I’ve never had much luck with graduations. My academic scholarship was stripped from me the day before middle-school graduation, after my Catholic school educators found out I would continue my education at public school. During my high school graduation I tripped going up the stairs of the makeshift stage. Then I couldn’t even attend my community college’s graduation ceremony because I had to work.
For a long time I wasn’t even sure I’d see a college graduation. I always aspired to academia but wasn’t sure how realistic it was. My parents never went to college, and many of my Gloucester County friends either dropped out of university, pursued a trade after high school, or are now in their mid-20s starting school after saving enough money.
My first collegiate experience was unsuccessful, to say the least. I had begrudgingly agreed to go to a different Philly school than the one I’d eventually earn my bachelor’s from. After I started, my depression and borderline personality disorder were compounded by acute anxiety. With a proclivity toward liberal arts, I didn’t exactly fit in at a private science institution. I felt not only academically inadequate but socially out of place. Isolation became my crutch as I descended into worse and worse anxiety. Meeting deadlines became impossible. I had trouble even making it to class many days. I dropped out after only three semesters.
The next couple of years would be a trying time filled with mental health struggles and self-doubt, but also with growth and redemption as I moved back home, sought out treatment, found a line of study I was passionate about, started at my local community college and began working full time to pay for it. Things slowly got back on track, and despite still facing the same financial and mental stressors, when I moved back to the city at 23 to pursue a journalism degree at Temple University I felt a renewed sense of promise.
For me and a lot of other first-generation, lower-income college students, going to college at all — much less graduating — is not a given. Even if you have the opportunity to attend school, many of us have to work multiple jobs to afford the cost of living. When you’re a first-generation and “nontraditional” student, meaning you didn’t come straight from high school, it’s even easier to feel like an outlier. The college experience vastly differs from the usual undergraduate one. In fact, one of the only normal college experiences that we “nontraditional” students have is our graduation ceremony. So you can imagine my reaction when word came that Temple’s graduation would be postponed, and it’s not clear it will ever be rescheduled.
“After all the obstacles I’ve had to overcome to get this degree it’s hard to not want to walk across that stage for that piece of paper and a congratulatory handshake.”
My choice to participate in graduation was not just for myself. My parents have supported me through all of my post-teen trials and tribulations. Getting to where I am would not have been possible without their support. I was just as excited for them to see their only child walk, as I was to walk. Sure, they will still be just as proud of me. I am still proud of how far I’ve come. But I can’t help feeling as if my academic journey is incomplete.
After a decade since my high school graduation, I will finally have my bachelor’s degree and leave the bubble of academia to enter a world of uncertainty. It’s a surreal time to graduate. I’m entering unknown territory. The fear of the unknown is something that most can relate to right now. Staring down COVID-19 and its ramifications for the country — no one knows what our world or economy will look like in a month or even a year from now. It’s a scary time for everyone, but especially those entering the job market.
It feels self-indulgent to be mourning the loss of graduation regalia and the typical pomp and circumstance when the country is facing a pandemic of historic proportions. I know plenty of people who dread the classic drawn-out graduation ceremonies entirely. I myself have never been one to follow tradition or hold much stock in ceremonial activities, but after all the obstacles I’ve had to overcome to get this degree, it’s hard to not want to walk across that stage for that piece of paper and a congratulatory handshake.
Graduation for me marks the end of a decade, possibly my most formative one yet. It doesn’t feel right to not commemorate the journey, the growth, and the struggles that have marked it.
Jennifer Costo is a writer and photographer based in West Philly. She will graduate with a degree in journalism from the Lew Klein College of Media and Communication this spring.