5 Things I Learned In My (Very Long) Undergrad Career

I have emerged from the abyss!

Well, it seems that way anyhow. I’ve been in the zone with finishing classes and keeping my head screwed on at work. I’m happy to report that I will be graduating on May 11! After all I’ve endured to get to this point–eight years of personal drama, family drama, financial aid drama, and more–it’s going to be one of the best days of my life thus far.

To mark this occasion, I’d like to share five things I learned on the long, winding, potholed road to my degree.

1. It’s not all about when you finish. It just matters that you do.

When I left college after a long bout of depression, I felt terrible about myself. It hurt me to know that I wouldn’t be graduating with my peers or that I had to tell people I was taking a break from school. Where would I work? What will my friends think? What if I don’t finish my degree until I’m 47 and everyone thinks I’m slow? I was, as you can probably see, very hard on myself back then.

Now, though, I realize that nothing anyone thinks about me can define who I am. I’m not in competition with high school friends on Facebook or with ambitious college classmates, nor is it my job to explain to anyone why I left school, why I’m graduating at 26 and not 22, or why I’m an English major. It’s only my job to make the best decisions for myself and live with the consequences. Am I graduating “on time”? No. I’m graduating in my time.

2. Recognize when something isn’t working. Then make the appropriate changes.

I hated my sophomore year of college. The journalism classes weren’t interesting to me, and to make things worse, I wasn’t getting good grades. Having done well in previous writing classes, I was dumbfounded at my struggle to write winning articles. So, after my long break, I decided English was a better fit for me–and I made the right decision. Something felt more natural to me about reading literature and analyzing it versus chasing sources and reporting stories. I looked forward to my classes.

Now, I’m not saying that not doing well on something means you shouldn’t pursue it. But it is important to be able to admit to yourself that your performance isn’t up to your standards. In my case, writing the right answer–I just needed to choose the right kind of writing for me. It’s satisfying to know you’ve finally made it to the right place.

3. Take the criticism, good and bad.

As an English major, I’ve had to develop a super thick skin to deal with paper critiques. When I thought I did brilliantly on an essay, for example, my professor would scribble a big C on it. While I didn’t always like or agree with some of the comments, I realize that my professors were only trying to make me the best writer possible. They wanted me to push myself beyond the comfortable box I built for myself. And for that, I can only be thankful.

Criticism isn’t always easy to take. If you don’t steel yourself for the fire, you’ll come out singed. So, instead of thinking everyone who nags on you has some vendetta to destroy your life, search for the nuggets of truth in their critiques. The people who really care about you will always make sure you find them.

4. Be you. 

The first few weeks of my freshman year at Howard University were a study in culture shock. First, Washington, D.C., looked nothing like my small coastal town in the South. My peers talked differently, walked differently, dressed differently. Feeling anxious and unsure of myself, I experimented with myriad looks. I wore sneakers when I’d always been a heels girl. I spent money on name brands just to say I was hip to the latest trends. I was a slave to the sartorial whims of the fly girls on campus.

It took me a while to discover the real me, the “me” who existed in spite of what magazines and campus chicks said and did. Learning to dress, speak, and think for myself gave the courage to be myself. Who else can be you if not you?

5. Keep learning. 

I’m still deciding whether grad school is worth it for me–and whether I have the strength to sit through more years of school (I’m fairly sure I do, but I want to take a break for now). Learning, though, doesn’t require a formal classroom: cliche as it sounds, life itself a good teacher. And anyone can be your professor–your best friend, your dog, your preschool-age nephew, so long as you’re open. Regardless of your age, you can make learning a priority–and you don’t always have to pay tuition for life’s lessons.