A few weeks ago, I came across a photograph that one of my old high school friends posted on her Instagram account. In the seemingly-unfiltered photo, my friend is proudly smiling in her black graduation regalia and underneath the picture, an obligatory caption says: “It’s feeling real, guys!” Thankfully, there were no cheesy hashtags that followed the caption. But even if there were, I don’t think it would take away the fact that graduation season is peeking shamelessly around the corner, and for college seniors, this shameless voyeurism means the end of four years of hard work, or hardcore partying for some, and finally obtaining a piece of paper that serves as a one-way ticket to the real world (wherever that is.)
Despite being in college for almost four years now, I still haven’t been acquainted to the “it’s feeling real” emotion that my friend is experiencing while she anticipates her June commencement. And I don’t think I’ll be acquainted to it anytime soon.
The truth is, I didn’t attend a four-year university immediately after high school, unlike most of my friends and the majority of post-high school teenagers. After receiving my high school diploma, I went to that place some people compare to a prison; that place I’ve been told I’ll never get out of alive; that place others call community college.
I dreaded attending community college the same way I dread eating raisins. The thought of it was terrifying, even nauseating to some degree. But for someone who spent most of his high school days either skipping classes or sitting in the counselor’s office, landing in a place on the opposite spectrum of an Ivy League school was an inevitable reality.
During my first semester, I constantly heard cautionary tales from people here and there about community college students who could never transfer to a university; students who learn on their last semester that they’re a few units short from transferring, students who get dropped from the university they’re transferring to after failing a class, and so on. The stories scared me and as I listened intently, I promised myself that I’d try my best not to become another cautionary tale that future students end up hearing about. My neck was gripped tightly both by the stories and the fear of failure I developed from my own experiences. With such thoughts circulating in my head while I navigated my way around community college, I managed to let go of my high school self and embrace the part of me I neglected; the part of me who had won spelling bees as a kid and earned perfect grade point averages in junior high.
By 2013, three years after I had graduated from high school, I was still in community college. The only difference this time around was that I had won awards from the English and journalism department, my transcript had a string of As for my major courses, and I had been accepted to transfer to a university on a full-ride scholarship. My mother was proud, proud enough to share the news of my accomplishments to her friends and family members. I was proud of myself too, but I did my best to hide my pride in fear of Murphy’s Law — how anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.
I was already a year behind my peers after spending an additional year at a community college and I was willing to do everything I could to catch up to them. I was willing to do everything, even if it meant overloading myself with extra courses during what I considered my last semester. And I did just that.
As I hurried myself to get to a four-year university with 21 course units inside my backpack, chasing after what I didn’t have just to get to the same place as my peers, my biggest fear slowly came to fruition. Murphy’s Law hit me right in the face through a series of below average test scores in a statistics class I needed to transfer. By the end of the semester, it became obvious that the probability of me transferring to a university was zero.
My university admission was officially rescinded nearly a month after I submitted my final transcript, where my F in statistics glaringly overshadowed my efforts to keep my transcript pristine.
I became depressed. Regardless of how adamant I considered myself to be in my efforts, I could not prevent my biggest fear from turning into reality. With dried-up dreams like the raisins in my favorite Langston Hughes poem, I turned into one of the cautionary tales I feared. For five straight days, I could not muster enough strength to get out of bed or to stop myself from crying. If I wasn’t crying in bed, I was either crying in the bathroom or crying in the garage. But even when my nightmarish days turned into depressing nights when every single one of my mistakes became so vivid, I knew deep down that I wasn’t crying for me.
I was crying for other people, other people who bragged and celebrated my accomplishments the way Lindo bragged and celebrated her daughter Waverly’s accomplishments in The Joy Luck Club. The same people whose jaws, I imagined, would drop once they became privy to my biggest failure.
One by one, I told my family and friends — the other people — what had happened and their reactions were just as I had predicted. It was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. When it was time to tell one of my former English professors, who was my mentor and had written me a stellar recommendation to transfer to her Alma mater, the disappointment that was transparent on her face reminded me of the faces of the people who hurry for the bus, but end up missing it regardless of how fast they run.
After the sudden turn of events, I decided to take the next school semester off and take a break from my studies. I spent August and September as a hikikomori of sorts, alienating myself from my friends and the rest of society. My self-imposed exile was my way of punishing myself for focusing on the things I didn’t have, and losing everything because of it. I wasted my hours in self-pity and regret thinking about my situation. In the end, however, my dreams festered like a sore and I realized they would not heal unless I got up and did something.
When October came that year, I was hired to work as an intern for a Los Angeles-based public relations firm that specializes in fashion and events. Between the showroom hustle and the coffee errands, I miraculously kept an enthusiastic face and forgot about my own disarray for eight hours a day. The opportunity allowed me to live another life, one where I didn’t put so much pressure on myself and where I could just enjoy, for once, what it was like to be in the moment.
One December evening, minutes before I went home from my internship, my bosses Jeremy and Lindsey gave me an early Christmas gift to my shocking delight. I didn’t open the gift until I was in the comfort of my bed. But on the train ride back home, I opened the card that came with the present and read Jeremy’s message, written in his enviable penmanship.
“Thank you for your amazing hard work and dedication,” the card reads. “We are personally grateful to you for your tremendous efforts, and we wish you a rewarding, joyous New Year.”
The second I put the card away, I wanted to cry. Although this time around, I didn’t want to cry for other people; I wanted to cry for me. I felt like a fraud. I thought I was being brave by taking on an opportunity like my internship, when it turns out I was just another coward living in falsehood. I was a coward who took the next train to LA and left his problems at home to rot like a piece of meat.
Guilt and regret came over me throughout the days that followed, and I knew there was only one way to make them all go away for good.
The New Year arrived and before I left the internship in early March, I had already gone back to school—back to community college for one last hurrah. Going back was the only way to correct my mistakes, the only way I could make the guilt and regret disappear, and the only way I could satisfy the voice in my head that constantly whispered, “Try again. My God, try again.”
So I tried again.
And now that the semester is coming to another end, and my friends from universities are trying on their caps and gowns as they prepare for June, I am reminded of a particular moment from last year that stuck with me all this time. The moment after I finished my interview for the internship, when I walked out of the showroom thinking, “I guess I’ll never come back here.”
But I did come back. And that has made all the difference.