[OPINION] An open letter to my fellow college students who didn’t graduate on time

Hershey Neri
'Our failures or shortcomings do not define us'

This piece was first published on HeyHersheyBlog.com and is being republished here with the author’s permission.

Dear fellow students who didn’t graduate on time,

I know scrolling through your Facebook news feed during grad season is bittersweet. You see your close friends post their photos and success stories, and happy as you are for them (surviving college is no easy feat!), a part of you is sad because you’re disappointed. Hurt. And maybe even embarrassed. Because while they’re all moving on to the next chapter of life, there you are, sitting on a couch, feeling stuck in life, preparing yourself for another semester or two..or 3..or 5..).

But it’s graduation season, time to celebrate for your friends so you shoved your feelings aside, clicked on their photos, and hit the “like” button. Maybe even threw in a couple of “hearts” here and there.

Don’t feel guilty. It’s okay to feel down. It’s normal. I’ve been in your shoes. So let me tell you this: it gets better.

I don’t want to sound all Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul here, but I’m gonna warn you, this article will be cheesy but true nonetheless.

In retrospect, not graduating on time taught me so many valuable life lessons, things I might not have been able to learn inside the classroom! Graduating late tested my character. It taught me how to be strategic. It made me resilient and confident.

Allow me to share a couple of things I picked up from my “failure”:

1. First things first: you are not a failure.

I found out that I wouldn’t be able to march just two months before graduation day. Why? Well, to cut the long story short, I didn’t do well in my thesis. I take full responsibility for this. Because of personal issues such as fighting for a sexual harassment case against another student, I crammed my thesis and wasn’t able to deliver well. With other priorities, I tried to wing my requirements, but alas, submitted a work that was not even half-baked.

I was really frustrated at myself. I never expected this to happen. Not to me. How could this happen to me? I wondered. I was a bright student in high school! A big fish in a small pond! I graduated high school with flying colors! (Of course, by now everyone in college knows that all high school accomplishments amount to little.) But here I was, nowhere near the end of my college journey, feeling like a big, fat loser.

Back then, I was devastated. And as I cried in bed, my sister looked me in the eye and asked, ”Why are you sad?” I blinked. “Because I didn’t graduate on time!”

“And who told you that you should? Did anyone pressure you to finish on time?”

And that’s when I realized that my family didn’t really mind my being delayed. So why did I? Then it hit me, it was society’s standards.

I doubted myself when I knew I shouldn’t have. I wanted to be perfect when I knew I wasn’t.

I knew that I was capable but the circumstances just weren’t in my favor, and I wasn’t able to perform my best. But that didn’t make me a less amazing person, right?

If you can relate to this, I’m sure that you are a bright, talented person. I believe every person has a special gift. I also believe that every person will naturally shine at something. We all have different strengths and weaknesses. Cliche as it sounds, we should never judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree.

Our failures or shortcomings do not define us. You might have “failed” because of several reasons: mental health, financial problems, trouble understanding your lessons, time management, and so on. But your failure doesn’t define you. You are greater than your past. What matters now is how you respond.

Will you let your “failure” pull you down or will you choose to pick yourself up and learn from it?

2. Just like life, graduation isn’t a race!

I remember bawling my eyes out when I found out that my harasser was able to graduate on time. To add insult to injury, he finished cum laude! I found out when my friends sent me a message during the ceremony, mentioning how unfair the entire situation was for me. While all my friends (and my harasser) were receiving their diplomas on stage, I was sitting in front of my laptop. Life sucked, and it sucked pretty bad.

I remember crying out to God: Lord, why are you so unfair?! I’m the one who was hurt, I’m the one speaking the truth, and I’m the one who chose to forgive him. But why was he the one who got to pass his subjects, while I didn’t?

I cried…and cried…and cried….and then God spoke to me through this verse:

F”or I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11).

He said He had a plan for me, so I trusted Him. It took time to accept this but I’ve finally come to realize that life isn’t a race.

My sister also told me that college isn’t about completing it in 4 years. It isn’t about being the very best, either. Ultimately, it’s about learning everything you need in your program. I didn’t graduate on time simply because I was not ready and that’s completely okay. Each person has a different learning curve. Some learn fast, some learn slowly, but at the end of the day, what matters is that you learn.

And boy, she was right! When I got to focus on my thesis, I was extremely humbled. I learned more about research work and research frameworks. In the past, I simply crammed my thesis, juggling it with other priorities. But now, I gave my best. My 100%. When I finally defended my thesis, my panelists were pleased and told me I was ready.

Learning isn’t a race. Graduating isn’t a race. And life isn’t a race!

3. In “real life”, it doesn’t matter if you graduated on time…

While my batchmates graduated in June 2016, I successfully defended my thesis in July. I was technically a candidate for graduation already, but I would only be able to march next year. And so, while I was “gradwaiting”, I applied for a job.

I became a copywriter and content creator at Blankslate Creative Inc, the digital production company behind lifestyle page The Girl on TV. I was also a part-time editor for When In Manila then. After a year, I moved to ABS-CBN Publishing, working as an editor for a millennial website.

Come June 2017, I finally got to wear my “sablay“! My graduation was even more meaningful because of the long, challenging journey I took to get there (a journey filled with so much…tears!). All my college friends, family members, officemates, and bosses were so happy for me! I was so proud and more than anything, grateful.

A few months after my graduation, I transferred to another title, still under ABS-CBN Publishing, becoming a writer and producer for a fashion and lifestyle website.

It’s amazing how these job opportunities came one after another. Indeed, God had plans for me, even though I haven’t even “graduated” yet. And you know what? During my job interviews, they didn’t even ask me whether I failed a subject or not! They didn’t ask me if I graduated on time, either. What mattered most were my skills, my capabilities, and of course my character.

So if you’re worrying that your being “delayed” will scar you for life, don’t worry, it won’t.

Tomorrow will shine bright for you.

4. …because the truth is, getting perfect grades and graduating on time don’t define who you are.

I know a lot of amazing people who didn’t graduate on time, but were able to achieve and accomplish major things. In fact, I have dentist friends who took years to graduate. I witnessed their hardships. They would cry and we would comfort each other, knowing that one day, all those challenges would end. You know how their college stories ended? They topped their board exams. The very students who were delayed and told they were failures topped the boards! How’s that for a plot twist!

Meanwhile, I also know of some people who graduated on time and had excellent grades in school, but had a hard time looking for jobs. Again, life is not a race. Everyone goes through their own seasons, at their own pace, in their own time.

5. Hitting rock bottom can be a blessing in disguise

After my “failure”, I felt like I had nothing to lose, so, I became a risk-taker. I applied to different companies, even those out of my league, because I wasn’t afraid. I already knew how it felt to be rejected. Today, I’m enjoying my career as a full-time writer and content creator, and a part-time blogger. I get to live my passion, I’ve found my purpose.

So dear friend, I feel for you. Hitting rock bottom is a tough season. But embrace it. Cherish it. Persevere and stick with it. And above all, learn from it. Because you know what happens when you’ve hit rock bottom?

You get a fresh start but this time, you have nowhere to go but….up!!

So here’s a big high-five to the graduates, to those who have yet to graduate, to those who’ve got everything figured out, and to those who have no clue what they’re doing. To the achievers, to the late bloomers, and most of all, to everyone who’s struggling, but never quitting! – Rappler.com

Hershey Neri is a fashion writer by day, and a passion blogger by night. She talks about growing up and overcoming harassment at HeyHersheyBlog.com.