(note: this post is kinda depressing and has a couple swears in it, just so you know!)
It’s 3 AM as I write this, and I don’t actually know if I graduated or not – I very well could have failed one of my classes, and I don’t even know what I would do if that was the case. But I’ve come far enough that I’m lying here on my last night in this brutalist apartment building with the elevators that never work, reflecting on what it took to get to this point.
I’ve had at least one mental breakdown per year here. It always happened the same way: I would start the semester raring to go, but at some point I would start to falter. While I bought into the academia bug in high school (“you need to get good grades to get into a good college!”), I became a lot more cynical after interning at the MBTA for the first time in the summer before I started college. Working for a transit agency was my dream job – finding real-life solutions to real-life problems I was passionate about, and actually being good at it! – and college felt like such a letdown afterwards. Here I was, someone who already knew what I wanted to do for work, expected to complete menial tasks about totally unrelated things. Why couldn’t I just go straight to work? “I have to graduate college before I can get a job,” I would tell myself at the start of each semester, “so I need to get all my schoolwork done” – but cynicism would slowly creep in and make me hate everything I was doing.
Once I missed an assignment, it was all over. “I’m going to skip class, but I’ll use the time to catch up on work!” I would say. But I didn’t get any work done. I would miss more assignments, and it would become “I need to skip class because I can’t show my face in there again because of how much I’ve screwed this up.” I would stop checking my email. Then I would stop talking to my friends and my parents. I would fall into an endless hole of mindlessly scrolling through Twitter and YouTube for days at a time, praying that if I just got my final in, it would make up for everything else I missed and no one would hate me.
Until my senior fall, that strategy more or less worked…well, “worked” in the sense that I would cry my way through terribly-written final papers and scrape mediocre grades in what should have been easy humanities classes. But senior fall was when I had to write a final thesis. I was all set to do a riveting ethnography of Greyhound riders to find out why they use the service, especially with how much worse it got during the pandemic…except it turned out there was a rigid framework we had to follow. When I turned in the sources I had found for the literature review, I was told there were “too many newspaper articles” and “not enough academic sources.” Really?! There weren’t enough academic sources because academics hardly ever write about Greyhound! Isn’t the point of this to fill gaps in existing research?
So, I shut down. I shut wayyyyyy down. It must’ve been a solid three weeks or more. My girlfriend was the only person I talked to. I had vivid thoughts about running to the closest subway station and jumping on the tracks. All the while the school kept trying to reach me; I remember it really came to a head when my thesis professor found this very website, Miles in Transit, and used the contact form to try to get hold of me. I remember the sinking feeling in my stomach when I saw that email come in – I could avoid my school email, but this was my personal email. I deleted it on the spot, without reading it. “I’ll just turn in a completed thesis at the end of the year and it’ll all be fine,” I told myself, knowing that I was lying through my teeth.
Well, the school eventually reached out to my mom. She tried calling me; I couldn’t bring myself to answer. “It can’t be that serious,” I thought. So she had my uncle call me…and when I picked up the phone, I burst into tears, knowing this bubble I had built around myself was popping and that I had fucked up real bad. The thesis professor said I had no hope of passing…and since Urban Studies students can only submit theses in the fall, I had pretty much thrown away the entire year. “What was going through your head when you shut down?” my mom would eventually ask. Honestly, I don’t know. All I can say is that I killed my college career, all because I was annoyed at the professor’s comments on one assignment. How stupid is that?
As much as I would have loved to drop out and just start working, I knew that wasn’t really an option. My school advisor recommended that I take a yearlong leave of absence to make sure I was “in the right headspace” – or something like that. But I knew that being away from academia would make me resent it more…I had to do this in one fell swoop. I was able to salvage passing grades in two classes that semester, and I managed to get through the following semester without shutting down, which felt incredible. Now the plan was to come back for an extra semester, complete a few more classes and the thesis, and graduate in December.
I wish I could say I wrote the best thesis of my life and got through everything perfectly…but I didn’t. I shut down again. I couldn’t handle the process. I would fall into spirals thinking about how it was such an effort to write this paper that I knew I wasn’t putting my best work into, which just made me hate myself. The difference, though, is that I did actually turn in a thesis this time – a really bad thesis that I hope no one besides the professor ever has to see, but a thesis regardless. But still, that’s why I’m so wired tonight – what if I did fail something? The TA of a linguistics class, who I emailed the night before the final asking if I could make up all the homework assignments I missed (eek, that sounds awful when I read it back…), said in his reply that while I would be able to make it up, “the real world is a lot less forgiving than academia, and you can’t shut yourself out from the world when you have a job, a wife, and kids.” That hit hard, man.
It also got me thinking, though…I’ve worked in the “real world” before! I mean, if you don’t consider paid internships to be “real jobs” then more power to you, but I at least felt like I was being held to a similar standard to the other employees – and I never shut down once. Not to make this sound like a resumé, but I do good work when it’s actually…in the real world! I mean, if I had been doing the research for my thesis as a work assignment or even a blog post instead of an insular academic paper, I would have been a lot more passionate about it! (Maybe one day I’ll convert it to blog form…it’s about how SEPTA responded to the early months of COVID-19; I think it’s super interesting.)
So, at the end of the day, I guess it took me four and a half years to learn that I’m not very good at this whole college thing. It’s not because I went to UPenn (I’m certain I would have struggled just as much at any other school) and it’s not because of COVID (which, if we’re being honest, allowed me to go to school from at home in Boston and do an MBTA internship at the same time, which was seriously a happy place for me and fulfilled that desire to do “real work”), but it’s because I’m just absolutely terrible at dealing with my disdain for working on projects that have no meaningful effect on real life. Like, just so bad. Seriously, people, don’t shut down if you can help it, it ruins everything.
While there are so many horror stories I could tell about my time at college, from a computer science class that singlehandedly eliminated my budding interest in coding because it was designed to be as obtuse and difficult as possible, to getting an A- in a transportation class because the professor “didn’t give A’s”, to the disturbingly awful quality of the school’s mental health services…I do have to say, the school did deal with my bullshit. I mean, if they hadn’t reached out to my parents when I was shutting down during my senior fall, I would have kept ignoring everyone and been so much worse off. When I didn’t believe in myself, the school still believed in me. Michael, Elaine, Rebecca – you guys gave me so much when I was giving so little back. This is a big school, so it really means a lot that you took the time to help me get through everything.
Welp, it’s now 5 AM. I know I did really badly on one of my finals, but I don’t think it was bad enough to fail the class. I guess we’ll find out. Same goes for the thesis. I’m not gonna publish this until I’m certain I actually made it through everything, although if I didn’t, I probably deserved it.
UPDATE: I GOT ALL MY GRADES BACK AND PASSED MY CLASSES!!! Now I get to go through the process of figuring out how to “officially” graduate and actually get the piece of paper that said I did it, but I figure I’m okay to celebrate now!
Wow. Thanks for sharing an honest and candid post. I’m glad you were able to persevere. Be proud of that and remember – we’re hard wired to focus on the negatives in life and minimize the positives – so try to keep that in mind and don’t get too bogged down in the bad memories.
I’m sharing this with my daughter who’s a freshman at Stonehill – good stuff for everyone to reflect on and realize Instagram makes college look like fun and happiness, but lots of people struggle – and make it through.
I really appreciate it, Dave! Yeah, everyone at my school had a veneer of being fine, but we were all struggling…at the end of the day I still met some amazing people there, and being able to live in Philly for a couple years was such an awesome opportunity.
That’s not mist on the glasses, I bet. I’m not going to suggest what ifs or say well done when you feel such a way about it, all I can do is share in the celebration of you having done it. And through it all, you’ve produced compelling videos about transit all along the way.
I think it’s definitely worth expanding your editorial talents and seeing if you can pursue some form in addition to keeping on track trying to get a job in transit administration or planning.
And now I know how much that video project means to you.
Thank you so much, Jules! The problem is that I only have fun editing my OWN videos – I dunno if I’d want to edit to someone else’s whims, heh heh – but I guess the solution to that is to just keep making videos! But they really have been a happy place for me, and seeing the growth of the channel and all the nice comments that come in with every video really kept me going through the dark times.
congratulations! you faced a lot of hurdles and figured out how to do what you needed to do. and the most important thing is that you got through – the details of how you did in any individual class doesn’t really matter, at this point. you got through.
look forward to what you end up doing next, whether it’s working with an agency, advocacy, more media things, politics?! who knows! if you wanna stick around in philly, there are a lot of city council openings right now! we’re going to have a new mayor at some point, maybe they will even want to do their job and could use good staff! it would be great to have somebody in the city who rides and cares a lot about septa.
congratulations again, and good luck in everything.
I really appreciate it, thank you! At this point I’m hoping to work for a transit agency, but we’ll see where life takes me…we definitely do need more politicians who care about transit.
Peace be with you, Miles. Even if it seems empty today it’s an accomplishment, and it’s done.
Best of luck as you take the next steps in your career. Lord knows the MBTA could use more good people on a full-time basis!
It may not feel like it all the time, but graduating is a huge accomplishment.as someone who’s been through what you have in college, and now has a wife, kid, and full-time job, they’re what give you strength during the hard times. The ‘real world’ is a lot easier than college in a lot of ways, but also more complex. You’re not always going to get it right, but it’s fine because you’re surrounded by people who have lifetimes of success and failures not cloistered academics. You’re going to be great!
This post really resonated with me as someone who also went to a bad place senior year of college and submitted a shitty thesis. I’m six months out now and post grad life has been treating me so much better. Here’s to escaping academia and doing real work. All the best
Been a big fan of your youtube channel for a while, despite being someone completely new to learning about transit (I even watched some of your livestreams with Jeremy to aid during my bouts of insomnia over the last few months because they were familiar and relaxing). This story of your college experiences heavily resonate with me. Having graduated from a so called “eliite” college but being bogged down by endless nonsense work and projects along the way leading to me losing a lot of passion and interests I had before starting school. The part that is most identical to my experience is your passage about your Computer Science class. The same exact thing happened to me, and it happened to be a per-requesitef for the CS major itself. I ended up floundering in the class and I ended up majoring in Math instead and lost a huge amount of my interest in coding following that bad experience in class. Congrats on making it through finally though, I know you will go on to do great things! I’m sorry you had so many struggles along the way, you are incredibly tough to have made it through all that. Peace, and have a great new year!
I really related to this, and I’m so glad you made it through. It took me 6 and a half years to graduate. I took a year off twice, and I also took an extra semester in the fall, writing a thesis that’s normally given a full year to complete in 3 and a half months. A year out from finishing undergrad, I’m still taking classes (my BA was in Poli Sci, and I’m taking urban planning classes at a different school to prepare for and build an app for a master’s in urban planning). I have a much better relationship with schoolwork now that there’s a more direct connection with the type of work I want to do, and I’m really excited to do work that has impact.
Congratulations. As a professor at the “adjacent” institution, you have a lot to be proud of, and your vlog is amazing. All the best in your future, and hope you continue your online presence
Congratulations and good luck, Miles. As you get older college will fade in significance in your life and you’ll be annoyed why you stressed out about it at all. As you go forward on your next jouney, just find something you enjoy and appreciate every moment. Try many things, I know you want to work for a transit agency but let me tell you as someone who spent time at New York’s MTA, dealing with career bureaucrats on one side and politicians on the other is not as enjoyable or as productive as you might think. I do hope you continue chronicling on youtube your adventures though. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who finds them entertaining.
I’m a college professor who lives in Philly and I’ve been following your entertaining and informative channel for several years. The struggles you described are not uncommon, and so many students don’t graduate for similar reasons. I would not have guessed you suffered from mental health issues whatsoever. It was brave of you to share your struggles. I hope you continue to find professional mental health support/therapy as life is challenging after graduation. I’m so glad you finished UPenn, and I know you’re going to make a huge difference when you are doing a job you love in the real world. Best of luck!
Wow, I have never had any post about college resonate with me more. I do a lot of professional work outside of school at this point, and I feel much the way you do about academia!
I had the first really rough semester last fall, and I’m honestly dreading going back to Connecticut in a week or so. Your post gives me some inspiration though, that I can make it through! Your videos are often with me through the long nights, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.
Wow, that is some hard charging, especially when (as was clear from the outside, if not to all of your profs), you were already running an extraordinary live transit show that gobbled your real life hours like Chex Mix. Well done, and glad the institution realized you were ready to roll.
Congrats and continue changing the world, bearing your new label, “*M*I*T* IMPROVED – Now With Upenn Credentials!”. Can’t wait to read more about your life and work.
This was incredibly well written, and congratulations on a well deserved graduation! I’m certain somebody like WMATA would be proud to have you as part of the team.
Thank you for sharing this, Miles. As you said, social media can make one believe college (or life in general, owning a pet, baking cookies) is 100% bliss. It’s important to remember the duality of most experiences.
I took many college courses as an adult. They are weird. So unlike a real job. They are a series of hurtles one has to scale. Busy work. How much did I retain? Am I using any of that knowledge? I hope so, since it took up so much of my time, nights after my job, my weekends when my children were younger. Those classes were a means to an end: a degree, a license, a pay raise.
All of this is to say, congratulations on getting through it. I hear you!
Congratulations, Miles! And sorry for all the trouble you had to go through. This is the precise reason I could never survive college(yes, I’m 29 years old and merely have a high school diploma). I totally understand the pain of not being understood at school, especially as a person with special needs. Anyways, best of luck on finding your dream job! Hope that wherever life takes you, this blog/channel will never die! All the best.
Oh my god this is painfully relatable. Currently rearing up for my final spring semester for my degree and can relate to the whole “shutting down” concept, to the point where I had to grind out an entire semester’s worth of teaching observation essays during finals week. I just barely finished with less than an hour before the final deadline, but I’m still a bit disappointed in myself for letting my situation get that bad.
You thankfully had the advantage of knowing what you wanted to do immediately after you left high school; I thought I wanted to go into civil engineering, but I found the whole process to be comparable to shoving a square peg into a round hole, so 5 years ago I decided to change my major to music and I can see the light at the end of the tunnel for my Bachelor’s already. You are not alone in your experiences and struggles with college work dude, happy for ya that you survived!
Your story sounds so much like the nightmares I occasionally have—and I graduated in 1977.
My only transgression was not finishing Ulysses by James Joyce and winging the question about it on my English final exam.
And yes, that’s the nightmare scenario.
I’m so glad you passed all of your classes!
I’ve enjoyed your videos for several years.
I didn’t realize what a talented writer you are—you have a beautiful writing style.
If you ever want to work in transit in New York, I have a friend who works the MTA.
Good luck with your future endeavors—I hope you continue to create videos and do more writing.
“Walter from Orange and Newark, NJ; Long time, first time.”
I once had a grirlfriend who spent a summer in similat limbo with Wiliam Paterson (now) Univrersity in nearby Wayne, NJ. She was a stellar fulltime speech pathology major until one internship put it all in doubt. A bad suoervisor’s review kept her from graduating on time by three months.
I mention William Paterson because their communication program can match any other in North America. They are renown fir their music, nursing and MBA programs. While I was there, they had a scheduling problem disguised as a parking problem.
“Weeping endures fir a night – but joy comes in the morning.” You Made it Through! Take some time to heal.
Miles, this post really resonated with me. I’m currently in my senior year of high school and “shut down” in a similar way back in September. I’m still not completely out of the woods yet – I’m barely passing calculus and physics and have who-knows-how-many missing English assignments – but I’m in a much better mental headspace now.
This is quite different from your usual posts but I am glad I read this. It’s so reassuring to know that there are others who have gone through the same pain as you. I hope everything will work out for you, and me, and everyone else who’s experiencing the same struggle.
Hi Miles, thanks for sharing your story with all of us. You are very brave indeed. Back in 1988 I spent most of a year staying on the UPenn campus while I attended a HUP-sponsored program to learn basic computer skills (or what passed for them) for people with learning disabilities. I had much trouble with campus life at times, so I would spend my free hours riding SEPTA as much as I could, too. (I still remember the time when I found a SEPTA TransPass on the ground on Walnut Street…& promptly took a full round trip over the entire length of the Route 23! Also, chasing down the remaining GM Fishbowls and Flexible New Looks too )
Like you, I had times when I just wanted to run home (to Collegeville, PA) and just never face the world again. But, I stuck it out and nearly 35 years later, I’m still at it billing for Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. But, I also always wanted to go into the transit industry, planning new & better ways to get people where they want to go.
I’ve never met you, but at the same time I feel we share much in common. Keep at what you’re doing. Whether you end up with MBTA, SEPTA, or somewhere a little further down the transit food chain, like with one of the Lowell RTA’s or Pottstown Area Rapid Transits out there, our hobby will end up rewarding you richly down the line!
Take care and best wishes,
Michael B., Collegeville PA
Hey, thanks for sharing your experiences here with us. I’m also someone who had an interesting experience with undergrad (trying to get through each semester of engineering undergrad without study groups, sliding into depressive spirals when this proved to be ridiculously difficult, using energy drinks to try to kick myself out of those spirals with mixed results, and eventually giving myself a literal heart attack because that cycle was unsustainable), and wound up taking a couple years off to work before finally graduating in 2019, eight years after I started.
The one thing I can say (and that it appears you’ve already found) is that the working world is different enough from academia that the issues you had in school shouldn’t recur as strongly once you’re out, and I’m really glad you made it 🙂
Congratulations on graduating Miles! I appreciate you opening up to share some really difficult feelings with us. It’s so easy to watch someone’s videos on YouTube or read their blog and/or social media and get the fake impression they never such a wonderful, worry-free life. But of course we tend to only publish positive/fun things, and this post is a good reminder that we rarely see what lies below the surface.
Keep in mind that the most intelligent, talented, and creative people are at the most risk of suffering from depression and other mental-health disorders. I’ve grappled with these my entire life. It’s always reassuring to know you’re not alone, and there is professional help available.
A friend sent me your Twitter a few months ago when you were riding Greyhound from Boston to Seattle. I’ve been watching a lot of your videos since and really enjoy them (the transportation ones anyway!)
Let us know when you land your first “real job” and best wishes that you have a less-stressful future now that you’ve conquered academia.
Miles, that sucks that you had such a bad time at uni. I can relate to an extent, uni was miserable for me. I never felt comfortable, always felt like I was lurching from one crisis to the next.
I’m someone who doesn’t show emotions much, but when I got my final grades of my last semester, knowing I had passed everything AND that my grades were good enough to get into teachers’ college, I was so happy that I broke down crying.
I rarely cry, and have certainly never cried tears of joy in my life before or since, but it was like an uncontrollable wave of emotion crashed over me.
One piece of advice (that you may not need, but I feel compelled to give): you may have spent these past few years dreaming of a certain job in your future, and that may have helped you get through each day, but it may have also set you up for disappointment. The job will have it’s bad days, it will have it’s low points. And it just might not be as much fun as you had hoped. For your own mental health, I advise keeping your expectations in check, or else your career will burn you out just like university did.