looking back on my first year out of college

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As I spent a few minutes scrolling through Instagram Saturday morning (a habit I should probably break), I noticed the posts were overwhelmingly split between two things: the royal wedding, and graduation. Bright, oversized robes turned into a purple blur as I pushed them out of sight, occasionally pausing for a like. It’s not that I wasn’t happy for my friends, or that I didn’t want to say congrats and like every picture — but the posts struck a note in me I wasn’t expecting. They surfaced an undeniable fact that I hadn’t fully acknowledged: it had been a year since I’d worn those same violet robes.

I would be lying if I said I don't miss parts of college. There was something timeless about it — something both endless and ephemeral, in the way that formative periods of time often are.

But even as I write that last sentence, I want to add an asterisk: a disclaimer that I don’t wish to over-romanticize college, as some do. It would be a disservice to forget the difficulties in a fit of nostalgia, and even more so to pretend that all college is only made up of good memories.

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I’ve tried to write on this topic once before, last August. It was just a few months after graduation, and something reminded me of how a few British students that I met abroad imagined American college (an exaggerated, but not altogether inaccurate idea). I wrote,

“Ever since I graduated in May, I can’t dispel the feeling that I missed out on something, a something so perpetuated in tv shows, movies, and culture at large that it has become almost mythical.”

When I looked back on the draft this past week, curious to see if my thoughts had changed since then, I kept returning to the conclusion I wrote at the time. The last sentence was unfinished. 

I graduated from college in May, taking an accelerated three year track as opposed to the traditional four. The class I came in with are now no longer my class. I’m already mentally preparing for September, when my friends will go back and I won’t be joining them.
As I’ve struggled to adjust this summer to work days and a quieter apartment, I wonder if I should’ve done the full four years. I ask myself: did I do college wrong? The ghost of the fourth year I never had has been tugging at me; somehow I’ve embedded all the memories I could’ve had into the year I never did. In this year I would’ve had more nights of carefree memories, less time worrying about the future; more flirtations and romantic dalliances, less commitment;  But in all of these imaginings I seem to be forgetting what I got in exchange: XX.

The X’s stand out like little black marks of uncertainty — but also hope. I didn't know what to write, because I didn't know how I felt. I wrote the piece before I was ready, when I was still in the thick of complicated feelings, as a way to work through those emotions. I wrote it with the intent that, sometime soon afterwards, I would figure out the answers. And time has lent a level of acceptance. College is college; it is great and fun and difficult, but it is meant to stay within its own time frame.

While I don't believe that the academic world is not the real world, as some people say, I can't deny that college and post-college are incredibly different. Consequences often feel weightier in the latter. The rules are not the same. And yet, through all of that, there is a freedom I wasn’t expecting. My life at NYU had a relatively rigid schedule, but post-grad life doesn’t have those same constraints. My job blocks off the traditional office hours during the week, but I’ve learnt not to have such starkly separated weekends and weekdays. It’s ok to have a spontaneous night out on a Wednesday; it’s ok to stay in on a Saturday. This small shift in mindset, as simple and obvious as it seems, has been one of the more important lessons I've learned this past year.

For so long, I thought that college was where I grew up. I showed up to NYC a naive, shy to the point of fearful, 18-year old. And while I wouldn't call myself fearless now, I no longer possess that same timidity. College was indeed formative. I owe a lot to my experience at NYU; most of all becoming a person that continues to grow and learn, even outside of its halls, even when — particularly when — I’m uncomfortable. I've learned how to stand up for myself, how to take a risk, how to let go — but most of that I’ve learned in the past year, after graduating, after letting myself come into the person college had begun to uncover.

I'll admit to occasionally entertaining nostalgia and sentimentality; it's the writer in me. And so it would be easy to romanticize my college experience as the “best years of my life” simply because of an unwillingness to acknowledge the discomfort of uncertainty. I’ve realized that mindset is the same as staying in a bad relationship because, even through all the shitty times, it remains comfortable; because you’re stuck on what once was instead of seeing what it has become. But there’s only so long you can use comfort as the excuse before it becomes clear why you are holding on to something you should let go of: fear, and, to an extent, complacency.

Part of me still finds it hard to believe that an entire year has passed. But when I think about all that has happened in that time — a year of changes, firsts, and plenty of uncertainty — I can see how an enormity of life was fit into those 365 days.

I moved. (Twice.) I lost friends, and made friends, and rewrote my own definition of friendship. I started a full-time job. 

And, I experienced heartbreak for the first time. Through that particular, painful end, I’ve seen a new beginning. It's been a transition that I realized is serendipitously parallel to graduation. It is easy to look back and only remember the good, easy to look back and wish it were once more like then; it is harder to look to what’s to come and acknowledge that a significant period in life has come to an end — and that it’s time to move forward.

While it has been the most poignant kind of bittersweet, watching "my" class graduate this past week, it also feels like I’ve let out a breath I’ve been holding since last year. I can finally, fully, let go of my life from then, and enjoy where I am now. And even though in the moment this year’s class walked across that stage I lost the ability to call myself a recent grad, I’ve realized this absence leaves room: room to grow, room to become someone other than an NYU swimmer, and room to experience a new period of life that, at some point, I’ll look back on with the same mix of bittersweet feelings.

MusingsAmber Hunter