10 Year Associate’s Degree

Exactly ten years ago I was a 15-year-old freshman in high school. I started participating in a program for honor students that offered college-level courses that would simultaneously satisfy high school requirements. The collegiate program is similar to dual enrollment, but students start in their freshmen year instead of their junior, giving them plenty of time to collect enough credits to graduate both with a high school diploma and an associate’s level degree. Basically, an associate’s degree for free through the public-school system. It was an incredible opportunity.

Not to spoil the surprise but I did not graduate high school with an associate’s degree. In fact, Monday was my last day of classes in my current associate’s degree program and I should have my diploma 5-7 business days after grades are posted.

Now, to fill in the enormous gap that has been my life for the past ten years will take a few more blog entries to explain but for now, I’ll give you a short summary and a rundown of last night’s events.

Today I am 25 and most of my peers are in their graduate programs or already working in their selected fields. I decided earlier this week that I wouldn’t attend the graduation ceremony for this degree because honestly, it embarrassed me that I’m not further along in my education or career. I gave up this graduation ceremony because I know now more than ever that I will have the opportunity to walk again when I’m finished with my bachelor’s degree. However, if I would’ve known how finishing my last exam would feel, I would have never given up my tickets.

Last night, I took my final, final exam online in the school computer lab. When I first arrived, there were other students in the lab with me working on last minute assignments, making familiar background noise. The later it got the fewer students were in the lab and eventually I was the only one left. I still had 5 answers to go and I was trying to finish before the lab closed. I reviewed my answers making sure I’d answered all 200 questions, scrolled up and hit the “save and submit” button. I checked to make sure it submitted, logged out of blackboard and closed the web browser. I packed up my books, pushed the chair away from the desk with my hands and stopped. I just sat there and took a deep breath. The longer I sat there the heavier my chest felt and I got that all over, head tingling, shoulder rolling, overwhelming, heavy breathing feeling that just takes over and makes you want to sob. Don’t get me wrong, they were happy tears, but it felt more like an accumulation of every emotion I’d had over the past ten years about trying and failing all rolled into one big flood of reaction.

The last ten years have been (I hope) the hardest in my life. Not only did I not graduate high school with the associate’s degree I set out to obtain, but I didn’t even graduate from that school with my classmates. I let other people get in my way and distract me from what were then the only things that really gave me any self-esteem or pride within myself. I was good at school, I am good at school. I find everything interesting and I enjoy doing ridiculously pointless projects and algebra homework. Since 2007 there have been all kinds of heartbreak and regret surrounding me. Demanding medical problems with my mother, divorce(s), a lot of moving around and job hopping. Applying and withdrawing from different schools, new marriages and relationships to navigate. A failed and successful pregnancy, all those things that come up in life that distract and consume you until you end up living every day in pursuit of a better life instead of enjoying the one you have.

I think the only reason an associate’s degree at 25 was embarrassing to me was because I expected more from myself. I expected to be at the same stages in my education as my peers, not 4 years behind later graduating classes. What I didn’t realize, however, was how much pride I would feel finally achieving it. I don’t know that I would have “ugly cried” all the way home if I hadn’t struggled so much to keep pursuing it. I don’t know if my next graduation ceremony will have the same effect that this one may have had because I’m ready and able this time. I know with all my heart that things should happen in their own time and I’m grateful that I get to appreciate this middle moment more because of it. These past ten years have been some of my hardest years, but they have also been some of my most profound, fulfilling years as well and that’s something to be thankful for.

I have three months completely free of any commercial work or school before the fall semester starts at my new four-year school and I intend to share with you guys some of my middle moments and how they’ve shaped me.

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This is my all-time favorite quote because people either forget how things start or they let their feelings from the beginning fade. Endings are important because they make room for change but ultimately, they just leave us searching for something new. All the important parts we love to remember and reminisce about are all the middle moments. The times when you were 100% authentically you. Good, bad and ugly. Real life moments when you can pinpoint where everything changed or stayed the same and you adapted. Moments when you let yourself be happy or sad because you needed to. Middle moments determine where you find your beginnings and how you feel at the end. They matter the most. As human beings, we are going through middle moments all the time and I believe that sharing experiences is an amazing way to gain perspective and find meaning in our own stories.

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