By Elizabeth Landau, CNN
Editor's note: Elizabeth Landau is a health and science writer and producer for CNN.com. She is a 2006 graduate of Princeton University. Here she offers a personal take on the terror that can accompany such a happy milestone.
(CNN) - On paper, I was ready to graduate. In my head, though, I never wanted that moment to arrive.
Sure, I was academically qualified. I had already been through the festivities that Princeton lavishes upon its graduating seniors in the week prior to The Day: The Reunions parade, a hilarious talk by David Sedaris, an outdoor sing-along, an inspirational speech by Bill Clinton, the bestowing of honors and awards, and a prom-like gala where soon-to-be-graduates and parents danced awkwardly. Princeton really likes to celebrate things.
The final ceremonial act would, superficially, be the easiest and least meaningful: Commencement – put on the cap and gown, sit through a few speeches, receive my diploma.
But in those last hours as a student, the perky, optimistic, ready-for-anything face I’d worn for four years melted away. I completely fell apart.
“Boludita, don’t cry,” my college sweetheart told me that morning, using a Spanish word meaning something like “little stupid one” that we had adapted into an affectionate nickname.
There was much to look forward to – an overseas trip! Graduate school! This all felt remote and less appealing because of graduation.
“I can’t help it,” I told him. “I don’t want to leave. I don’t want this year to be over. Nothing will ever be this good again.”
We bid farewell so he could catch a flight and I could get to graduation procession.When I was standing alone on the sidewalk with tears streaming down my cheeks, a single thought would not go away: “I will never be happy again.”
I wish that I had known Marina Keegan, the Yale graduate whose beautiful essay about graduating has been widely cherished since her untimely death in a car accident at age 22 last year. Marina’s incredible insight and wisdom led her to write, “The notion that it's too late to do anything is comical. It's hilarious. We're graduating college. We're so young. We can't, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it's all we have.”
It’s clear from Marina’s essay that she loved her time at Yale. I still get teary-eyed reading her words because it sounds as though she is directly addressing 22-year-old me - I who believed on graduation day that nothing was possible anymore.
College had delivered to me everything that I could have wanted. It had surrounded me with gifted individuals who always had something interesting to say. It had allowed me to be whoever I wanted to be, and so many things at once: A novelist, a journalist, an anthropologist, a magazine editor, a scholar, a marching band percussionist.
And now, upon receiving a diploma, that person would be thrown into a world of total uncertainty. I thought I would never truly be any of those things again. Even though I was going to graduate school for journalism, job prospects in the field were already looking dim. I didn’t have any faith at all that I could find as fulfilling a life as I’d had in college.
Photos: Celebrating the class of 2013
I was cheered somewhat by my friends, by seeing my name on the list of academic honors, and by the charming salutatorian tradition, wherein the lucky student reads a speech in Latin – as if we all understand what’s said - with annotations printed for graduates such as “laugh” and “applause.”
But as the university president spoke, I started to cry again, even though it didn’t seem like anyone else was particularly moved. Whatever she said, my mind translated it into, “You will never be happy again.”
I picked up my diploma. My parents hugged me and congratulated me. We went to eat our final meal together at Forbes Hall, where I had lived as a freshman.
During lunch, I said very little. My parents discussed how remarkable it was that I was so sad, given how I had once been reluctant to apply to Princeton at all. In fact, I had cried when my mom dropped me at this very dormitory four years earlier, because I was also, at that time, convinced that I would not find a happy path for myself.
“So, let’s get your stuff!” my mom said brightly on that last day.
“I want to stay another night,” I said.
This surprised even me.
“Everyone’s leaving! There won’t be anyone here! They don’t even allow that!”
“No, they do. I have friends who are staying.”
It wasn’t obvious that any of this was true, but I didn’t care. I just couldn’t go home yet.
As my parents drove back to Philadelphia, I went back to my dorm room, mostly packed except for a couple of hangers and my poster of Sevilla, Spain, where college had allowed me to study. I threw myself onto the twin bed and cried, and cried, and cried, until I found the voice that has guided me in troubling times ever since: “You have to keep going.”
I cannot explain where this voice came from, but it repeated itself until I peeled my face away from the pillow. “You have to keep going.”
It made me wash my face in the communal bathroom, remove my black gown and go outside.
Morehouse valedictorian's long journey
Near the same courtyard where I’d just received my graduation rites, I ran into friends who invited me to watch “Young Frankenstein.” I don’t remember much of this movie, but I remember that it gradually drew me out of my stupor and into the moment. I laughed. The guys laughed. Dr. Frankenstein – I mean “Fronkensteen” – made the act of graduating seem less significant.
There’s been a lot of laughter and joy since then.
When I shared this essay with my friend Matt who started college one year after me, he said that I once told him, “College is crazy; take naps when you can.”
He also reminded me that it’s not the place, nor the institution itself, that makes us who we are: “The people we become in college are people we get to take with us, if we so choose. It’s not college that makes us these things, it’s college that allows - even forces - us to explore these latent parts of ourselves.”
That is so true. Seven years after graduation, I am still a writer in many forms and, lo and behold, I get paid to write about my passions of health and science, with some anthropology thrown in. I’ve left my cymbals behind in New Jersey, but I play keyboard in two bands and even write my own songs. And I’ve taken on new identities: amateur improv comedian, runner, Russian enthusiast. There are amazing people I’ve met who didn’t go to school with me, whom I’m closer to now than most of my college classmates.
Each day I am grateful for all of the wonderful aspects of post-college life, which somehow seemed so impossible on graduation day. College may have prepared me in some ways, but I’m ready to say: I’m glad I graduated.
I know that some people skip their graduation ceremonies, but I’m glad that I didn’t. It was painful, but it was also a big STOP sign in a life that has otherwise been going by very fast. Allowing myself to feel and express that pain – however irrational or superficial you may think it was – made me realize this eternal truth:
We have to keep going.
This is the second University-social–centric piece that I've seen this author post on CNN. Her opinion is certainly as valid as anyone's.....but her topic and minimal scope of experience make for a bland, "so what?" effect when trying to read it. Have some kid write an article on his first meaningful dungeons and dragon's tournament. It'll have about the same ratio of interested people. Many of these comments imply that the author is spoiled or self-absorbed......I think it's just that the author isn't very good at writing so that the reader acknowledges the shared experiences, and gets drawn in. She cries "ME!" rather than "WE". I'd say stick to basic journalism and reporting, and come back to opinions and personal revelations in a few years.
It's funny how most of the people making comments seem to have failed the read the part that she graduated in '06, or the end where she talks about dealing with her emotions and pushing herself forward. There are many college graduates who feel the same way, and it can be good for them to hear from someone else who went through that.
One also only has to look at the amount of alumni that return to Princeton every year for Reunions to see how big of an impact it has on its students.
Yes..graduation is a bittersweet ending to a great four year journey but its no reason to really be upset and sad. I'm a college student and I can understand how college is a buffer to life and reality. I look forward to graduating and heading to a new chapter in life even if there is much uncertainty. That's Life! Keep pushing.
Why the hell is this article on CNN.com??? I'm glad I didn't waste any more of my time reading this piece of 'boo hoo woe is me' bullsh!t. Time to wake-up and go out into the real world idiot. The world doesn't owe you anything, so don't look for sympathy from anyone, especially from going to one of the best schools in the country. GROW UP! I graduated in 2004 and yeah, it sucked having to leave friends behind, but I DEALT with it and looked towards the future. OF COURSE, you have to keep going. We ALL keep going, regardless of whether or not we're graduating from college or grad school. Hopefully you get out there and volunteer at a soup kitchen to see the real world. Another one from the "ME-generation" that doesn't quite get the concepts of the real world. What a clueless, self-centered idiot
Annoyedreader.... considering your bent perspective, maybe you should look into the source of your obvious defenseive reaction to someone who is likely your peer (graduating within a few short years of yourself). The author sounds balanced with her choices in post-graduation life and has moved on. Perhaps she should have left off that she graduated from Princeton and maybe several of the commentors would not have been so enviously offended.
I actually think one of the hardest thing about school is that when we are finished and have accomplished what we set out to do, we are forced to move on. We have to find a new place to live and also have to leave friends behind. In some ways, this makes the "reward" of finishing feel strange. Often when we succeed at a job or accomplish or finish something, we don't have to leave our friends and way of life behind. This doesn't seem to usually be the case with education. When the term is up, it is time to move on and find a new place to fit in. I struggle with this myself a lot. I'm amazed at how a lot of people are willing to travel large distances to go to school or graduate school while leaving behind the comfortable life they knew.
The temporary denial of reality and the desire to preserve a time+place that was the best times of your life is completely human and completely understandable.
Unfortunately, it's also completely futile. I certainly don't blame the author for wanting it to last a little bit longer, but the hand of time does not slow for anyone. We all wish it would... that's why songs like "Time Stand Still" can be very meaningful to a lot of people... but at some point you have to deal with the end of one chapter of your life, and the beginning of another chapter of your life. Make the best of it.
No sympathy here. Try NOT going to college and living the life most people do- 4 jobs- still can't pay the rent- THEN you cry me a river. College life is great and no one wants to leave it- but this is the real word chicky and most people have to go straight to working 60 hours jobs after school. Most people don't get the chance to hang out and party for 4 years- have mommy and daddy pay for grad school and then a nice trip overseas....honey- you are SPOILED.
Try living the life of a NORMAL PERSON- and then talk to me.
thank you for giving her the reality check
What's "excellent" about it? The writer is sobbing away because she is homesick at the age of 22, and doesn't want to grow up. "You have to keep going?" "I'll never be happy again?" This is a self-absorbed essay that purports to put large meanings on little events. Try on some reality. Indulging in breakdowns over being kicked out of the ivory tower is the opposite of impressive.
Talk about hitting the nail on the head. I remember college graduation being very bittersweet – from excitement for what the future held to sadness about leaving the best four years of my life. Now that I'm about ten years past that day, I have a good, profitable business that I own, live in one of the best parts of the country, drive a nice car, and all the stuff I had hoped for on graduation day, but I still look back at college as being the best years of my life.
Poor little rich girl.
I knew as I read this excellent essay that the responses would be the usual shallow, critical shots from the anonymous monsters out there who can't wait to step on anything sensitive or thoughtful. This intelligent lady, who was gifted and lucky enough to graduate Princeton, is also afflicted with feelings, and I thank her for sharing them with us.
What's funny is that the vast majority of the negative posters couldn't even get in to Princeton, let alone graduate. Odds are a good portion of them didn't even graduate high school.
"Afflicted" with feelings is definitely the word. As for you, EMck, you don't recognize emotional and intellectual intelligence when it hits you in the face. You are obviously not a graduate of a top-tier–or low-tier– school.
Graduate school?? REALLY? That's the real world? You're still in La LA Land, sweetie.
I thought she was crying since she knew she would have to start paying her college bill. Instead she is adding to it with the masters.
If this girl considers a speech by Bill Clinton as "inspirational" – she remains basically uneducated no matter what piece of paper she holds.
You were crying because you know what your job prospects are under Obama.
I know right. Let's be honest here.
I had a brief period of anxiety when I realized that graduation meant that I was going from being a big fish in a little pond to being a guppy in the ocean. It passes though, and you move on. It's called growth.
oh boo-hoo – what a baby.
I graduated in 1975 and couldn't get out of there fast enough – never looked back!
Wow – overseas travel and then graduate school. The real world, huh?
Yeah, I would cry over that too.... l
My thoughts exactly. I can see someone reacting like that at a high school graduation. At least there you are truely saying goodbye to a way of life and many people you have known since the first grade. The real icing on the cake is she is actually not leaving and going for her masters plus has a nice summer vacation lined up. Grow up.
I thought it was a good article talking about her own experience. And as always, someone on the internet has to try and and bring someone down.
The undertone in this article is a bit conceited.
I left my college campus in 1977 and have never been back.
Geez.... like 100s of 1000s of others you are soooo special........
The author was simply and honestly sharing fears and doubts that are quite universal; in other words, the polar opposite of "special". Sounds to me as though got the issue, not Ms. Landau.
That's OK, though. I'm quite certain that your thoughts and life experiences are infinitely more interesting and informative than hers. So by all means, do enlighten us further with your own insightful wisdom.
Wow. Mean, much?
WOW- a testimonial for all of us who have been there/done that and had to "keep going"- I will keep this article in my briefcase.
Wow, Ms. Landau. Self-absorbed much?
CNN’s Schools of Thought blog is a place for parents, educators and students to learn about and discuss what's happening in education. We're curious about what's happening before kindergarten, through college and beyond. Have a story to tell? Contact us at email@example.com