My mom says that on my very first day of school, I cheerfully told her goodbye and walked into the building, eager to learn and happy to be there. She says that while a few kids were crying and most were unwilling to go in, I didn’t look back.
Now, on my very last day of school, I am ready to walk into another building and across a stage to receive you after seventeen years’ worth of hard work.
All my life I have been anticipating this day. As a little girl, I was told every day in school to go to college and learn new things and get a formal education and create memories and make mistakes and learn from them and ultimately discover where my passion lies. This is what we are all told as we stumble through elementary, middle, and eventually high school.
We are not told two things about college:
First, we aren’t told how hard the journey is. We aren’t told how insanely difficult it is to get through college and emerge as intact human beings. When I look back at what I went through to earn you, diploma, I am amazed at my ability – and the ability of students everywhere – to make sacrifices.
Diploma, I worked for you while volunteering and holding down full time and part time jobs. I worked for you while going through some serious physiological and emotional trauma. I worked for you while battling an illness that lasted the better part of a year. I worked for you while studying for the LEED Green Associate exam – which, diploma, I took last Saturday and failed by one question. I needed 85 out of 100 questions to pass. After at least 40 hours of studying that I took on on top of going through my very last semester of college, I got 84.
Needless to say, sometimes I worked for you while feeling like an enormous failure.
I dragged myself to classes for you through sickness, emotional distress, and physical pain. I forced myself out of bed in the dead of winter and drove 45 minutes to class in the early mornings before the sun was even up for you. I walked miles around campus in 30-degree weather for you and I did the same when it was 115. I was back in class five days after getting my wisdom teeth taken out. I couldn’t take painkillers to go to class, but I went to class anyway.
I endured semesters of light-rail travel to save on parking fees, which is to say I endured some of the creepiest and horniest people I have ever had to deal with. And when that got to be too much, I grit my teeth only slightly as I handed over my credit card to the parking services people on campus as I paid something close to a million dollars for my daily parking fee. Only slightly.
I lived on a shoestring budget for you. There were times when my life consisted of peanut butter crackers and frozen meals in order to pay for textbooks for you. Once I paid for gas in quarters.
I know what going to bed hungry feels like. I know what not having enough money to survive feels like.
Diploma, throughout these four years, I think it’s safe to say that approximately 30,000 gallons of coffee have been drunk in your honor. Throughout these four years, I ran to QT for more soda and energy drinks than I care to think about. On the days when I had too much to do, I sacrificed exercise for you and drank wine at night to make myself fall asleep. I’m convinced my blood is now composed entirely of a combination of caffeine and alcohol, and speaking of health, I’m pretty sure I did permanent damage to my back from shouldering a backpack with the weight of an average child every day.
I cried over you.
I stayed on campus all day for years. I spent hours in the library to study for classes I hated but had to take. I wrote discussion board posts, essays, and homework assignments. I took quizzes, studied for exams, and did group projects. I read. The amount of textbooks I’ve had to read is unreal. (The amount of textbooks I actually did read is slightly less unreal.)
I had breakdown after breakdown over you from having to sacrifice so much. My social life, my health, my sanity…. And speaking of sanity, let me tell you a little bit about sleep. Oh, how I scarified sleep. I scarified sleep like it was a hobby, like it was going out of style. I sacrificed sleep for my degree like the men and women in the Old Testament scarified rams and goats for the Lord. The sad thing is, I do not feel like that is an overstatement. They say the average person sleeps about a third of their life away. Thanks to you, diploma, I think I have successfully cut that proportion to about an eighth.
There were times, diploma, when I forgot how to be someone other than a stressed-out college student. Honestly, I’m having a hard time thinking of myself as anything but just that.
But now that it’s all over and I am about to walk across a stage and get you at last, I realize how valuable those years as a stressed-out college student were. Because the second thing that we aren’t told about college as kids is that during the four years we spend earning our diplomas, the lessons we learn outside the classroom are more numerous in number and much, much richer in quality.
Through earning you, diploma, I have learned the importance of differentiating between wants and needs. New clothes? New shoes? Getting my hair done? Those all came second to tuition, gas, textbooks, food, and my other bills. Through earning you, I have learned how to balance work and school so I could pay for those things. I have learned how to budget, how to save, and how important it is to pay credit card payments on time.
I have learned how to conquer anxiety.
I have learned that some things are out of my control but that I can do anything that is within my own capabilities. And after these four years, the things that are within my own capabilities are incredible.
I have learned that life cannot be lived when I’m too busy looking back over my shoulder at what I’m leaving behind. Opportunity comes when I look for it, for a new chapter can’t be read when I am too busy re-reading the last one.
Through working for you, diploma, I have learned that only the strong survive this world and the ones that never give up are the ones that succeed. I have learned that I am, in fact, one ordinary person living on a planet filled with billions of other ordinary people, but that what will set me apart from everyone else is how hard I am willing to work for what I want. I have learned that armed with my resolve and with the knowledge I have gained, I cannot fix everything, but I do have the power to change one little corner of the world.
Maybe the biggest thing I did while in college was both a sacrifice and a pretty awesome accomplishment. Through earning you, diploma, I learned how to grow up.
Diploma, I value you not because you automatically secure me a job (you don’t) or because you will be able to convey exactly what I have learned in college to employers (you won’t), but because you are the sum of my hopes and my triumphs over some of life’s battles. You represent the challenges I have faced and the determination I had to see me through them. You represent the barriers I have overcome and the lessons I have learned both inside the classroom and out. You represent the things I’ve learned about the rest of the world and the things I have learned about myself.
Through earning you I have discovered the limits of my inner strength, and through earning you I have defied them.
For all the blood, sweat, and tears I have surrendered, for all the breakdowns I’ve had and the sanity I’ve lost, the triumph of earning you at last surpasses absolutely everything.
And the lessons I have learned are forever.
Diploma, seventeen years ago I walked into kindergarten ready to take on whatever was thrown my way. Now, I’m ready to walk into the rest of my life, and thanks to you, I’m still ready to take on whatever the world decides to give to me.
And just like that first day of school, I don’t plan on looking back.
May 13, 2014