Two things happened to me this past May: I turned 22, and the class I matriculated with graduated without me. Of course, people take an extra year to finish of their degree all the time. Personally, I’m taking a fifth year to complete an honours thesis and finish off the credits I need from taking a semester to do a co-op work term. I have this line memorized because I feel the need to say that on reflex when someone asks me how many years I have left/what year of study I’m in, since I know they’ll speculate as to why I veered off the traditional path of a 4-year degree.
An immediate reminder of the stigma of deviating from the “normal” academic career was brought to my attention right after graduation, when friend of mine who is a part of the class of 2019 told me her parents made a very strange remark after she had crossed the stage: “I’m so glad you finished your degree in the allotted time”.
To give you a backstory: I matriculated at Acadia in 2015. I was a nervous 18-year-old suffering from PTSD who had yet to get a proper diagnosis or treatment. I was terrified of everything and everyone, so I ended up incredibly isolated for my first two years of university. It got to the point where I straight up lived off of goldfish crackers and granola bars for a year because my anxiety was so crippling, I couldn’t go to meal hall without having a panic attack.
Now, I’m going to make it perfectly clear I did not take 5 years because of my mental health; I want it on record that my grades from 1st and 2nd year are merely a reflection of my ability to not fail classes even when I’m barely functioning and maybe trying to kill myself (and because organic chemistry is like, really hard, ok?). To make matters worse, I got caught up in a horribly toxic relationship like many young and vulnerable kids and ended up cutting off a lot of my friends. I missed out on so much in my second and third year due to the isolation he kept me in. With the combo of my own brain preventing me from leaving my room, and then a possessive boyfriend keeping me on a short leash; I missed out on a lot of the classic Acadia student experiences.
I’ve only recently caught up and have started to act like myself again in the past year. I went from being a petrified freshman who couldn’t leave their dorm room without feeling like their heart was going to pound itself out of their chest, and a student who wouldn’t dare speak a word in any lecture hall to an (mostly) anxiety-free person who is fully willing to raise their hand and speak their mind in class. Basically, it took me 4 years just to be able to fully enjoy university to the fullest extent because fear was holding me back for so long. I’m grateful to have a 5th year to end my time at Acadia on a good note, as well as catch up with all the time I lost.
In all honesty, I thought I’d feel sad watching the grads of 2019 post photos in their caps and gowns; like I’d missed out, that my trauma had ruined something for me yet again, or that I was less accomplished than my peers. To my pleasant surprise, I felt the complete opposite. I felt incredibly proud of my friends who were beaming ear to ear with pride, but I didn’t feel jealous or suffer from FOMO, because hey! I earned a research grant for a project that is right up my alley, my supervisor is a scientist I’ve been wanting to work with for the past 3 years, and I’m pretty damn proud of that in itself.
My qualms about being a late bloomer were pretty much gone when I saw the photos of people who are utterly clueless about what they’re doing with their lives past graduation joking about their uncertain future. I realized I have nothing to be ashamed about in taking my extra year, because I’d much rather be taking a victory lap than be part of the crowd of grads who struggled through their degree with the only things they’d had gained from those four years being an extra 20lbs and an alcohol dependence. I mean truly, my main thought was “thank god that’s not me”.
I don’t feel ashamed for taking 5 years to graduate. I know the immediate assumption to hearing someone took more than the traditional 4 years to complete their undergrad is “oh they failed courses”; but I didn’t. I took a semester to gain valuable work experience that will benefit my career path and it provided a hands-on educational experience. Taking an extra year for me will do no damage to my academic record and will ultimately result in me graduating as a more qualified, and more employable person compared to a lot of the students I matriculated with, and I’ll owe it to my extended study period. So, even though I’m deviating from “the allotted time” to complete an undergrad degree; I refuse to be ashamed. I’m incredibly proud of what I’ve accomplished over that time period, academically and personally.
By taking an extra year, I get to do an honours project in the exact field I wanted to with the supervisors I wanted to work with, I get to live with my best friend while she finishes her master’s degree, and I get to stay in Wolfville with my incredible boyfriend and cheer him on during the football season. I’ll be making up for lost time this year, but I basically get to do all of the things I wanted to do at Acadia, even if it took me a little longer to get to this point. I get to be the person I aimed to become from the very beginning, and I’m totally okay with the fact that it took me more than 4 years. I’m happy with taking my time if I get to accomplish all my goals rather than just graduating. I’m not done with Acadia yet, it still has so much more in store for me, and I’m happy to stay and see where the next year will take me.
(Also, no offence, but grads 2020 just has a way better ring to it than grads 2019.)