It took me seven years to graduate from college, and that’s totally okay

A few weeks ago, in the basketball stadium at the University of Utah, I heard my name called over the speakers, walked across a stage, and collected my diploma.

Well, I collected empty diploma holders, which represented my degrees in Journalism and Gender Studies — degrees I’ve been working on, ever-so-slowly, since 2010. Looking down at those empty leather-bound cases, there was only one main thought running through my mind: About damn time. 

The University of Utah actually ranks quite high (we’re number two) for its number of non-traditional students: Students pursuing degrees on a part-time schedule, returning to school after a long time away, or commuting to campus from their homes in the suburbs.

These are students who, like me, did not have a “normal” college experience of dorm rooms, meal cards, and packed academic schedules.

In my case, I fell in love with a foreigner and got married young. While living in Germany for nearly two years and waiting for Green Card processing, I took two or three online classes a semester from my hometown’s community college. Then, upon resettling in America and moving to Utah, my desire to qualify for more affordable in-state tuition led me to work full-time for a year, not taking any classes at all.

By the time I was ready to apply to a Utah university, my husband and I were saving money and planning our lives together — so in one form or another, I always worked full-time or nearly full-time, squeezing in night or early-morning classes as I went along.

Looking back now, I’m proud of myself for sticking to an educational path that fit my lifestyle, even though it was non-traditional (and exhausting at times). However, when I was in college, I often felt discouraged, upset, and jealous of people I knew who finished their degrees faster than I did.

I cannot even count the number of times I told myself I should just give up. I’m already working anyway, I would think. Why keep doing all of this work for a piece of paper?  

It’s difficult to feel like you’re making progress toward a degree when you can only take one or two classes at a time. It feels like you’re chipping away at a mountain, and all you have is a toothpick. I won’t lie to you, there were many, many times it felt insurmountable.

But two classes becomes four, which becomes eight, which eventually becomes a degree. If that’s your goal, who cares how long it takes?

Everyone’s timeline is different. Some people finish their degrees in three or four years, then start looking for their first entry-level job. Others, like myself, have years of work experience before they even graduate. In the end, our timelines basically even out. None of us are significantly “ahead” or better off than others.

Here’s why taking the slow route to graduation ended up being the right choice for me:

1I graduated (mostly) debt-free

Because I picked a relatively-affordable state school and waited until I qualified for in-state tuition, I was fortunate enough to be able to afford enough credits for a few classes every semester, most of which I could pay for out-of-pocket while working full-time. As such, I graduated with barely any debt and a solid plan to pay off the little I do owe.

2Work experience matters

When you’re in your mid-20s (or 30s! or 40s! Or any age that isn’t 19!) and still in college, it’s easy to feel like you’re lagging way behind. But graduating with full-time work experience already under your belt is valuable, and will actually put you ahead in many job application scenarios. It took a lot of pep-talks for me to come to the understanding that I wasn’t nearly as behind as I felt I was — but it’s true.

3Money is cool

Yes, money isn’t everything, and you can’t buy happiness. But it does help. The financial stability I felt from my full-time income was a major benefit of my part-time school schedule, even though sitting down to do homework after a full work day can be the absolute worst sometimes.

4More friends!

While I AM sad I missed out on a “traditional” college experience, I still had plenty of fun over the last seven years. Having work and school social circles has brought amazing people into my life.

Listen, friend. Fewer people than ever are actually finishing their degrees “on time” — so if you’re feeling stressed about how long your degree is taking, this is for you. Take a deep breath.

Everybody’s situation is different . There is no “right” way to go about this big, confusing thing called life. You have to do what works for you and your unique circumstances, and be kind to yourself in the process.

You’re working toward a big and beautiful goal, and that’s enough.

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