Sunday, August 28, 2016

Perfect Timing: Graduating Late and the Myth of Perfection

Last Day of Classes, Spring Quarter, Freshman Year.

This past Spring, I got a lot of questions from friends, about the lack of graduation news on my Facebook: how they hadn't seen any pictures of me at Commencement, or having a big blow-out grad party like my parents had always threatened, or even any over-effusive posts from distant relatives. They joked that because I hadn't taken part in those hallmarks of what it means to graduate college, I hadn't really graduated at all. I joked back plenty, but really did my best to cover up what I saw as the ugly truth: they were right.

I didn't really graduate this past Spring Quarter. Due to a series of failed Math/Science classes and three damning unfulfilled credits, I really just graduated, a few days ago, after my final grades for one last ESRM class came in.

Yes, I realize things could have been a lot worse... I could be graduating a year late rather than a Quarter, or have flunked out of UW entirely. But you have to understand: graduating late was never something I was afraid of; it was never something I imagined happening to me. As a result, adjusting to the fact that I didn't graduate on time was really difficult. To be perfectly honest, I've written this post twice already just trying to tell you about it.

The first draft blamed my incomplete college credit status on my identification as a "Book Person," criticizing the idea that culturally, we place a huge division between what it means to be good at Arts versus good at Sciences. I wrote it when I had first got the news, and it carries a lot of the self-directed anger and frustration that I was still feeling back in June.

The second was more representative of what was present in my journals, replacing those negative feelings, with a move into a super-manic mode, determining that this personal failure was really an opportunity for me to get ahead - write a book, lose weight, change my life! - instead of feeling like I'd been left behind

Each illustrated various facets of a problem I've encountered multiple times in my life: the idea of perfectionism. 

You know that feeling you get, when you're running down a flight of stairs too fast, and you miss the last step... that swooping terror that grips your heart and stomach as you plummet a foot farther down? It's trying to prevent that feeling which always stopped me from raising my hand in class, in order to guard against even one wrong answer. It's what made me feel like I should have been pursuing a more difficult sphere of study, so that every time I was asked who I was, my answer was "just an English major." Now, after graduation, I had friends who weren't just finishing up their scholarly lives, but embarking on entirely new journeys: acceptances to grad school, announcements of new positions with major companies and organizations, and marriage proposals had been flooding my social media feeds all Spring. There was a whole world open to them, a new door of opportunity, and I had tripped trying to cross the threshold. That swooping feeling felt permanent.

Last Day of Classes, Spring Quarter, Senior Year.

While I grappled with feelings of rapidly plummeting self-worth and the subsequent rebound of all-too-high self-expectation, my summer passed, primarily without incident. When I wasn't surreptitiously doing homework in the odd hours of the afternoon, while my roommate was at work, I searched for what I thought of as a "grownup" job - unsuccessfully - and an apartment in Seattle - unsuccessfully, as well. However, something interesting happened.

I began spending more time around the city (easier for me, due to the continued existence of my UW-provided ORCA pass), making my first foray into areas of Capitol Hill and Ballard I'd never visited before. I made plenty of time for initiating plans with my Greek family, and spent days with my biological one, too, as I helped support my sister through her SeaFair experience. I explored the ideas of freelance writing and wrote up more outlines for short stories, while taking time to install elements like AdSense on my blog. Happy hour at Matador made me feel like an adult; touring the neighborhoods and taking public transportation alone made me feel independent; researching alternative job opportunities made me feel like my future could be profitable; and spending time with friends and family reminded me that I was not alone.

Long story short, I lived. I got through it. If I had spent the summer agonizing over the idea of failure, it's something I never would have really gotten to do.  It is only when I really let go of the idea of doing something perfect, that I was able to do something great: I completely aced that 5-credit ESRM class, and therefore, got a 4.0 in the very last class I took in college!

Most parents buy their recent grads a laptop.
Mine did that... and a little something extra!
I had seen my inability to graduate on time as something shameful. I even made my parents promise not to tell anyone, even my two youngest siblings, and I'm pretty sure most of my Greek family still doesn't know. While I thought I was saving my pride, what I was really doing was sacrificing my support system: if we take the responses of the people who did know as any indicator, had I told more of my friends how I had been suffering, I would have had that many more people waiting at the finish line for me, cheering me on as I (quietly) passed it.

I didn't graduate on time, but I graduated. I'm not living where I want to be, but I have a place to live. I don't have a job lined up, but I've got time to find one. The problem with the myth of perfection, is that you're so focused on the places where you're not "good enough," that you miss out on all the good that you already have. I had been staring down this idea of failing, of losing everything I felt like I finally had a grasp on, and that idea of not taking the perfect next step was preventing me from understanding how much I still had gained through the experience.

So, I'm proud to say, I graduated the University of Washington with a Bachelor of Arts in English Language & Literature! I have no job, I'm moving back home, and I've now got a ton of student debt to grapple with.

But beyond all that, I know this: I am a very, very lucky girl, and I'll take "lucky" and "hopeful" over "perfect" any day. 

Congratulations to everyone who graduated with me in the Class of 2016! What areas of your life do you deal with perfectionism? Let me know, in the comments below!


  1. This is actually super inspiring and encouraging and I'm really glad you shared this!! I've always been a bit slow to do things. Like my little sister is already planning to head off to uni, but I'm still working from home. But that's okay, right?! We're all different and our journeys are different and, like you said, perfectionism is a myth. And who's to SAY we have to do all the things on time anyway? I'm really glad things are working out for you and just CONGRATS ON GRADUATING!! That is awesome and not everyone can do it, so you are fabulous. :D *sprinkles confetti in your hair*

  2. Perfection is highly overrated in my book. Congrats on graduating!! It doesn't matter if it was "on time"or not. You did it!!

  3. There are lots of reasons why many college students take much longer time to finish their degrees, such as transferring from one school to another, recovering from a major injury, or working part-time. In the end, upon their graduation, what matters to them are how will they apply in real life what they have learned in all those years of studying (technical competency), how they mature, and their willingness to face future challenges with dignity.

    For me, it took six years to finish a four-year Bachelor of Science in Information Technology degree, but in a different way. In 2007, I took a two-year diploma course in Computer Studies (and attended the graduation ceremonies) and spent one "gap" year for on-the-job-training and to engage in my hobbies. In 2010, I transferred to a major university and took three years instead of four to finish my IT degree (due to the subjects that are credited from the other school). I graduated cum laude, got my first job offer within two months, and some of my high school batchmates still treat me as an equal and a friend.

    Savannah, I am very happy for you because you managed to do your best and finish your English Language and Literature degree. I am looking forward to a future best-selling and critically-acclaimed novel that you will write!