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On Dropping Out & Graduating Early

When I was ten years old, I remember being tasked with an assignment in which I had to plan my future career. When I say plan, I mean really plan. At ten, the only thing I wanted from life was to be a chemist. An analytical chemist.

I don’t know where these dreams came from. My grandmother was a pharmaceutical chemist, but I didn’t really know what that meant (I’d also only met her twice at this point in my life; this fact will become relevant later). What I liked about chemistry was the aesthetic: glass beakers filled with multi-colored substances and smoke rising out from them. That’s chemistry, I thought.

In my plan for the future, I had to go to college— there was no way around it. I planned to go to Harvard; I googled the application, printed it out, and filled in as much as I could. I went on some job searching site, I don’t recall which one, and looked for careers in the field of analytical chemistry in Colorado (I lived in Denver). I found a job and contacted the company. Hell, I even had a phone interview (not for the job, but for my project). At ten years old, I made a binder with these materials: what school I’d go to, my preliminary application for that school, what kind of job I would have, how I’d find it, how much money I’d make — only I’d never need any of it.

We had to present our projects to the parents. I don’t remember why or what for, but along with my binder, I made a tri-fold poster board, the kind they have at science fairs. As groups of parents walked over to the area where I was set up, I could see the look on their faces change when they were close enough to read what was on my poster. I don’t mean to say that I wasn’t like other girls. But I certainly think that when I was ten years old, I thought so. To be fair, most other students had perhaps chosen more common career paths: firefighters, doctors, lawyers. Of course, none of this matters now.

Obviously, I did not go to Harvard. I did not apply. Why would asking a ten-year-old child to plan their future life and career be a good idea? What purpose does it serve? What I remember of being ten years old is wanting to run. One of the only things I cared about was running (not that I was very good at it) — laps and laps around the school field and neighborhood parks. I remember these feelings, when I would trip over myself on the sidewalk but brush it off like nothing, my mother’s face appalled by the cuts and bruises on my legs. I do not remember the girl who was so excited by the idea of analytical chemistry that she filled a three-ring binder with pages and pages of material and stayed up late (nine or ten p.m.) just to make a pretty tri-fold poster board and present it proudly the next day.

At some point in middle or high school, I’d fallen out of love with chemistry. When I applied to college, I took a bet. If you’re unfamiliar with QuestBridge, you rank partner colleges (up to twelve) and apply to all of them at once. The colleges rank you back, and if you both rank one another, you “ match” and are awarded a scholarship. It’s quite literally a gamble. I think I saw QuestBridge as a way to have one less decision to worry about. At some point in high school, I’d fallen out of love with school. Just the act of being sixteen took all of my energy; I had no time to think about my future. But I still had to go to college. No way around it. How could I let my mother cross continents, alone, to be treated like shit by the people here and not even go to college? My family lives in Peru, where my grandmother worked as a chemist, where I’d first visited at seven years old. Then a second time at nine. I went back at twelve and then fifteen and that’s when the questions started, “alexita, ya sabes que quieres estudiar?” No. “Todavía no lo se.” 

Then I came here. Despite a red-eye flight, humid August heat, sweaty backs on train seats, cashless pockets, and a disoriented mom, I came here. In my freshman year at Swarthmore, I took a class that I had been wanting to take for four years in high school but never could: ceramics. That was my favorite class that year. I loved the green of Pennsylvania, SEPTA for all its faults, and I even came to like my Willets room (maybe). But I didn’t get it. I was taking classes, some I even enjoyed, but I just didn’t get it. In the mornings, I would sit in the quiet room of Sharples at the one seat with the only spotlight cast upon it (broken light); it looked so lonely. It was my favorite. 

What was I doing? I asked myself so many times. Despite fulfilling my mother’s (unspoken) wish for me to attend college, I still broke her heart for moving so far away from her. And it felt as though my heart was somewhere else, too. But the thought of declaring a major felt so far away, I only had to worry about being a freshman. Then sophomore year came and, at first, it was normal. With every week that passed, I would think that soon a month would pass, then months, then, finally, it would be March and I would have to declare a major. But the way that I had been picking classes was somewhat like a child reaching into a puzzle box and grabbing fistfuls of pieces and then trying to put them together without looking at what was on them, or even the shapes of the pieces themselves. 

When you’re thinking of what’s to come all the time, you’re not thinking of what’s happening in the present, you’re not living in the present, you’re not here. That sucks. I wanted things to not suck for me. But I couldn’t help but ask myself what the point of taking all these classes was. I didn’t want to go to graduate school, I didn’t want a “career.” I just wanted to be Alexa. Why was I even here? I thought of little me, why couldn’t I just feel like little me again? I wanted nothing more than to be out of school. 

I wanted to run. I wanted to run into the park and only ever run again. Parents would bring their kids to play at the park and they’d point at me and ask their parents why I’m always there. When they’d drive by, I’d be there, circling the green. When no one was there to see, I would still be there. I would be. All of the years that I’d spent to get here, they finally spent me.

But then I met someone who told me something that would change my life. I roll my eyes at that phrase any time I read it or hear it, but there is nothing truer in this article than that line. Feelings come and go, but this is a fact. They told me about graduating early. Graduating a year early. I was fascinated. I spent the night obsessively reading through different major requirements. I wrote out all of the classes I’d ever taken. I chose my major through logic — and interests, but remember, I’m not so good with decisions. This was a good way to decide. There were two weeks before break. I got the names of everyone I needed to talk to, and I talked to them. And they all asked me the same question: “why?”

When I think about the students here, I’m impressed by them. They all care a lot about what they study and do a lot of amazing things. I felt like I had to care so much about what I’d study. But I just want a degree. And I don’t want to feel guilty about that. I am not made for school. Or maybe I once was. Or maybe school isn’t made for me. Or maybe it once was. Not anymore. And that’s okay. I just want to get my degree. And I know myself; the best way that I can do this is to graduate a year early. If anyone feels the same, directionless or directionful, this may be worthwhile to look into. It really has changed my life. I’ll be graduating next spring, and this thought fills me with joy. I am a mess, but I am doing it.

1 Comment

  1. Alum from the ’90s here. I didn’t graduate early, but I took a semester off and worked, returning to graduate with my class, and I was SO much happier at Swarthmore after I took that break. And after a few more years of working, I did go to graduate school and I did get a PhD.

    Don’t stay at Swarthmore just because you thought it was going to be an amazing experience–sometimes it isn’t, and it’s OK to leave (and even come back). Swarthmore is such an awesome place–don’t waste your time (and money) on campus being miserable.

    Especially if you’ll be on campus less than 8 semesters, use your time at Swarthmore to lay the groundwork for your next steps. Look through those bulletin boards outside your department office (do they still exist) for job opportunities available to students in your major. Talk with Career Planning and Placement about their resources, and which ones will still be available after you leave campus. Make sure you know one or two professors well enough (go to office hours!) that they’ll be able to write you a recommendation letter later, if you change your mind about graduate school.

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