Going to high school with a bunch of wealthy, smart kids meant that my senior year was spent learning about the fabulous universities my classmates would be attending the following year. I was born and raised in a college town, so I always just assumed I would stay home and attend the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. It is a beautiful and highly accredited university that thousands of students from all around the country apply to attend. I could continue living with my parents while getting a great education right down the street. It seemed like a perfect idea, right?
However, there were a few hiccups in this plan that five-year-old me had never considered. I didn’t quite have the grades for UNCW. It’s not that I made bad grades. I was smart, but not highly motivated. High school didn’t interest me. The only classes I was interested in were my art classes, and I knew I wasn’t talented enough to pursue a career in art.
I got my first job at the beginning of junior year and quickly realized I enjoyed working! It felt good to get a paycheck every other week of money I had earned by myself. Maybe I permanently smelled of fryer grease and minimum wage, but I had my own money! The biggest issue was that I literally had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I loved animals, but I wasn’t dedicated enough to spend that much time in school to become a veterinarian. At one point, I thought I would make a good elementary school teacher. My senior project included me working with a group of elementary school students, teaching them about art therapy. I really enjoyed teaching those youngsters. But, I live in North Carolina, where teachers are paid some of the lowest wages in the entire country. Most of my own teachers at the time had second jobs just to make ends meet. I knew I wasn’t cut out for that lifestyle.
Logic led me to the medical field. Everyone kept telling me as long as there were humans, there would be a need for health care. It was a good industry to get into because it wasn’t going anywhere and could provide a comfortable living. UNCW had a great nursing program, but there again, I didn’t have the grades. So, I did what a lot of my peers were doing and applied to East Carolina University. Their admissions process wasn’t as selective as other universities and they were just as good of a school.
I applied to ECU and a few weeks later received my acceptance letter. I was ecstatic! My parents were so proud of me, we toasted with champagne that night. That feeling lasted for a few months, until reality quickly set in. I had no idea how I was going to pay for this. I didn’t qualify for any significant scholarships and the idea of student loans terrified me. My parents had a small college fund for me, but It would barely cover my first year at ECU. I began to experience frequent anxiety attacks concerning my future.
Like I said before, I went to school with a lot of smart students. Every other day someone was earning a scholarship or admissions into ivy league schools. It was extremely intimidating. Not to mention the many adults in my life telling me if I didn’t get a four year degree I’d never be successful. No pressure!
It’s not hard to see why things got so difficult during this time. After many long talks with my extremely supportive parents, I decided I needed some time to figure out what I wanted to do. I declined my acceptance to ECU and applied to my local community college. My plan was to enroll in the two year college transfer program and then decide if I wanted to go on to ECU or stay local at UNCW. I almost made it through my first year.
Toward the end of my second semester, I was struggling with severe anxiety. I skipped a lot of classes because I was too anxious to leave my house. The days I did make it to school, I spent about thirty minutes in my car convincing myself to get out and walk to class. Eventually, I just stopped going. I took a year off to get a hold of myself. During that time, I quit my restaurant job and began working in my family’s business. I liked having a set schedule and realized I was pretty good at my job there. I also got help for my anxiety. I began seeing my doctor regularly and got on medication that helped “level me out,” if you will.
At the end of that year, I enrolled in online classes back at my community college. I was ready to begin working toward my degree, but I wasn’t ready to be back in the classroom just yet. I began my schools Business Administration program. I took all the classes I could online, but toward the end of my program some courses were only available on campus. This was a moment I had been dreading; the return to the classroom. But, I had changed a lot since the last time I had been in a classroom. I purchased a home and a new car at just 21 years old. I was proud of myself! I finally felt like I had accomplished something that had nothing to do with school! And you know what? I found when I returned to campus, I enjoyed my classes. The students in the Business Administration program were almost all at least a few years older than me, but they were very serious about their education. They valued healthy classroom debates and genuinely wanted to do well. These students had more at risk than my high school or college transfer classmates. Most of them had their own homes and full time jobs on top of school, sometimes two! They had families, and children, and responsibilities beyond school. Despite all this, they still showed up every week and visibly tried their hardest.
It was inspiring.
They weren’t getting their degree because anyone was telling them. They weren’t pressured by society because they graduated high school with a class of five hundred students who almost all were moving on to large universities. They made the decision to be there because they wanted to better themselves, and they took it seriously. I thrived among these peers. I was actually paying attention in school and learning and enjoying it. I even made friends with some of my classmates, something I never had the courage or desire to do when I first began college. I found things in common with people who were so different than myself. I had conversations with people I might otherwise never had spoken to. And I felt so welcomed. I felt like everyone was welcomed. It was like we were all there to achieve the same goal and we genuinely wanted everyone to succeed.
In May of 2018, I graduated with two Associate degrees from Cape Fear Community College. I was, and still am, so proud of myself. My fiance and I have a wall at the end of our hallway where we hang up all our degrees and certifications. It’s a simple reminder every morning as we leave for work that we can accomplish anything if we put our minds to it.
There was a time where I considered giving up entirely on school. I honestly never saw myself walking across that stage. But, I’m so glad I did. I’m glad I went back to school and earned my degrees. And, my educational career isn’t over! I plan on getting my Bachelors degree at some point in the future. One of the most important things I learned in college, is that there is no wrong time to get your degree. I had many classes with a disabled military veteran who was in his late fifties, and he was going to school for the same reason I was. He wanted to better himself. Your life is not a checklist of things you need to accomplish at any certain point. Whether it takes you two years, four years, or twenty years, at the end of the day you should just be proud you went to school and got your degree. You should always be proud of yourself, no matter how long it takes for you to achieve your goals.