Last week I graduated from college, one of the first big accomplishments many of us make in our lifetimes. When I first went away to school everyone told me how fast four years was going to go by and how I should enjoy every moment. Now, looking back at what once seemed like a very far off milestone, it’s easy to say “they were right.” There are certainly early memories, like moving in, or taking my first exam, that feel like a long time ago, but overall this four years was the busiest and fastest four years of my life. Why are they so fast? Because we’re busy. Because we’re having fun. Because when you really think about four years you realize how little of it you actually remember—how many mornings, dinners, classes, nights spent in the library you just can’t recall.
On Sunday, our commencement speaker Jason Kilar, the founder of Hulu, spoke about his own experience graduating from UNC 22 years ago. He talked about his obstacles and about how “life is an exercise of living with the certainty of the uncertainty.” He said not to let the absence of answers stop you from pursuing your dreams—just the kind of thing you would expect to hear at a college graduation speech, in the midst of a sea of almost 3,900 graduates eager and anxious about their next step in life. In a time when the odds may seem against you and nothing is working he told us to be strong, that “there is no adversity capable of stopping you once the choice to persevere is made.” Great stuff, right? I know, you should read the rest of the speech.
When I first stepped foot on campus during a tour in 2011 Carolina was just a dream, college some real yet mysteriously mystical place where people gain friends and get smart. A few months later I was nervously following my tour guide around orientation, registering for classes, gawking at upperclassmen, and trying not to be too much of a first year. And just several weeks after that, I was immersing myself into a culture of blue that would soon become my second family. I was such a different person then, but those changes happened slowly versus all at once. Over time, I became more observant, more confident, less trusting, more professional and far more comfortable sharing my ideas. College exposed me to more kinds of people than I had ever been around and I found myself making the decision to improve different parts of my personality and take advantage of the opportunity to acquaint myself with, well, myself. Most importantly, college required me to be responsible, and through all the times I was and I wasn’t, I found myself capable of rising to the responsibilities on my plate.
One of the things that makes university (as my British friends would say) so special is the encouragement to openly discuss, question and explore ideas or just life in general. Often, once we’ve become grown adults and handled life’s curveballs we gain certain philosophies that remain unchanged. We rely on our experience and less on discovery. We make certain judgments on the world instead of propositions, declarations instead of wondering. That’s what I tell people I’ll miss most. Of course I’ll miss the classes, the athletics, $10 Broadway shows and being a five minute walk from my friends. But I’ll miss the eagerness to discover and question life the most. I won’t miss dorm laundry rooms, grading systems, or trying to walk from one side of campus to the other in ten minutes.
Carolina was a special place for all of us, but like all schools, she makes you leave. Although I know we’ll come back one day, reminiscing about our time walking these bricks and sharing success stories, it’s hard to leave initially. Graduation sneaks up on you in the swarm of moving, eating with friends, finals, pictures and senior shenanigans. You drive off and realize it really is over, the days flourishing in the Pit, throwing Frisbee in the quad and camping out all night in the UL are for a new class of students. It feels like someone is tearing your heart from your chest, waving it in your face and telling you it’s no longer yours. Campus morphs into a vastly dead silence, lying in wait for first years to start swarming campus as wide-eyed as we once were, and it all feels so unfair.
But wasn’t this the goal? We certainly didn’t enroll to be eternal college students. We talked about this day, how we couldn’t wait for it, how we dreaded it, how we thought we weren’t going to make it. We wanted to graduate. No, we didn’t expect it to rain for an hour and 45 minutes of the two hour ceremony, but we imagined it. We wanted to wear alumni shirts and become famous with degrees, fancy cars and have kids who could wear baby Tar Heel clothes. This was the whole point and we made it. We did it. Not everyone who started with us ended with us, but they are still a part of our experience and that’s life in all its irony. Some of us stuck together to the end and we have a lifetime of memories to share for it. Some of us went through some really, really hard times. But we persevered, like Jason said. So graduation is not sad, because it means we accomplished an admirable thing, we achieved one dream, and we can accomplish more.
Those four long years ago I wrote a post that to this day is my most popular, Last Full Week, where I reflected on my last week at home before college and I ended with this paragraph:
I am not scared or sad. I am happy, I am content, I am thankful, and I am blessed. I sometimes want more than I need, but I have all I need because I have Him, and my family and my Tarheel Fam. What more could a girl like me ask for? I have been given more things in this world than I could ever repay. My prayers have been answered and I am completely happy. Life could not be greater than it is today. The sky is not the limit, it’s just the beginning of the dream. I’m going, for the top of the moon.“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Do not be afraid.” – Frederick Buechner
I can’t say that tonight, after being home a week after finishing college that my sentiments are any different. Perhaps we don’t have a list of requirements in front of us telling us what to do anymore as we’ve had our whole lives, but that’s okay. Some of us are going to serve our country, take time abroad, continue more education, look for jobs, start companies/invent ideas, begin a family or just relax and collect our thoughts. But we should all go after our dreams, after our careers. I know this was the best four years of my life as it should have been, enjoying the brink of adulthood and low responsibility. But I’m not completely sad or stuck on this chapter ending, because I know there’s chapters ahead, and I know the road gets better from here. If I stayed depressed that college was over it would mean I didn’t believe there will be anything else as good ahead. So I keep believing. I thank God that I have something to cherish, something so hard to part with. I have the ability to carve my own path now and I have the critical skills to do so wisely. I’m ready to dive into new adventures, new responsibilities, and new stories. I’m ready to take on something big that demands me to become better, to climb a steep learning curve and succeed. Because when you’re thrown a huge ball you either catch it or drop it—both will help you become a better person, and the more it happens the better you’ll get at catching. Just keep your head up, your hopes high, your feet running, and never ever doubt your dreams.
Doing what you love, pursuing your own path, is often the most unsettling option at the outset. The paths that others have traveled before you, paths that have greater visibility — they appear lower risk. They play better in conversations with the aunts, the uncles, and the neighbors. But don’t fall for it. You’re better than that, and you have the strength to go your own way. – Jason Kilar