(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!