I rush frantically into the field house. The parking lot looked pretty full when I rolled into the first empty spot I could find. My hair is still damp from my shower this morning and I had haphazardly applied lipstick in the car using my rearview mirror. Am I going to be late to my own college graduation? This kind of scenario would be a mediocre punchline in the sitcom called my life. After a minor (but major at the time) tiff with my parents earlier this morning about them not caring enough about this day, I really did not need any more drama. As I walk over to my seat, I breathe a quiet sigh of relief. There are other empty spots scattered across the room, which means I’m on time. I blurt out a “Hey, what’s up?” to the guy sitting next to me. I think his name is Jim (or maybe John? Joe?), and he is the same major as me, International Studies. We make some casual small talk. For such a small school you would think we would know each other by senior year, but I did not officially meet him until graduation rehearsal. The other guy that is supposed to be sitting to my other side has not arrived yet. I think we had a class together – one he was often late for as well. Old habits die hard, I guess.
As I settle down in my seat, I take some time to observe my surroundings. The field house has been transformed. Billowing blue velvet curtains surround the stage and give the space a regal air. This is no longer a place that students flock to for their daily (er, weekly…sometimes monthly) workout. The space now represents my freedom. Everything feels surreal. I think back to high school graduation. That day, like today, was also a long time coming. Suffice it to say, high school was not the most enjoyable experience for me. I was basically itching to get out since freshman year. This was not the case with college, and unlike high school, my eagerness to get my diploma is tempered with hesitance. In high school, I was ready to move on to a bigger, better thing – college. Now, at my college graduation, I’m not as eager to move on to the next stage – the rest of my life.
Today feels a bit more daunting, a bit more bittersweet than my graduation four years ago. Today is the day of my breakup with my university. My time here has truly felt like a dramatic love affair. I have fallen in and out of love with evangelical Christianity during my time here. The love is already gone, but somehow graduation solidifies it. I have been slowly removing myself from my university community for the last couple of years, both intentionally and unintentionally. Doing two semesters off-campus (one abroad, one in another state) alienated me from many people, and as icing on the cake, I chose to commute from my parents’ house in Dayton for my final semester. On one hand, being a stranger on campus felt rather liberating. It didn’t sit right with me to conform to a community, theology, and lifestyle that I could no longer advocate. The school, which was originally moving towards being a Christian university that engaged culture in a meaningful way and fostered critical thinking had regressed during my four years there. The university as it stands today is no longer the one I knew and loved, the one I chose against the advice of many friends and family. Many faculty and staff had been replaced, and a new administration had stepped in and quickly transformed the university into something that I just could not support. But sometimes I would still get pangs of nostalgia for the community of like-minded people in which I was fully immersed. Conservative Christianity, if anything, is tight-knit. Much like an abusive relationship, toxic religion can be extremely difficult to leave.
Just as the ceremony is about to begin, the guy to my right shows up, looking a bit flustered. His bros nearby welcome him with some cheers and name-calling. The President takes the stage and goes through all the necessary niceties. My eyes wander to the sides of the stage, as I try to spot professors I have had. It’s kind of fun seeing all of them in a colorful array of regalia. I lock gazes with my adviser and I quickly look away. He was the one who directed my senior research for my last semester. He has that kind of personality that demands respect, and is known by many to teach incredibly tough, but worthwhile courses. However, I received a grade that I was less than satisfied with on the culmination of my university career, a massive research paper on a topic of our choosing. I was left wondering if his criticism had something to do with his conservative biases. However, I was tired of being token liberal in all my classes and my own insecurities about my competence had dissuaded me from contesting my grade in any way. What is left is a pile of unresolved feelings and anxiety because I know I will have to use this professor as a reference in the near future. Awkward. As the professor on stage runs through the names and the students begin filing on stage, I begin to get the jitters as I wait my turn. I hold in my excitement as I hear the names of people I know being called up to shake hands with the President and receive their diploma. I am bursting with pride for everyone who made it to this stage today. Even outside of my own internal turmoil, completing a four year degree is no easy feat for many.
And then, suddenly, it is my time. My row had already made its way to the side of the stage. I quickly rush on stage, flash a smile towards the audience as I shake the President’s hand, (barely) remember to grab my diploma and walk off stage. Just as I am ready to walk back to my seat, a photographer’s flash hits me and I grimace and blink. Hope you like that for a graduation photo, mom.
Everything afterwards feels like a blur. I find my closest friends (remaining friends is a better term) and we give each other bear hugs. We take a couple group photos as many parents and uncles and aunts beam at us. We hold back tears as we delicately avoid the subject of possibly not seeing each other for a very, very long time. In this day and age, it is not all that hard to keep up with the friends that you care about. However, that doesn’t seem to make our likely diverging life paths any easier on this day. Who knows, I may see some of these people in a few weeks, maybe a year. But it is the uncertainty of it all that is terrifying, and so is the thought of no longer having a confidante that I could easily meet in less than ten minutes on campus. I am used to goodbyes, but today feels different. Maybe it is the finality of the hundreds of people in our class moving to this new stage of life called adulthood, where most of us will be chained to the corporate world for forty plus years. Maybe it’s because as a child, I never imagined my life past college. Maybe it’s because I am about to turn 22 this summer, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. Whatever it is, I feel a bit empty.
Finally, my parents find me. We snap a few more pictures and greet a few other friends and family. As everything begins to wind down and we’re ready to leave, my mom asks me if I want to go out to lunch. I’m about to respond affirmatively but something inside me holds me back.
“You know what? I think I want to go home.”
My mom gives me an understanding nod, and we head home.
*Originally written on June 3rd, 2016.