DIY Diploma

City Paper

When high school graduation was approaching, I was eager to get as far away from my hometown as possible. So much so that I paid for my own application fee to the University of Alabama, hitched a ride with my friend down south to check out the campus, fell in love with it, came home to an acceptance letter, and was ready to pack my bags.

My parents quickly reminded me that I’d forgotten one thing—I was a 17-year-old with no money and very little direction about what I actually wanted to do. Not to mention they were in no financial situation to pay for four years of out-of-state college. They’d made that clear to me, but all the while I covered my ears in a la-la-la fashion and stubbornly insisted, “If I have to go to community college, then I’m not going to college at all!” 

I went. To community college. 

I took six classes my first semester, broke my first love’s heart, and spent more time underage drinking than I did studying for anything. Three Bs, three Ds, and a few hangovers later (just kidding, remember when you were 17 and hangovers were as real as the Tooth Fairy?), I was stuck with a less-than-honorable GPA and three classes to retake. That might not sound so great, but if I’d had that first semester at an out-of-state school, I would’ve cost my parents thousands of dollars that they didn’t have in the first place. Like many teenagers, I just wasn’t ready.

There is nothing wrong with community college. I feel like there used to be a bigger stigma associated with “missing out” on the “full college experience.” Did I have friends who went to glorious out-of-state four-year colleges? Lots. Was I jealous of them? Of course. But I visited them to get a taste of their “experience” (that is, before a handful of them ended up transferring out of those colleges to graduate from schools closer to home) and found several ways to go out and have fun while still living at home. What I didn’t do was change my major countless times or  live in a cramped dorm room with a stranger. What a bummer. 

After community college, I was still eager to go to a “real” university. But this time, wasting my parent’s money wasn’t an option. They could afford to pay for community college, but told me the cost of any further college would be in my hands. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take out the amount of loans I needed until I turned 23, when I would be legally allowed to exclude my parents from my FAFSA. I didn’t want to take a break, but I didn’t have a choice.

It is perfectly okay to take a break. Warning: You might get a lot of shit for it. Not as much as I did back then, since it’s far more understandable to be a broke person in today’s economy than it was before 2008. But you will undoubtedly run into people who, when you tell them you have plans to go back to school, will smile and nod and half-heartedly say, “Sure you will.” Fuck them. Especially if you’re in a financially troubling situation and they don’t even know what a FAFSA is. If you want to go back, you can and will go back. Cliché fact: It does not matter who doesn’t believe in you, as long as you still believe in yourself.

There is no problem with going back to school after it feels like everyone you graduated high school with has earned their degree. I took my first college class in 2006 and my last college class in 2014. Sometimes you’ll feel really old. You don’t have to disclose your age to anyone. But if you do, you’ll rapidly find out that until you said something, everyone assumed you were their age.

On the same note, sometimes you will assume everybody is your age too. Don’t be surprised if you go to a classmate’s house for a group project and, when she asks if you want a drink, she pulls a water bottle filled with vodka out of her closet. Also, it doesn’t matter how attractive that boy in your journalism class is. Chances are he isn’t old enough to legally grab a beer with you, and probably hasn’t even acquired the taste yet.

Whether you are old, broke, a single parent, or a kid who just took a year off to get shit-faced—you don’t have to let any of those factors prevent you from getting an education. And hey, if you’re one of the lucky ones who graduates without a mountain of debt, who has never daydreamed about what it would be like to become a stripper even for a day and ditch all your loans (see page 26) – I envy you. Pat yourself on the back or genuinely thank whoever made that possible.

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