The memory is sharp. I came to the decision sitting on my Ikea Sultan “FINNVIK” mattress in Vancouver, Canada, after three-and-a-half semesters of emotional and moral decline. Maybe the Drake poster above my bed had something to do with it. I was taking Geology and Poli Sci and Spanish and learning about fjords and socialist governments and the subjunctive tense and none of it made me happy.
The city I was in felt too big and foreign and unfriendly. I wasn’t at ease and I wasn’t excelling at anything I was doing (as an Aries, productivity is a huge pillar of my personality). The University of British Columbia was a brilliant brochure and an ill-fitting reality. I couldn’t do it anymore; I had made a mistake. I cried. I had cried many times prior to this, but never with a conclusion waiting for me at the other end.
The conclusion was I had to go home. I would finish my semester, pack up and manually eject myself from life in Canada and at UBC. I felt angry, incompetent, ashamed, yearning for time lost. This is what I took the SAT three times for? This is the basket I put all my eggs in? Surely not.
College pops up on your radar in high school, late sophomore year if you’re lucky and paying no mind. The process of preparation becomes redundant by junior year and suddenly all any adult wants to hear is “Where are you thinking of going to school?” As if it’s that easy. Senior year is a scramble of planning your future while still planning the present. But no one knows the future, right? Why should my trajectory in life be determined before I’ve even learned how to parallel park? It shouldn’t be. There is nothing abnormal about not knowing.
From me to you, it’s okay. College is scary and embarrassing, and resigning from the ivory tower can feel like defeat. If transferring or taking time off has made you feel like you’ve made a mistake, know that you haven’t. In the meantime, here are some steps to help you heal.
1. Forgive Yourself
I had to be selfish. I had to let go of the expectations I placed on myself. I was going to reinvent myself! It was going to change my life! But life will do what it wants, and for me it wanted to teach me how to be brave and make against-the-grain choices.
Leaving school is actually a lot easier than starting school, but the biggest challenge was leaving my emotional baggage. The “American Dream” has a very linear formula, but life is not linear. In hindsight, I knew UBC wasn’t for me after the first year. What held me back was fear, anxiety and the embarrassment that there was something I “couldn’t do,” or that I wasn’t good enough to study and live amongst my peers.
I was and am confident in my academic abilities, but college is not just an academic experience. There are lessons in adulthood and problem solving and relationship navigating, and the right environment should be able to provide all of that. I was so sure I had picked the right school, and I had to accept being wrong before all else.
2. Go Slow
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to graduate at twenty-two-years old. There is no cap for going back to school. You don’t need to go to the best school in the state, nor do you need to throw yourself into academia wholeheartedly. I knew I needed time to myself, and took the summer and fall semesters of 2015 to work and rekindle the artistic endeavors that had atrophied over the last two years.
I slept a lot that summer and bought a sketchbook. I wrote unfinished poems and ate out more and started learning about skincare and the prison-industrial complex.
It slowly dawned on me that I needed to be doing what made me happy, and writing made me happy. I didn’t know what I wanted to major in until my third year at nearly twenty-one-years old, and even then I know I can’t attach myself to it fully, because I don’t know how I’ll feel at twenty-two.There’s no such thing as too slow.
Get a job! Seriously, get a job. Preferably not around a school. When I came home I went to work immediately. I found a job that no one I knew worked at and started filling my days. Work felt good. I felt productive again and could see the impact of my work in quantifiable tasks.
I was around new people who didn’t want to talk about dorm drama or what to drink that night or when office hours were, but what I liked to do and who I was. I had older coworkers to model myself after and reassure me that there are infinite ways to ruin and redeem your life.
The money helps too. I could afford retail therapy, although it’s no substitute for psychiatric. Getting that alternative perspective from adults who had been through school, or who were still in school or who never even went was tremendously comforting and validating. I wasn’t alone and I wasn’t a failure. I just had needs unmet.
Saying no is so much harder than saying yes. I am blessed to have parents who “got it.” They saw my suffering a country away and let me come home and stay home until I came back to life. I know not everyone can afford to wipe the slate, and my heart goes out to you. But even in those situations, the same steps apply to carve out some joy; even my darkest days were lined with happy moments.
Even now I’m still transitioning. If you think about it, school is a transition. You shed childhood and slip into responsibility. I remind myself daily: school is not the end. Life goes on after the classroom, you just have to want to get there.