Quarterlife Chronicles: So You’re Not Graduating On Time

The Quarterlife Chronicles is my blog series on my experiences navigating life as an almost 25-year-old living with mental illness and lessons I’ve learned.

So you’re not graduating on time for whatever reason. I won’t invalidate your feelings by telling you to stay positive because this situation absolutely sucks. I know from personal experience that not graduating at the expected date multiple times is disheartening. I had to morn the loss of certain life expectations, including graduating in 4 years.

I’ll be 25 and I haven’t graduated college yet. I will be graduation this summer after being in school on and off for over 7 years. 7 years! Old me would just die if I knew this was how my life would turn out. I was an honors student in high school and graduated with a scholarship for my dream school. I thought I had my life planned out. I was going to go to this school on a biology scholarship, get my degree in biology, and work my way to become an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

I was never a girl who didn’t dream big because it’s what got me through my tough upbringing and I had an intense passion for science/public health. But the biggest lesson I’ve learned the hard way, is that rarely does everything in life go according to plan. I had to leave my dream school after my freshman year (I flunked my second semester due to serious depression and not medically withdrawing soon enough). At that point, I was so sick of biology and everything associated with that school at that point. I went to community college as loved my classes.

Part of why my graduation was deferred was my health. I live with 4 mental health conditions, including one that inhibits my ability to concentrate like the average person (ADHD). On top of getting help for my mental health conditions, I have physical ones to take care of. I’ve had numerous hospital stays, asthma attacks 2 surgeries, underwent physical therapy twice, and in the past 5 months, have had episodes in which I pass out. I don’t share my story for sympathy, just to highlight the fact that taking care of your health when you have chronic conditions can feel like a full-time job.

Another part of what has taken me so long to finish my degree was figuring out what I wanted to do. After realizing my lifelong dream wasn’t necessarily the right one for me, I had endless options. I went from wanting to become an English teacher to journalist to therapist to finally realizing that I could major in Public Health (with a concentration in Health Promotion and Education) at my current school, which could help me get a career like what I got a taste of as a presenter for my local chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness.

I love my classes (well, minus biostatistics and health policy), but this journey has been hard. Here are some other tough lessons I’ve learned so far:

1.) The traditional 4 years of school doesn’t work for everyone.

I was the first person in my family to attend college right after high school. I had no one to tell me how hard (or expensive) college is. I wasn’t even 18 until my first day of college classes, so being able to afford college was difficult, especially once I lost my biology scholarship, since I went to an expensive private school. I’ve had to take less classes or miss out on a semester because of money and my health.

2.) Paying your way through school is so hard and there are times when you won’t feel like it’s worth it.

You are allowed to feel angry about the financial situation that you’re in. My parents are well off enough that they could have easily paid for me to go to community college or at least assisted me in paying my tuition, but they didn’t . They didn’t provide emotional support either aside from “feeling bad” about me being in that situation. Not everything happens for a reason and while you might end up feeling proud and accomplished once you pay off school, that doesn’t help you when you’re in the midst of working full-time while going to school full-time.

3.) How long it takes you to graduate doesn’t matter as much once you have your degree.

A degree is a degree is a degree. It may have taken you longer than other people to graduate, but you still had to learn the same material as others in your degree program. You may also be more prepared for a job than other candidates if you’ve had time to invest in yourself and explore jobs. For example, I will come into whatever job I have knowing that life won’t be as hard as when I worked and went to school full-time and I have been able to be more involved in mental health advocacy and education (my intended job field).

4.) Having high expectations can be toxic.

You can’t have the same expectations as someone else when they don’t have to overcome the same obstacles you do. They are not “winning” at life, you have just been dealt a different hand and have to learn adjust your expectations accordingly. Therapy (specifically dialectical behavioral therapy) helped me get my expectations in check and I nor longer have such ridiculously high standards for myself, which just added pressure.

4.) Even though it feels like the end of the world, it won’t be.

Going to graduation parties, seeing your friends graduate, and seeing pictures of people graduate on Facebook and Instagram can feel like a slap in the face. Please do yourself a favor and take a mini break from social media. Allow yourself to grieve while not getting bitter towards your friends/peers. Their life situation is different than yours. If you have toxic feelings of jealousy, write them down on a piece of paper and rip it up. It’s super cathartic and prevents you from saying things you regret. People may question why it’s taken you so long, but unless you want to disclose, it’s none of your business.

6.) No matter what path you take, try your best and remember no on has their sh*t together.

The idea that people have their lives together is a lie. We’re all lacking in some aspect of our lives and the part(s) that is/are lacking may change, but no one has it all figured out. Working at an organization created by a well-known local university made this abundantly clear. People forget things. People are late. People mess up. We are human. People respect when you ask for help and take accountability for when you make mistakes.

You will make it through this, I promise.