College Graduation Part 1: Anticipation and Anxiety

Well readers, I still cannot believe that May 13, a day four years in the making, (or 22 years if you look at it from the perspective of all my school years) has come and gone. I am officially a college graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Communication, and a proud alumnus of Carroll University. I apologize for not updating sooner, but the weeks leading up to graduation were so busy and full of excitement that updating the blog was the last thing on my mind, and these weeks after graduation, I think I have been so exhausted physically and emotionally (in a good way) that I haven’t been inspired to write about it. To be honest, I am still at a loss for how to put such a beautiful milestone in to words, but now that we are in to June and I am approaching the one month anniversary of my graduation already, it is time that I push myself to write about this event, not only for you curious readers, but also for me. Sighted people often rely on Facebook pictures and videos of an event to record and recollect an event. I have both Facebook pictures and a video of this special moment, but as a blind person, pictures do nothing for me, and videos only capture half of the experience, the sound of the moment. But a written account can recall all of the senses and even the emotions running through the mind leading up to the event, which even pictures cannot do justice. So I find blogging to be the most meaningful for capturing special moments. In a two-part series, I hope to capture as much of the experience and emotion of that day and all of the hard work and emotion leading up to it in this blog so that the memories never fade.

     I don’t know if this happens to anyone else or if this is another thing that makes me a strange person, but for me, anticipation of exciting milestones is often accompanied by needless anxiety. At first, it manifested itself in fear of the unknown path my life would take after college. (See Living on Easy Street). When Mom calmed this fear by advising me not to think of life as a road but as a river, to let the river carry me as it may and know that while there may be rough waters, everything always works out, my fear turned to a more pressing paranoia. Sometime in April while I felt myself becoming invested in the excitement of inviting relatives and helping my parents plan a party, it occurred to me that school wasn’t over yet. There was still a chance I could fail something and not graduate, or be allowed to walk at commencement, but be told that my degree wouldn’t be official until I repeated a course the summer after. I cannot imagine what a let-down that would be. If that had happened to me, I would have skipped the commencement ceremony and postponed the party.

     In retrospect, I should have just taken a deep breath and realized I had nothing to worry about. After all, I made the dean’s list every semester and my classes had been audited by both my academic advisor and the Registrar to ensure I had the required credits, and that same audit from the Registrar indicated I was on track to graduate Magna Cum Laude!

     For those of you unfamiliar with weird academic terminology, Suma Cum Laude is the best of the best. I think this distinction requires a grade point average between 3.8 and 4.0 or something like that. Magna Cum Laude is second best, but pretty awesome too! I think it requires a grade point average between 3.5 and 3.8. Mine was right around 3.66 every semester!

     Every semester, I would score poorly on an assignment or two. While I freaked out about it freshman year, I quickly realized that it was normal to get a poor score occasionally, and my excellent scores on everything else balanced everything out so that I always got A’s and B’s. But last semester when I got a couple low scores on assignments in my public relations class, I found myself freaking out again. Graduation announcements had already been mailed to former teachers and my sister’s flight booked when I got these grades! I don’t think that even a piece of rhubarb pie (Garrison Keillor reference) would be enough to get the taste of shame and humiliation out of my mouth if I failed now! But of course, just like what always happened before, my excellent scores on everything else compensated and I passed with an AB.

     But even as part of me was anxious about my grades and wanted to make sure I got perfect scores on everything to end strong and ensure my graduation, another part of me was battling a serious case of senioritis. I would go up to my room with every intention of working on a paper or studying, but then my mind would wander to life after college and unable to focus, I would find myself goofing off on Facebook or listening to music. I will say I was proud of myself for finishing the final research paper of my communication conflict class on Sunday evening when it wasn’t due until Tuesday May 1. But that unusual decision not to procrastinate was overshadowed by revisions on a user manual in my technical writing class that ended up being more time consuming than I thought. So on Monday April 30, I still ended up staying up until 2:30 in the morning finishing the written revisions of my user manual on my braillenote, then setting an alarm, which I don’t usually do, to make sure I was awake and on the real computer by 6:30 to make visual revisions I forgot about like bold type and larger font for some text and a table of contents. I shudder to think what could have happened if I procrastinated on both my user manual and my conflict paper!

     On May 3, I was inducted in to two honor societies; Lambda Pi Eta, the Communication honor society and Pi Sigma Alpha, the politics society. I smiled as I was presented with medallions and cords which I would wear at graduation, but the realization that exams hadn’t been taken and grades for final papers hadn’t been entered yet nagged at the back of my mind. “Has anything ever happened where a student was inducted in to an honor society and then had that honor revoked because they failed an important paper or exam their final semester?” I wondered to myself. Can you imagine how humiliating that would be?

     Now that I have graduated, I will admit to any professors who read this that I rarely read textbook chapters from cover to cover. If a professor put a lot of emphasis on the importance of reading a particular section of a chapter during lectures, I would read it, or if there was something unclear from class, I would search the textbook chapter for clarification. When professors made study guides, I would scan the study guide and if there was a term that wasn’t ringing any bells in my memory, like “principled negotiation” and it couldn’t be found when searching my notes, I would find the section from the textbook about it. Early in my college years, I did read the textbook chapters dutifully from cover to cover, but sophomore year, I started noticing that despite reading the chapters, I was scoring terribly on reading quizzes and essay questions related to the reading. It occurred to me that it may be because textbook chapters are so ridiculously long and overly detailed that by the time I got through them, my brain was fried and I had retained nothing. But when I started skimming readings and reading only the information related to the daily essay questions assigned as homework in a politics class, my scores on these essays improved dramatically! I quickly discovered that by paying close attention and taking detailed notes during lecture, I was able to retain the rest of the information better and thus did great on tests in that class and subsequent classes as well.

     Of course, this approach didn’t always serve me well for reading quizzes, but these were relatively rare and worth a small percentage of my grade. Perhaps the time not spent frying my brain reading chapters cover to cover meant I had more time and mental energy to write better papers, which more than compensated for the low quiz scores. And while I had a mental blank on a couple questions on the communication conflict exam (they were questions I remember discussing during class lectures but the answers were on the tip of my tongue), I nailed the question on principled negotiation which I had found while skimming the textbook the night before, a question I may have gotten wrong had I read the whole chapter when it was originally assigned, let myself be lulled in to complacency and not consult the study guide since I read the chapter already, (something I used to do), which would have resulted in that term getting lost in the shuffle of other extraneous details from that chapter.

     Maybe it was a guilty conscience, or simply the realization that I cannot fail now since the weekend before graduation, my mom made a twelve-hour round-trip drive by herself so that I could finish a group project and portfolio for public relations and Granny (my maternal grandmother) could witness my graduation. (If that graduation didn’t happen, this sacrifice of love would have been for nothing and I don’t know how I would ever recover from the humiliation.) But while Mom and Granny cheered and declared a celebration was in order after my public relations exam May 7, and the Communication Conflict exam May 8, (the final final of my college career), I couldn’t stop silently fretting over the couple questions I went blank on and whether after four years of late nights, tired fingers from typing papers and the occasional tears, these questions would make it all a waste.

     It didn’t help that on Saturday May 5, a day I had planned on making dramatic progress on the final portfolio for Public Relations, I had a nasty headache and didn’t make near the progress I had hoped to make as a result. That put me behind so that Sunday night when I would have started looking over the study guide for Public Relations, I was finishing revisions on portfolio pieces, and on Monday, even though my exam wasn’t until 1:00 in the afternoon and even after cancelling my weekly Big Brothers Big Sisters visit, it took me until 11:45 to add the final visual touches to my portfolio on the real computer and get it printed. That left just enough time to get dressed, eat a quick lunch and review my notes in the car. In fact, since I have a better memory than many people, it was not uncommon for a quick review of notes in the car to be the extent of my studying these four years, but because of my graduation anxiety, this was the one time when I desperately wished I could have studied the night before.

     Since my procrastination mindset had returned and I had no sense of urgency to start working on my contribution to the group project, or the portfolio for Public Relations, I studied hard for my first amendment exam on May 3 after the honor society festivities and walked out of that exam feeling relaxed and confident. (I went blank on the names of a couple of theorists, but the professor for that class is one of those merciful professors who will give you credit if you get the general concepts, which I think I did.) But in my frantic efforts to finish the portfolio for public relations, the exam for Public Relations simply snuck up on me.

     Mom tried to calm me by asking, “if you weren’t anxious about graduation and you had time to study, would you have studied?”

     “Well, probably not,” I admitted.

     “See, then you’ll be fine,” she said, “if you’ve never studied before and you have always done fine, you shouldn’t worry.” She was right, but it is kind of funny how the one time I wanted to play it safe and study in advance as college students are supposed to, it doesn’t work out.

     On May 7 after my public relations exam, my mom made chicken dinner to celebrate my (paternal) grandma’s birthday, but all through dinner, the online, 90-question multiple choice exam for my technical writing class nagged at my mind. I had taken online exams before and thus was familiar with the interface which was very accessible. But in a reminder e-mail about the exam, the professor cautioned against waiting until the last minute to take this exam to allow time for problems like internet outages, which happen occasionally with our internet provider. The exam would only be active until May 8 at 1:59, but taking it Tuesday was risky as I had my conflict exam that morning. The exam was made available May 1, but it got pushed to the back burner, and I was just sure that fate would punish me for this procrastination by causing the internet to fail me and I would be screaming at the computer, re-taking and re-submitting the test until 3:00 in the morning, or not be able to complete the exam at all. But to my relief and delight, fate was nice to me. Although I was a little surprised and disappointed with my score when the system automatically graded my test, (it claimed I scored 69/90, but I felt more confident than that while taking the test), at least the internet worked on the first attempt and my test was submitted by 9:00 that night, leaving plenty of time to study for the conflict exam.

     But it wasn’t until Thursday May 10 when grades were due and I went online to discover that I earned an AB in all of my classes that I truly started to relax and enjoy the festivities. In retrospect, now that the rat race has been over for almost a month and I can actually think clearly, I wonder if it was not my grades that I was anxious about after all, even though that was how the anxiety manifested itself. Maybe the real source of my anxiety was over fear of the unknown. As I mentioned in “Living on Easy Street”, I have experienced many transitions, but through them all, there was always one constant: I was merely transitioning to another school, not another life and another world. Or maybe, after being in school my whole life, the prospect of graduating college and no longer being a student felt so surreal that deep down, I couldn’t believe it. Indeed, my anxiety peaked on the last official day of classes before exams when the professor of my first amendment class said “Have a good life.” Have a good life! Wow! That’s when it hit me that I wasn’t just taking a temporary reprieve from the world of school to “have a good summer” the usual refrain of teachers all of my life. I was embarking on a new life. How did that happen so fast? There must be a mistake. But there wasn’t a mistake.

     I didn’t, and still don’t know what life has in store for me, but when I saw my grades May 10, I decided it was time to put anxiety over the future aside, savor the present and let the festivities begin.

Published by Allison Nastoff

As I write this in 2020, I am 30 years old. I am blind, and Gilbert was my first guide dog. He passed away on December 2, 2020, but I decided to keep the title for my blog as a tribute to him because he will always hold a special place in my heart. In 2012, I earned a Bachelor of Science in Communication with a journalism emphasis, and went back to school for a Paralegal certificate in 2014. I worked for five years at a Social Security disability firm. When the pandemic hit, I did some reflecting and decided to resign from this job and take seminary courses. My dream is a career as a teacher or writer where I can be a blessing to others.

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