Around this time of the year, your Facebook feed is probably going to be flooded with graduation photo after graduation photo, each one accompanied by a lengthy caption expressing gratitude for “the best years” of their life. You’ll hit ‘like’ anyway, even if you’re not one of them —sharing triumphant pictures of yourself waving your diploma and thanking mom and dad. Not yet. Maybe next year. Or the year after that. Okay, so you’re not graduating on time. But what does “on time” even mean? Who decided to put a deadline on learning and brand those who stray from the timetable as “behind”?
Once upon a time, I was an overly enthusiastic college freshman who was the personification of a cheesy Hallmark card. My only two moods would deviate between “live, laugh, love” and “seize the day!” I mean, I joined six student orgs and would wake up at 5AM on the daily like a Disney princess —metaphorical birds chirping outside my window and all. Can you believe that I actually looked forward to putting on my faux big girl pants and going to class? As someone who had spent nearly half of her life in an all-girls Catholic school cage, university was a breath of fresh air. I mean, wow, testosterone! Cellphones! Going to McDonald’s whenever I wanted to! All these were alien concepts to 16-year-old me.
College gave me a taste of the freedom of adulthood, but with more allowance for mistakes. I savoured it so much that I dreaded the thought of leaving it all after just three to four years. I felt I needed more time to figure my life out. The reasonable answer, I thought, was to shift to a program (which I knew little about, btw) that would keep me in college for a good five years, minimum. I mean, what did I understand about the “real world”? All I was certain of was that I wanted to keep living in my fictitious utopia and just learn along the way.
But what does ‘on time’ even mean? Who decided to put a deadline on learning and brand those who stray from the timetable as “behind”?
And so I trudged on for the next years of my life —and did a great job at it, too. My fellow eager blockmates made it easy for me to excel because we relied on each other’s collective energy. Ah, so pure. So much light in our eyes eventually deduced to a jaded, empty glare. JK. We’re not at that part yet, are we? So, there, everything was a-ok up until my friends —the same set of people I started out with— began nearing graduation when I was barely halfway through. I felt a tinge of resentment as I watched them fit togas and celebrate the completion of thesis papers —all things I couldn’t relate to. I was happy for them, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it felt like paradise lost.
But, whatever, I tried to take it as an opportunity to make new friends. This attempt at forging connections lasted for the rest of my college life, but to no avail. Sure, I got along with a couple of new faces, but ultimately, I found it difficult to relate with anyone else and often felt like an outsider peering through a glass wall. Everyone seemed to be contained inside their own circles, and my subpar socializing skills couldn’t be bothered to fake-laugh at another joke that wasn’t even funny.
“While some of my peers were landing their dream first jobs, moving out of their parents’ houses, and treating their families to dinner with their paycheques, there was I: fussing over homework.”
However, my gradual burnout stemmed from more than just lack of a support system. I did take on numerous internships and freelance gigs to keep me from being fully consumed by routine, but I still couldn’t help but compare myself to others. While some of my peers were landing their dream first jobs, moving out of their parents’ houses, and treating their families to dinner with their own paychecks, there was I: fussing over homework. Soon enough, my grades started paying the price for my deteriorating motivation, which only set me back even more. It didn’t help either that I started having doubts on my career path. Was my degree even right for me? Thoughts that I was wasting away years on a course I didn’t see a future in followed me like a shadow.
Each term, my anxiety grew from all the pressure I put on myself if I flunked another class. My “It’s not me, mom, it’s the system!” spiel had long surpassed its expiration date. Family reunions made me break into a nervous sweat because my relatives never failed to make it rain bombs of “so when are you graduating?” and my favorite —the ever-condescending “Look at your cousin, he’s already earning THIS much! What’s YOUR plan?” Oh, you mean my grandiose plan B since I’m not following the traditional blueprint of “graduate by this age, get a job by this age, and marry by this age”? Because that worked out so well for you and your midlife crisis, right, aunt Linda? (Writer’s note: I have not been disowned by my family because I was able to contain my internal monologue of acrimony.)
Was my degree even right for me? Thoughts that I was wasting away years on a course I didn’t see a future in followed me like a shadow.
Anyway, fast forward to nearly six years in university, and I make the abrupt decision of shifting back to my original course to fast-track my graduation by a few terms and make room for a full-time job that was waiting for me. Yep, I was back to where I started —realizing I could have avoided wasting so much time, if only I had a better grasp of what I wanted to do with my life. But I didn’t. And it’s only recently that I was able to forgive myself for it.
For the longest time, I moped over my missteps and choices made in haste. What happened to the ambitious freshman who had high hopes… and a bulletproof stamina that let me be up ’til 3AM, guzzling Jaeger bombs for hydration? Well, I could probably do without the latter, but really, did I drag myself out too far for her to disappear? She was still there, I guess —if only eclipsed by this dull, stagnant version of me I allowed myself to settle into. All because I listened to people calling me “delayed” like I was a walking worst-case scenario.
[…] getting an education shouldn’t be a rat race and respecting your own pace is crucial. […] But college also doesn’t define you —it’s what you make with those lessons that do.
It took a while, but I am now able to look back on those years for what it was: a learning experience. By taking on things I didn’t like, I learned about what I actually did like, which lead me to getting in touch with my passion. I met people and learned from their perspectives. I also learned the true value of patience, and how to perform a chi-square test because I took a statistics class that apparently wasn’t in my curriculum. Go figure.
That said, getting an education shouldn’t be a rat race and respecting your own pace is crucial. Remember, college is only a tool, and you’re lucky enough to have what others can only fantasize about. But college also doesn’t define you —it’s what you make with those lessons that do. Right now, I owe my burgeoning career success more to the experiences and skills I picked up than my actual degree. So whatever reasons you might have for “falling behind” —whether you went on a mental timeout, hit a financial stump, or had to retake a few classes— don’t make your accomplishments any less valid. If anything, it makes the taste of victory that much sweeter. Besides, the view is often more scenic on the longer route.
Spoiler alert: the grass isn’t any greener on this “real world” side anyway.
I was right about one thing, though: I didn’t know anything as a 17-year-old freshman, and I still don’t know much now as a 23-year-old graduate. Every day, I continue to be a work in progress. Allow yourself to make a few detours and life might surprise you at the next corner. Spoiler alert: the grass isn’t any greener on this “real world” side anyway. The best you can do is grow where you are planted and hope you bloom through the concrete. I used to scoff at people who would tell me not to rush the process, but they weren’t kidding when they said the years will fly by before you know it. So, to my old college self and everyone else still moving through: Enjoy it. Relish it. Drink lots of water when binge-drinking. Live it.
Art by Bryan Sochayseng