I recently watched my first college graduation. I felt sad and excited. I knew some of how much it takes to get a college degree. I knew some of how hard this journey had been for her, the ups and downs, the starts and stops of college life, financial pressure, adulthood coming at you too fast, requiring you to take a break in your education for a season. And when a season turns unexpectedly into years, you wonder if you will ever accomplish anything, let alone your dreams.
I watched her, them. All several hundred of them walk in their dark blue cap and gown. Saw families and friends and a whole lot of excited people celebrating.
There were flowers. I overheard people discussing celebratory meals and graduation parties. Blue gown after blue gown that walked up the stairs, across the stage, and down the stairs. College graduates.
I did everything right. I went to college 12 hours away from where I grew up to get out of my comfort zone. I worked hard and had most of my undergraduate education paid for. I received outside scholarships, high school scholarships, federal and college scholarships. I worked in college. I spent my weekends traveling in ministry. I worked summers, I interned, I graduated with a 3.8 GPA. I was sick. I was constantly under pressure to figure out how I would provide for myself. Where would I stay for winter or summer break during those college years? Would I be alone during the holidays? Did I want to be alone? Who’s family photo would I take on Christmas day (because they always ask the “guest”, who’s not in the family, to take the family photo. Please stop that.).
I never got to walk in a cap and gown. Never received that graduation picture or party. I did graduate from college, twice actually. Almost three times now. But I never got to celebrate it. Never had anyone cheer me on.
Recently a relative commented that they had no idea I even graduated, let alone with nearly two master’s. I’m not sure anyone even knew it happened. I was a wallflower. I walked a quiet path.
Looking back it seems like one of the more challenging obstacles I faced wasn’t completing a degree. It wasn’t 20 page papers written during the weeks of hospital stays, blood transfusions, IV treatments. It wasn’t navigating group projects from the confines of my dorm room during flu season when everyone else ran around campus like nothing.
The most challenging obstacle wasn’t my health, even though I was scheduled for major surgery the day after what would have been my 2nd college graduation and health being the reason I had to leave my undergrad studies early and finish from home. The challenge that gripped me, that I never knew I was facing, was realizing that I was worth celebrating. I wasn’t sure if anyone would show up if I walked in the ceremony. And it cost $100. $100 is a lot to pay when you $60,000 in medical debt, jobless, homeless, and just hoping for the generosity of a friend’s spare room to get you through until you can afford your own place again, at 21 years old.
As I sat in this room full of hundreds of soon to be graduates in blue caps and gowns, a part of me felt privileged to celebrate a piece of their history. Part of me wished I had tried harder to get that $100, to know what it felt like to be celebrated like that. Even though there were twinges of grief, it was such a privilege to be a part of this, to celebrate.
Friend to me, “I have been thinking about how I got here. And I realize that a lot of people helped me get to this place through support. I want to celebrate them too. I want to celebrate you.” And she handed me a note. A thank you note. And we celebrated. Together.