artistic illustration of balancing school and life commitments
Illustration by Eraj Hussain

Looking Back on Nearly Ten Years of College

By Joel Vaughn and Illustration by Eraj Hussain 

 Well, this is when things start to wrap up. The finish line is over the horizon, that bachelor’s degree seems like a reality, and I can tie a neat little bow on nearly 10 years of college. 

Though 26 isn’t a notably late age to finish a bachelors --at least that’s what I keep reminding my guilty, uber senioritis laden conscious-- I can’t help but feel weathered by nearly a decade of papers, campus involvement, and too many changed majors. All of this was and is complicated by hiccups with housing, mental health, and general uncertainty as to what I actually wanted from college. 

That’s not to say that my academic career was without direction or purpose. I can point to a through-line of pursuing some sort of creative work as a silver lining to follow as I stumbled through a hazy cloud of collegiate pursuits in art, journalism, and creative writing. 

Ten years ago, I was a junior in high school, dreaming of enrollment in some private arts college that I was already preparing for with intro-level drawing and composition classes at the local community college. It’s too bad that I ended up dropping out of high school.

I wasn’t a bad student. I consistently pulled Bs, took a handful of AP classes, and although I wouldn’t have gotten into that private art program, a high school diploma and immediate acceptance to state college were likely had I stayed.

Dropping out previewed the roadblocks that stood in my way when I got the ball rolling on college. I could blame it on bad mental health and family issues, but I’ll be addressing that  minimally for the sake of the reader’s and my sanity. Rather, the less ethereal reason for my long road to graduation was an inability to take care of myself when I was thrust into doing so.  

 

Dropping out previewed the roadblocks that stood in my way when I got the ball rolling on college.

 

My career as an art student was met with skepticism and disapproval from my father. To be fair, I never really bothered to clue him into what I wanted out of college, but the awkward drive home from declaring my major still plays in my head. It was the standard spiel, look for a stable career path, think about what you want to do with your future and if you can accomplish it, but the demand that I leave his house at eighteen years old was a nice little cherry on the lecture. 

Dad’s threat of eviction was just as empty as all the times he made it before then, but this signaled a turn in our relationship. Though I didn’t think of myself as an adult then, at seventeen years old, it signaled that adulthood was coming and that others, my father in particular, already saw me through the cold lens of apathy that adults are treated with. But I’ll give the devil his due and admit that my father was probably anxious about my future in a similar fashion to how I am now.

Community college was primarily a means to stay out of the house. I consumed myself with a full schedule of intro-level art and general education classes for the sake of working towards an undefined end goal. 

I’m uncertain if that aimlessness was a product of youth or just that inability to care for myself Being a shitty student artist didn’t help with sticking to my major. I still retained a 3.0 GPA throughout that year and a half in the art program, but it wasn’t without an awareness that most of those Bs and As were more out of sympathy than demonstration of skill. This was communicated by professors in anyway from suggesting other avenues for my creativity to ripping work I just produced from the wall because it was improperly matted. But the one that stuck was a drawing and composition professor who pushed me to start writing little essays to go along with my so-so watercolor portraits. 

 

 I still retained a 3.0 GPA throughout that year and a half in the art program, but it wasn’t without an awareness that most of those Bs and As were more out of sympathy than demonstration of skill.

 

And with that, I found that my hands were more suited for clicking a keyboard than stroking a canvas. I started pursuing writing more in earnest, knocked out my english GEs, landed an arts editor position on the campus paper within the year, and ended up writing an obituary for that drawing professor who encouraged me to pursue writing. 

 

 I found that my hands were more suited for clicking a keyboard than stroking a canvas.

 

Penning that obituary was a surreal exercise in eating other’s grief to synthesize it into a written send-off. The art professor was older, had already retired, and lived a full life as far as I could tell by talking to his students and colleagues. I feel haunted by this period in my college career. Maybe it’s just guilt for using the dead and mourning as a writing exercise or solipsistic self-loathing over someone I looked up to passing, but what is certain is that this marked a shift in what I was doing in college.
Regardless of what that obituary was, a legitimate exercise in mourning or just a cheap exploit to get some news writer credit, from ages 20 to 23 I made writing, editing, and laying out articles for that campus newspaper my life. I took to it and took to it quickly with my rise from arts to news editor, from news to managing editor, and from managing to eventually editor and chief. 

My Dad, who unsurprisingly hadn’t put my ass out on the street, developed pride in what I’d accomplished. I even worked through the reemergence of mental health problems that plagued me through highschool. But still, I wouldn’t say that I could take care of myself. 

By the time my father asked me to meet him for dinner at Denny’s he’d already been spending weeks out of the house and when he was there he stayed mostly stowed away in the office/bedroom he converted for himself from the laundry room. My parents’ marriage, as far as I knew, had been on the rocks stretching back into my early teens and it should be noted that I don’t hold any animosity towards either of them for doing what needed to be done even if it should’ve been done sooner. 

His explanation of the divorce started anxiously and turned to jovial relief as I assured him I was okay with the whole situation. What seemed to be acceptance on my part was really an expression of being too exhausted by a full load of classes and an editor-and-chiefship to care. 

Yeah, I think I’m an ingrate prick too.

By then, I had worked my way up to editor and chief for the paper and was taking a full load of classes so I could transfer in the Fall of 2017. The end of my parents’ marriage hurt, but I hadn’t had time to bother with processing it. Why would I when the last person who pushed me to be practical with my pursuits in college was a much smaller presence in my life. 

I quit my editor-and-chiefship that next semester. Officially, I wanted to focus on getting the last few transfers out the way, but in reality, journalism was dead to me since covering my little corner of the community college news world became stale and the pressure was crushing . I was finally able to put my writing to a few uses that I actually cared about. I wrote a short film script, I posted more writing on my Facebook and Medium pages, and I did some advocacy work with a campus club. 

I gave myself the best semester and summer I think I possibly could have, then I transferred to CSULB, had to become more dependent on my father, and the shambling corpse of journalism had its second coming. 

The 2017/2018 semesters was one of the worst periods in my life. I finally transferred, a feet a little more than  six years in the making, and I couldn’t have been more miserable. I could try to catalog a narrative for why but those wounds are too fresh, and I have plenty of time to lose sleep over it. What I will say is that I crashed, burned anyone in the vicinity and was left sorrier than the Hindenburg’s pilot. 

I’m back though, still dabbling in journalism, and wondering if I should even stick with what I’ve spent approximately the last six years pursuing in college. Outside of low pressure freelance work, I’ve avoided news writing and steered towards more narrative drive writing instead. But I’ll never turn my back on writing or publishing opportunities. I don’t know whether that’s because they’re my only skills or if it’s too late to develop a passion for anything else.  

I can’t tell if I’m wasting my time yet, but I’ve considered pushing off even applying for graduation to stay at CSULB part-time and apply to grad school, but I can’t be sure if that will be as fulfilling or just more crushing than the last nearly 10 years of college.