What I Learned About Graduating College, 4 Years After Graduating College


I graduated from college almost exactly four years ago, meaning I have been out of college for almost exactly as long as I was there. This year’s graduating class is the last one in which I know even a handful of people; everyone younger exists only as a possibility. I’ve been reflecting lately about being, as Tommy Pickles would say, “all growed-up,” and I’ve been wondering what I can actually say I have learned about myself, and what advice – if I were in any way qualified to give it – I would offer.

It’s not that I feel as though I have an amazing or inspirational post-grad success story to share. On the contrary, I’ll take all the guidance I can get on how to be a functioning young adult. But I feel that over these past four years there are certain (and still only few) things I have come to understand about myself. While the economy might be a little worse off for this year’s college graduates than it had been for me and my peers, I’m sure that at least some of what I learned about “growing up” transcends our differences.

I have come to recognize the invisible milestones of life that we only see in hindsight—make that a farsighted hindsight—and I’ve learned to stop thinking about life events as time-stamped checkboxes. You don’t know the exact day you got over that old relationship. You just wake up one day and realize that things have gradually progressed to the point where you’re not bothered anymore. As you are healing, you probably don’t recognize your day-to-day progress. Just as you don’t realize quite how big your baby cousin is getting until you haven’t seen him in a while. Or how you don’t realize how big you have gotten until you go back to visit your old preschool and wonder how you and you tiny friends ever fit at that miniature lunch table. (I have done this. It is life changing.)

I didn’t wake up on May 17, 2009 and put my pants on a different way because I had become a “college graduate.” If anything, I might have put them on backwards because I was too terrified to see straight.

In retrospect, I realized that I didn’t really graduate on a rainy-yet-beautiful Saturday in 2009: I began the slow and permanent graduation process. Nonetheless, the build-up to that day instilled in me an unprecedented panic. The next morning, my first as a “college graduate,” I felt more afraid than I had on the first day of freshman year, and the first day of fourth grade in my new school, and the first day of kindergarten in which I cried all over my teacher. Combined. Even more unbearable than the realization I was entering the real world was the overwhelming feeling of unpreparedness to do so, exacerbated by the fact that there was nothing I could do to slow it all down.

Recently, something strange happened. It is now, as the members of the class of 2013 begin to embark upon their journeys, that I have feelings of true commencement. I am calm, content, and I feel like some kind of weight has been lifted from my chest. Like most recent graduates (at least I hope I am not the only one,) I consider my day-to-day life a bit of a hot mess, which pretty much puts “feeling good” in the “happy accident” category alongside penicillin and Lil Bub. I tried to think about why I suddenly felt I had “graduated” from my expected state of uneasiness. Understanding that I would never gain absolute insight into when this transformation happened, I tried to do as much reflecting as possible to understand what it was that had ignited this change. It wasn’t until I started to think about this that I realized the significance of the year and how long I had been out of college. Then, a related experience quickly came to mind.

A similar thing had happened to me after graduating from my high school. It was small, family-like, and wonderful. Everyone knew everyone. Leaving was devastating. My first few years out, I went back all the time to visit teachers and old friends that were still there. But then time started going by and people started graduating and before I knew it, the “freshmen” (they’re out of college by now but they will always be the little 14-year-olds that we left behind as seniors) were gone. As even more time passed, teachers started leaving or retiring or moving on to the next chapters of their own lives. The physical things that used to call me back weren’t there anymore and I found myself needing to visit less frequently. And then it dawned on me: it wasn’t the school I had been longing for all that time – it was the people.

What makes this relevant is that almost all things that connected me to college are now detached. Such is the course of nature and the curse of time. I guess I woke up one morning four years later and realized that I never noticed how much I had been gradually graduating.

Once everyone I knew and loved at my college had commenced into the world, it felt easier to let go. As the people I loved began to move on, it became easier to separate what I really missed (the people and the memories) as opposed to what I thought I missed (the people and the memories, insomuch as they were physically bound by time and space to a place we once shared.) So I finally understood the difference between what I had thought I feared on graduation day and what I realized I had actually feared all along. Only when the fog lifted could I see it clearly before me that I hadn’t been afraid of moving on as much as I had been afraid of moving on alone.

My conclusion, therefore, is that college is not a great social experience in itself, but it becomes amazing once you find the right people to share it with. The important thing to remember as reality hits you during your commencement ceremony—and something I wish didn’t take me four years to realize—is that you are graduating from college, not graduating from each other. In the most beautiful of ways, you are all moving forward together. Realizing this, even unconsciously, became a defining moment in my now-slightly-less-hot-and-less-messy life.

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image – kevin dooley