This past weekend, my family gathered to celebrate my cousin Abby’s graduation from high school. Aunts and uncles and cousins came together from all over Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Philadelphia to celebrate the twelfth cousin of the family to graduate and head off to college.
As the newest inductee into the high school graduate club, my cousin doesn’t know yet what she is in for. She’s about to start her next chapter in life at the University of Dayton in Ohio. She doesn’t even know yet how good it’s going to be. She doesn’t understand the college memes or the post-grad-problems or the Buzzfeed lists. She can’t yet fathom how much trouble she’ll get into. She doesn’t know which girls will become her best friends or which boys will break her heart. She can’t know that yet, but she will.
Right now she’s just anticipating the unknown, the freedom and the idea of college. She’s got the list of college dorm essentials and the recommended textbooks and the obligatory Ugg boots and North Face jacket. She doesn’t know what’s in store, but maybe it has something to do with being the most comfortable and studying a lot.
It’s when you’ve grown up and gotten that bachelor’s degree and moved on that you really understand what college is and was. It’s now, when I’m looking back, that I realize how good I had it for those four years. Through all the uncertainty and the struggle and the setbacks, I was actually having the time of my life. Those problems that I thought were insurmountable? I overcame them. The disappointments that I saw as failures? They steered me in the right direction. Maybe I took my college years for granted, but I like to think I didn’t. I think I realized at the time that what I had and what I did was great. But I’m certain now just how great.
There’s something that happens when you go away to school – you grow up. Perhaps tiny steps at first. So small you’re not aware that you’re making any progress at all. But eventually you look back and you’re a completely different person.
The experiences you have in just four years will change your life forever. Any experience has the potential to change your life, but after college, you will never again be the same person you were when you left home. You will make new friends and lose others. You will stay up late to study all night and you will fail the test anyway. You will despise but learn from the professors who have different points of view than you do, and you will be forever grateful for the ones who teach you to think for yourself. You will discover new organizations, rally for women’s rights or for politics or for better food in the cafeteria, and you will join clubs for the sake of having something to do. You will spend countless nights studying and wishing that college were more fun, and you will spend all of your money on snacks, booze and late-night pizza.
My cousin doesn’t know this yet. But I know everyone who has graduated has come to this conclusion: that while we know that there are great moments and years that still lie ahead of us, nothing will ever be the same as those four years of college.
Abby sits here with a few of her friends, just as ready to drive away as I was. She’s looking forward to breaking away from her parents and finding her own way in the world. And someday she’ll be surprised to find that there is nothing quite like coming back home.