Last week, I officially received confirmation that my degree is complete. I get to tack on a couple letters after my name, and for the first time since kindergarten, I am not a student. It feels odd to know that I am no longer responsible to produce research papers on a regular basis, or read academic journal articles for class discussions. I realized a while ago that I don't really know how not to be a student. But it also feels so good. Transitioning into a new chapter of life is scary and brings a whole host of unknowns, but it also means that I now have a world of opportunity ahead of me.
I've always been a deep thinker, a year-in-review kind of person. And now that I've finished this fairly major piece of my life, I have no end of things to reflect on. Here's what I've been reflecting on lately.
As soon as I graduated high school, people began giving me all kinds of unsolicited advice about my university career. Naturally, it ranged in quality and relevance to my life, but it was always interesting to hear the kind of things that people felt I needed to know. Most of the time, it told me a lot more about who they were than about what my time as a student was going to look like.
But I think the best piece of advice I received (and also probably the most offensive) was this: Lower your standards. As someone who has struggled long and hard with perfectionism and tying my identity to academic success, I nearly lost it when a well-meaning acquaintance decided to bestow this pearl of wisdom upon me. After all, how dare anyone suggest that I shouldn’t do my absolute best at everything that I decide to do? Did they not know me at all?
For a while, I didn't think about it. I didn't believe that I should have to ever reduce the ridiculously high bar which I'd set for myself. I was book smart enough to accomplish most things with a minimal amount of effort in high school, and I felt that with just a bit of studying I'd be able to do much the same thing in university. But the thing about university is that being naturally gifted in academics doesn't mean anything if you aren't willing to spend hours working behind the scenes. If you don't put in the effort, nobody comes and chases after you to see if you're okay. They just assign you a letter grade and move on. I had to learn how to study, how to write a research paper using legitimate sources that didn't come straight from a Google search.
That said, my first year of university did end up being an academic success. I had a virtually flawless GPA and made the transition into a new method of learning with much less angst than the average student. And for that, I am extremely thankful. I learned that the course of study I had planned to pursue was not, in fact, what I wanted to do with my life. I found that history was a much better fit for me, and chose to pursue that as my major. And for the first time in my life, I found friends who believed the same things that I did. Those friends welcomed me into the type of community I had longed for growing up, and it was the most beautiful blessing I could have imagined.
But the thing that I learned most was that it was all too easy to hide in my room and only focus on homework. It was all too easy to sacrifice meaningful relationships in the pursuit of good grades. And I learned very early on that it was not okay with me, that I needed community to support me, that through this same community I could also be a support to others. I saw the tension that existed between being a perfect student and being a good friend, and decided that I was not willing to sacrifice relationships on the alter of academic success. I decided that if I graduated university with a 4.33 GPA but had not engaged with the people around me, I would have failed in my time as a student. This thought scared the crap out of my little perfectionist self, but something in me held onto it.
I'm not going to lie to you and say that the first time I saw that my grades had dropped slightly, I was fine. Because I wasn't fine at all. Through my teen years, I saw my grades as a direct reflection of my self-worth, and it shook me to the core to see that I had a blemish on my record. (For the record, this was still a very good grade by just about anyone else's standards, and I really just needed to get over myself. I will admit that now.) But it took me a while to become okay with it and find a balance of doing good work while not allowing it to become more important than the people around me.
I had to lower my standards. I had to come to a place where I no longer felt personally attacked when a professor didn't like my writing style, or I didn't have enough time to complete an assignment as well as I had hoped. Where I saw this initially as an insult, someone telling me to get over myself, I now firmly believe that it was the best advice I have ever been given. I did need to get over myself, just not in the way that this advice was originally given. I didn't need to become satisfied with mediocrity - I needed to find a healthier self-image. Because I didn't view myself as one of the 'pretty' or 'athletic' girls in high school, I clung to my label as a 'smart' one. And when the grades I had always used to define myself weren't as extraordinary as I had hoped, it set off a minor identity crisis. I've had to become a lot more okay with myself since then, and though it hasn't been an easy process, I think I've grown a lot because of it.
And now, I will take my very solid GPA and run. I will hold my head up because I know that I invested in people. I made time for others. I let myself have fun in the midst of being incredibly busy. It wasn't always perfect, but I did it. I will walk across that stage this week knowing that I am a very different person than I was when I entered university. Where I once assessed myself as a walking letter grade, I now assess myself by very different standards: Friend. Leader. Servant. Follower of Jesus. And that is a far better, far healthier measuring stick.
To the people who walked through any part of the last four years alongside me, thank you. Thank you for putting up with me, for encouraging me, for dragging me out of my comfort zone, for showing me the incredible gift of life in community. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.