Meeting an early graduation with a sense of calm

In the past few months, the looming question in many of my conversations has been, “So, what are your plans?” followed quickly by, “Do you even have any plans?” or more bluntly, “What the hell are you going to do?” and finally, “Why aren’t you freaking out?”

I just turned 21, I have no real job prospects, and I am scheduled to graduate this summer, an entire year early, but I can say, honestly, that I’m not nervous. Any time an adult suggests I’m throwing away the best experience of my life, I feel confused. College does a really good job at preparing us to live out our lives the way we’ve always wanted, but none of us seem to actually be doing it.

I came to Emerson with a plan: to get in and out quickly. As a first-generation American and first-generation college student, I didn’t grow up with the fabled stories of the incredible college years. My mom didn’t tell me about her college roommates or her sorority sisters; she actually doesn’t even know what a sorority really is. Instead, she told me of her years after high school working for a vacation cruise line in Mallorca, Spain. My dad remembers old friends that he drove with across the country in a moving van, not ones he took classes with. 

They don’t remember frat parties or football games; they remember sharing a two-bedroom apartment with way too many people, none of them sure of their future plans or citizenship statuses. Their stories are different, but they are stories I love.

For me, college was a means to an end. I knew I was completing the immigrant experience for my parents by reaching for a better future. It was something I knew they wanted for me and that they had worked very hard to give me the opportunity. Hoping to make them proud, and with no other real ideas of what to do after high school, I chose Emerson for its writing program and lack of traditional college elements like a centralized campus or football team.

I think—like most other college students, especially those at Emerson—I then went on to spend the majority of my early college career worrying. What classes should I be taking? What internships should I be applying for? Was my LinkedIn profile at the expert level yet? And why did everyone else seem to be doing this so much better than me?

But during my sophomore year, a series of events put things into perspective for me.

I stopped being homesick, and I didn’t miss where I grew up in California the way I had when I first got to Emerson. I decided I wanted to be a writer, a real-life writer, and that I needed to stop lying about it. I came back from being abroad at the end of sophomore year, and after traveling to 13 countries, I longed to go back to their tastes and smells, to the thrill and anxiety and uncertainty. The following summer, I moved into an apartment in rural South Carolina with my then-boyfriend and discovered that no amount of lectures can prepare you to buy groceries or pay bills, work over 40 hours a week, or really hurt someone you love. 

So when I found out in September, at the start of my junior year, that I had enough credits to finish two semesters early, I jumped at the chance. My parents respected my decision to not walk at the commencement ceremony in May, and I filled out their home address for my diploma to be sent to. A few signatures here, a few deposits there, and I was officially, and all of a sudden, in my last year of college. Since then, I’ve been casually looking at job postings, making five-year dream plans, and feeling very calm about the whole thing.

I think many of us are nervous to graduate because moving on and moving away can be genuinely scary. There’s always the fear that we’ll miss something, that one day we’ll wish we could go back or do things differently.

I still get worried sometimes that I’m rushing things, that I’m not taking advantage of what some people say are the “best years of your life,” but the feeling is fleeting. When I do, I remind myself of how much more there still is to come, that I’m not really leaving anything behind, but instead moving forward just like we all eventually have to. College is a valuable, and even life-changing, experience for many students, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t going to be anything better. We need to stop seeing college as our prime years and start realizing it’s only the very beginning of it all.