Illustration by Enacio Diaz

3 Lessons I’ve Learned About Graduating Early

Leaving school early is scary, but totally worth it.
April 2, 2019
8 mins read

In nine months, in December 2019, I will receive my college diploma. I will not attend graduation, as I have no interest in walking across a stage. I will have spent seven semesters and god knows how much of my parents’ and my own money to reach that point, and then it will be over. That piece of paper with a signature on it I’ve been working toward receiving since I was 18 will be mine, and I will no longer have any obligation to my college.

If I close my eyes, I can practically feel the very real, post-graduate world breathing down my neck, waiting to engulf me.

Thanks to a combination of AP and Early College Experience credits I got in high school (many much more challenging than most college courses I’ve taken), and some deliberate planning by my advisor and I, I get to forego the bulls–t of paying an extra semester’s tuition to take classes I don’t care about to fulfill a graduation requirement. It’s a bittersweet situation to be in, but at this point, I’m holding myself to it if for no other reason than because I have verbally committed myself to just about everyone I know.

These are some insights I’ve learned about the college experience in the process.

1. The Time Paradox

Making it this far into college, and being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel now, has vastly altered my perception of time. In hindsight, it feels like the better part of a decade ago I was going through the application process, but the three years that have actually passed since then have lived up to the often-cited warning that college flies by.

Somehow, even the evenings spent grinding away at enormous assignments from dusk to dawn seem to slip past me at a surprising rate. Past freshman year, the social lines of age blur almost entirely in college. By that point, everyone is pretty much on the same page about what cohorts they identify with and which aspects of their college community they deem worth taking advantage of. Class standing is just the arbitrary title given to each student to determine when they can register for courses and let all their peers know how much longer they have to try to sleep with them.

At the rate at which college tends to pass by, these titles shift like revolving doors. As a result, often it’s not worth mentioning what year you are. However, when prompted, if you have somehow managed to offset your class standing from that of the class with whom you entered, you have the choice between sounding pretentious and being honest. “First-semester senior” feels absolutely toxic coming out of the mouth — as I have repeatedly confirmed this semester — despite it being the most truthful answer to the inquiry.

2. You’re Set Apart

Despite my immense privilege as a straight, white man, in regard to class standing, I’ve made myself a bit of a minority. Most of the December 2019 class is composed of people the year ahead of me who have fallen behind, and it’s strange experiencing that contrast. While I’m proud of the work I’ve done and the point I’ve reached in my college career, it puts me in the position to make a lot of difficult choices in the coming months.

One of the downsides to graduating early is the slew of questions you must face during the process; the most immediate of which comes to mind was put best by Mick Jones on the Clash’s 1982 hit, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” It’s as simple as a yes or no, but god—n does it perplex me.

Is it worth escaping and getting a six-month head start on everyone else? Is the real world just too dark and scary to justify entering it prematurely? Would watching my friends graduate with each other be pride-inspiring or heartbreaking?

3. You Walk a Fine Line

At this point, the college lifestyle feels like a dangerous substance that could too easily derail a life’s trajectory, unless the user takes control immediately. Never again will so many like-minded, similarly aged peers occupy such a finite faction of geography as a college campus. Before long at all, the echo chamber-esque environment college provides feels almost too safe. This perception can be toxic: Why confront the draining responsibility of adulthood when you could never leave the paradise of school?

I attend college in the literal city on a hill of Ithaca, New York, a place where hate crimes and an opiate epidemic are swept under the rug by beautiful waterfalls and quaint, locally owned storefronts. People enter this place and never leave, the utopian atmosphere being too sweet to resist. Initially, I fell for it just like everyone else in my class who’s yet to drop out or transfer.

While Ithaca itself might be an extreme example, the trap of the college lifestyle is universal. It’s too easy to avoid growing up, and even easier not to. By finishing the traditional responsibilities of education early, you have the opportunity to breathe with your head above water before your peers. While it might not be inherently fun, like a child being made to choke down broccoli, you’ll do yourself a favor by keeping your perspective on the matter in check.

No path after college is the right one. Whatever steps you must take to lead a disciplined life moving forward into adulthood is up to your discretion. If you graduate early, all I suggest is that you make an active effort to not let the inevitably cold feet make all of your decisions for you.

You’ve made it this far, but you’ll second guess yourself no matter what. This isn’t an easy journey to embark on, and any map you have to follow contains all kinds of inaccuracies. Be deliberate, be mindful and please, for the love of God, do not give your college more money, no matter how much they request it.

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