I'm alone in my apartment today. I baked oatmeal cookies, and played Neutral Milk Hotel songs on guitar while singing very loudly, and watched Harold and Maude, all in my unwashed yoga clothes. I usually cherish days like these, but today feels oddly depressing (although depression is not, historically, very odd for me.) Today, my apartment is empty because my roommates, and the majority of my friends and acquaintances, are graduating from college.
I took the past year off. It was supposed to be my senior year, but apparently it wasn't. This isn't the first time I've done this; I took two quarters of freshman year off, and part of a quarter sophomore year, too. My reasons for leaving have mostly boiled down to some level of emotional instability due to my bipolar disorder or to traumatic outside circumstances, but I usually tell people that I wanted to "figure myself out," or that I wanted to save money, or that since The College Dropout is my favorite Kanye album, I might as well semi-emulate it.
But I didn't Eat. Pray. Love my way through this year. I got a job, and quit it, and found a couple volunteering jobs that I liked better than the paying one, and wrote a lot of poetry and fiction, and worked really hard at therapy, and went hiking often, and started doing yoga and doodling monsters and learning how to shoot on film. I've become a stabler, gentler, steadier, more independent, more patient, less anxious, less overwhelmed person, but I didn't learn any great truths about myself or about the world, nor did I really want to. I guess if I've figured out anything, it's that there are no real rules to anything, ever, and you can mostly go about your life the way you want, if you make certain decisions, sacrifices, and leaps of faith.
I've also learned that surprisingly few people go about going to college the way everyone thinks everyone else goes about going to college. I've learned this, because when I've told people what I'm doing, they tell me what they've done, and what their kids and cousins and friends have done. And what I've learned is:
A lot of people don't go to four-year universities. A lot of people take a few community college classes every few years. A lot of people go to a liberal arts college for a couple years and then transfer to a bigger school, or vice versa. Or maybe they go for a few years and decide it's not for them, or that it's not worth the debt, or maybe they have to go care for a sick family member, or have a kid, or devote more time to paid work. Many, many people who do go to four-year colleges and stay the whole time all the way through, end up taking an extra semester, or an extra year, or an extra three years. A lot of people don't go to college, ever, and some of them regret it, and some wish they could, and some know that it was the right thing to have happened.
This isn't just anecdotal, not that I don't respect my own anecdotes. In 2013, 34.1% of people who had graduated high school in the spring didn't enroll in college in the fall. According to a Harvard Graduate School of Education study from 2011, only 56% of four-year college students finish within six years, while just 29% of community college students finish in three. At public universities, like my school, only a third of students graduate "on time." There are no rules. There is no script. There is no real reason why any person should feel the need to spend four years sitting in a classroom, depressed and stressed-out and overwhelmed. Because where does that get you, anyway? All it does is turn you into a depressed, stressed-out, overwhelmed human who happens to have a college degree, and I don't understand the allure of that.
But I don't really understand much of the way people go about going to college. I don't understand, for instance, how people could go to school in a large city, and never leave the college's neighborhood, even though there are several adjacent buses. I don't understand how to play beer pong. I don't understand why football games are fun. I don't understand why Nietzsche-quoting alt bros find it charming to allude to skipping class as if wasting their tuition money is cute. I really, really don't understand how to pronounce the majority of the names of the buildings on campus ("Freud Hall" and "Broad Hall," for instance, are pronounced decisiviely not how those words are supposed to be pronounced.)
All of this said, I am very proud of my friends who graduated today. And I'm also very proud of everyone who isn't graduating, who made different choices, or had different choices made for them by outside forces, all the people who are doing the right thing for them, in their own individual situations, to do is. There is no one way to go about going to college. Because there's no one way of doing anything in life, not ever. The rules are only there if you want them to be.
It's just like Cat Stevens sings in Harold and Maude, "if you want to sing out, sing out, if you want to be free be free, 'cause there's a million things to be, you know that there are."