaled continuous abuse. I talked frequently about going back to school, but I never did it. I even went to Gateway a few times to inquire about the process, but I never followed through. In 2008 or so, I actually filled out an application. I made an appointment to see someone in advising, but then I was called away to work. I was on a merchandising trip to Madison, in charge of a complete store renovation, when my phone rang. It was my then-husband:
“I think I’m going to quit my job,” he informed me.
“What?” I asked, dropping the pack of D batteries I had been hanging on a peg-hook. It was funny he would bring this up, because I had just mentioned to him the previous week that if I were to go back to school, I would need to scale back.
“You make enough money to support us, and I want to focus more on travelling with the band. Getting into music and such.”
“Actually, I’ve sort of…”
“I already quit.”
I decided then that I wouldn’t go back to school. Not then. It wasn’t the right time, but then, there might never be a right time. I returned home and I worked in retail for two more years. Until our son died.
Losing my son made me question my entire life. The time we get on Earth is short, relatively speaking, but I don’t think I really understood that until I lost Carter. It occurred to me then that I really could die at any time. The time Carter got on this planet was close to nothing, but I had already had twenty-six years at that point. So as I spent early 2010 both dealing with his loss and watching my marriage explode (and then disintegrate) around me, I realized that there had to be something more. Rather than sit around and let my husband control me, I chose to go out and find that something.
Find it, I did.
When I was in grade school, I was the annoying girl that no one liked who got head lice and never got invited to anyone’s house. When I was in high school, I was the girl with the eating disorder who asked too many questions and didn’t have any friends. When I was in the church, I was fulfilling a specific set of expectations that weren’t my own. When I was married, I was fulfilling his wants and needs and putting him before myself. I was always less than everyone and everything else.
College taught me that these things were not okay. College taught me that I am not just one thing, but many. That I do not have to obligate myself to one specific person or thing, but whatever things I choose to. That I do not have to censor myself or act in a certain way or be confined to one mode of expression. College taught me that I can be anything I want to be. When I first came to Parkside, I was terrified of the university as a whole. I wanted no part of anything extra–I just wanted to go to my classes, do my work, and come home. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I’m not big on people. I’ve been hurt; I don’t trust people much anymore. I was very unconfident in the beginning of the semester, and I really didn’t believe I could do anything. In the back of my head, I entertained the possibility that I would fail at school. But, despite many events over the course of the past few years that could have led me astray, I didn’t fail. It was quite the opposite, truthfully. I’m leaving at the top of my class, a fiction editor for the campus literary magazine, a tutor, a member of the Dean’s Advisory Board, completer of research studies, and a general student extrordinaire. Best of all, I have friends. I have met both professors and students that I hope to remain friends with and stay in touch with for a long time to come.
For the first time, I believe I can honestly say that I am happy with who I am. One of my very first college essays, a reading response to “The Ones That Walked Away From Omelas,” states it well:
“I had to make my own happiness. I had to walk away from my friends, my things, my money, and my life as a whole. True happiness doesn’t come from the church. It doesn’t come from having a lot of things or a lot of money. True happiness, much like success, comes as however we personally define it. Right now, my happiness comes from being successful in school and in the work that I do. This will evolve. In five years, perhaps my happiness will come from being involved in a new romantic relationship. A few years down the road from that, maybe my happiness will come from having another opportunity to have children, and the opportunity to raise them up in the way that they should go. I will achieve happiness, and I will go on from that to find yet another level of happiness. This is the definition of happiness. In essence, it is always changing. We will be happy for a while, but then we won’t be anymore. We will need more. When that happens, we will need to find a new way to be happy. I have learned that we can never put the responsibility for our happiness on other people. The responsibility for our happiness lies solely on our own shoulders, whether it is through our actions, our relationships, or our belongings. Am I happy now? I suppose I could say that I’m content. Am I getting closer to happiness? I think I am definitely beginning to find my way.”
While I am sad to leave Parkside, I am also excited for the new beginnings that this ending will bring me. If I am this strong a person coming out of undergrad, I can’t help but imagine the strength, the gifts, that grad school will bring me. College gave me the gift of me—and it’s a gift that will keep on giving, and a gift I will never, ever have to give back or apologize for. I am excited for the future, excited for what is coming, and excited for this life that is mine for the taking. I never would have found it had I not gone back to school. I never would have found myself.
I believe that my son is somewhere, watching me on this day. I believe that he is proud of me. Not because I graduated college. Because I did it while being me. So thank you, Parkside. Thank you all of my fabulous friends, my professors, my “people.” You are all amazing.
Finally, finally, I am me.