05/19/2015 02:30 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Old Enough to Hope, Young Enough to Dream


Last Sunday, I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It was a day filled with a roller coaster of emotions, preceded by weeks and months of the same. My fellow graduates and I laughed and cried as we tried desperately to soak up the final moments of four years that all of a sudden felt all too fleeting. We had a succession of lasts - our last class (mine was Roman history, so I went in a toga), our last college all-nighter, our last exam, our last blue cups at He's Not Here, our last time ordering late-night Chicken Cheddar Biscuits, our last time walking into Kenan Stadium as undergraduates, and finally, our last embraces before heading off to our respective futures. It was a whirlwind sequence of events, one that I'm sure I won't fully understand for many years. But it has been a week since that fateful day when we shifted our tassels from left to right, and I feel compelled to look back and try to make sense of it. And when we get to the heart of it, the question that I, and the multitude of others graduating around the nation this month, have to answer is this: why did it mean so much?

Of course, there are the usual explanations. College was certainly a lot of fun. Although our workload was substantial, we likely had fewer responsibilities than we will have for the rest of our lives. Thus, the first things that we think we will miss (and that society tells us we have to miss) are the parties. As Kenny Chesney eloquently put it, "we had no real problems we needed to drown, but we tried our best anyway." This is society's preferred mode of collegiate nostalgia - images of Red Solo Cups and nights frittered away without any consequences. But while that aspect of college certainly was nice, I cannot for a second believe that the monumental emotions we experienced in the past few weeks rested on a foundation comprised entirely of freedom and partying.

There are more thoughtful explanations that come closer to the truth, of course. Unless we go on to higher reaches of academia, these four years were the only time we will ever have where our main life's pursuit was the acquisition of knowledge. That is certainly a unique experience, and one that many of us will cherish. But I have friends who couldn't be happier that they will never have to take another class in their lives, and those same friends have still clung to every waning moment of our undergraduate experience just as I have. Similarly, we are all of course loath to move away from the friends that we have made over these four years. But we had friends in high school and we will have new friends to add to the old in the next phases of our lives. So the usual explanations - lack of responsibilities, shared pursuit of learning, leaving close friends - still don't wholly explain the emotions that college graduates have felt in the past few weeks.

So what, then, is the answer? What was it about those four short years that caused otherwise well adjusted and successful young adults, brimming with dreams of the future, to well up with tears every time they heard the strains of "Carolina in My Mind"? What made so many of us pause, in those final days, when we caught a particularly striking glimpse of Franklin Street or the Old Well in the afternoon light, hoping that if we just didn't move from that spot we would never have to leave? Why are so many people with so much to look forward to so reluctant to look forward, and so willing to look back?

For me, the answer can be summed up in one word: possibilities. College was a time of unbridled possibility, and we all came to know it. We arrived at our undergraduate institutions brimming with confidence after successfully completing high school. We had just been showered with honors and praise - at Carolina alone I met school presidents, varsity captains, valedictorians, phenomenal musicians, and all manner of other accomplished eighteen-year-olds in my first year. We knew we had what it took to succeed; yet we also knew that a whole new world of opportunities was open to us. We met upperclassmen and gazed with wide eyes at their accomplishments and their travels, hoping that some day we could replicate or even surpass their feats. We had grown out of the awkward trepidation of our early teens but not yet gained the cynicism that comes with repeated brushes with reality. In short, we were old enough to hope, but young enough to dream.

And then we were given four years surrounded by people with the same mindset, but incredibly diverse interests and experiences. We saw the examples of those who had come before us, and we benefited from their support. The factors that everyone thinks made college so great - comparatively few responsibilities, an academic environment, and proximity to our peers, ultimately fed into the creation of an environment that was ideal for pursuing whatever we wanted. Distilled to its essence, the social and academic magic of college was all about possibilities as well. It was a place where you could study anything, go anywhere, meet anyone, be anyone.

This potent mix gave rise to vast realms of possibility, previously unimaginable to our high school selves. It made Carolina a place where I could find myself hearing about one friend mapping a virus that I can't even pronounce and another researching terrorism in Africa in the same day and not think it unusual. It turned questions like, "do you want to write for the Huffington Post?" or "do you want to go to Mongolia this summer?" from pipe dreams into realities. It made it possible to spend one night at a party dressed in a toga and the next engrossed in the writing of a term paper on Turkey's position in NATO. It enabled me to see the midnight sun in Alaska, paraglide over the Himalayas, take in the Golden Temple in Amritsar, and try (and fail) to learn how to ride a motorbike from the only female motorcycle taxi driver in Uganda in successive summers. And this is just a sampling of what was possible, because I am just one of the millions graduating this year. Each time one of us did something spectacular or unusual, it inspired others to open their own new routes of possibility, creating a cascading tide of inspiration that enveloped our collective consciousness. Over time, this rush of possibility and discovery became the new normal. We became used to this seemingly never-ending process of pushing ourselves inward and outward, along all kinds of different avenues.

And now we have finally arrived at the answer to our question. We dreaded the end of college because we dreaded the end of endless possibility. With "the real world" encroaching, we fear that we will be unable to maintain the constant sense of the possible that has accompanied us for the last four years. The challenge for this year's crop of college graduates, as it has been for every class for centuries, is to carry that sense of possibility with us beyond the walls of our undergraduate institutions. It will almost certainly be more difficult when we are no longer immersed in an environment that is nearly perfect for doing so. But it can be done. We can look to the titanic figures that have shaped our world for millennia before we were even born and see that they kept alive their sense of possibility, not only past the age of 22 but for their entire lives. I can only hope that memories of the powerful emotions that have taken ahold of us over the past few months will compel me and the rest of the class of 2015 to do the same.