Published on XO Jane
There I was, thrilled to get my very first college acceptance letter. I couldn’t believe I had gotten into the musical theatre program at University of Michigan! All my life, I had dreamed of pursuing a career in theatre, on Broadway, in every musical possible – and this was my golden ticket! I had worked so hard all of my life for this and felt that at 18, everything had come together – I would train for Broadway, win my Tony, and conquer the world. Now, I was set for life – everyone figured out who they were in college. I envisioned college to be this glorious “life-making” machine. You could get through twelve years in the education system, doing whatever it took to score the A, pass the final exam, and win top honors, just to finally fit into that magical collegiate utopia, where four years later, you’d suddenly know who you were. You’d be living a real life, with a real job, an a real purpose. College was where adults were made.
At least, that’s what I thought as a type A high school honors student. I didn’t realize that two weeks after I was waving my Michigan envelope around, dancing like a lunatic…that my world would drastically change forever. Quite a few surgeries later, I’m here now, enjoying the summer off before my final year of college – and…the final year of my twenties. By the time I graduate, I’ll be the big Three Oh. I know, I know. Thirty isn’t that old. But it took guts deciding to fill out college applications, go o college tours, and do those nerve wracking college interviews at 25. Now, I’m so glad I did.
Four years ago, when I was twenty-five, and a newly-enrolled college freshman (yes, you read that right), it was obvious that I was not your typical eighteen-year-old carrying a sheaf of spiral notebooks and fresh set of pens on her first day of classes. But I don’t really have your typical life story either.
Prior to that, I had planned for my “life schedule” to be nothing but typical and run like clockwork: for me and my high school friends, college seemed like the no-brainer after our senior year exams and SAT tutoring – degree, job, family, and real life would then ensue. And ten years ago, when I was a fresh-faced eighteen, I was an excited, audacious high-school student, determined to study a quirky blend of musical theatre and religious studies in my upcoming college career, and then set my sights on Broadway.
The world of higher education, I envisioned, was going to be a magical world of “independence.” I could finally live on my own, have a social life, go to the kind of parties I saw in teen movies, and feel like a real-live adult. I dreamed of getting a degree in the arts, and becoming a teacher, a writer, artist, actress — anything I set my mind to, really.
So how did I get to the advanced age of someone in their mid-twenties, setting foot on a campus – cautiously – for the first time, in a long-delayed bid to get a degree? Life has a funny little storyboard: you think you know exactly how things will turn out – or how you’d like things to turn out. But crisis had intervened in the meantime, and my path would become much more meandering and turbulent than I ever expected.
A Straight Set-Out Path? Not Quite
Caption: Me graduating high school in the middle of the surgical ICU!
What I had never anticipated was that unexpected and frighteningly sudden medical circumstances – terrible, life-threatening digestive issues –would freeze my life in its tracks when I eighteen.
I awoke from a coma, very hazily, to see medical staff darting about, frantically trying to keep me alive. My first conscious memories were bits of sound and blurry sights, as I tried to piece together what had happened to me. I eventually learned from doctors that I would be in the ICU for an indefinite amount of time, and that their medical team had fought to save my life. I could hear these words, but my “self” was still frozen as a high school student. I had “just” gotten my college acceptance letters! (I had no idea I had woken up months later.)
The first thing I asked, in the most endearingly clueless way was, “What about college?”
Starting from Square One
The answer to that was that college was out of the question. Years of medical triumphs and setbacks followed, and added up to a wealth of life experience. Always a creator and busybody by nature, I went on to do more in my “sick” years than most people do in their lifetime: I had founded a chocolate business, wrote and starred in a one-woman show about my life, mounted art shows, taught nursery school, and most importantly, I was alive. But something still felt empty.
What was it? College — I wanted college. At twenty-five years old, I had never received that degree of which I had dreamed. I had never even been to a Friday night, red-plastic-cup- in-hand campus party. I had gained so much in the meantime, and had accomplished three resumés worth, but I still felt like there was something I was missing out on. Like somewhere my life had left off, that it was a story that I just wanted to finish.
When Is It Too Late?
So I thought: Is it really “too late?” Had I missed the boat with a few years passing? Then I thought of the practicalities. At twenty-five, how was I going to feel surrounded by a bunch of eighteen-year-olds? How would I feel being on a campus for four years?
Caption: me with my art
And the ever circulating question in my head: “Is this really going to get me somewhere?” So I had to think about what I wanted out of this experience. At age twenty-five — and with a load of real-life experience under my belt — what did I want to gain from college and a degree? College certainly, at this point, wasn’t to stay busy or to get a job. I had gotten through years of medical trauma and uncertainty by accomplishing feat after feat, which was also how I rediscovered myself, but I was hungry for a different kind of experience.
I just simply wanted the opportunity to know “what else” was out there, to see what I had missed out on. I wanted to expose myself to diverse interests, meet people from all over, study subjects I didn’t even know existed. College seemed like a huge, unknown realm of endless possibilities, where I could graduate with unexpected, new found inspiration.
Caption: Cramming for exams and cramming food into my face…
Despite this sense of uplift, feeling the occasional downward pull of doubt, I asked myself, “If not now, when?” When I couldn’t give a good enough answer, I knew it was time to start browsing colleges online. Then it took a bunch of courage and getting past a lot of inertia to decide that after years of an “education in real life,” I wanted to go through the entire college application process again.
So, what followed was months of printing out college applications, submitting forms, and re-writing college essays. Reflecting on what years of medical disappointments and frustrations had ultimately done to my spirit, I titled my essay “Keeping Hunger Alive.” Six years with no food or drink? Let’s just say I picked an essay topic I had become quite the expert at. College had nothing on me.
Dreaming (Then Reality Intervenes), and then a Dream Finally Become Real
Caption: 27 surgeries has nothing on me…
How has it turned out? When I was confronted with medical trauma in the blink of an eye, I re-routed my life on an alternate pathway of creativity and healing, branching out from my original plan to study performing arts. And going back to college at age twenty-five has given me an even wider array of colors to paint my life’s path with: I feel as though my vistas are much more boundless. In effect, I’ve reawakened and regenerated my thirst for knowledge.
I plan on graduating with a degree, but that’s not my main concern. What’s more important: I’ve given myself the opportunity to be exposed to new ideas, people, subjects and stimulation. I’ve networked with career counselors, learned how to make a tattoo, met kids from other countries, and the best thing of all – I’ve put myself out there.
I’ve just turned twenty-nine, and I’ve experienced even more highs and lows in the three years since I started college: I’ve been frustrated by more disastrous surgeries, and have also been overjoyed by planning the wedding of my dreams last year. I’ve toured the country – to other colleges, ironically – with a musical theatre sexual assault prevention program and I’ve given a TEDx Talk. I’ve had even more medical hurdles, and I’ve dealt with devastating grief. I’ve learned what it means to have life change in an instant in ways I could have never expected after having surviving death – I had to move on, after learning my husband had filed for divorce.
These aren’t all typical things you deal with your junior year of college. But in college, everyone’s on their own path anyway. In fact, I’ve never felt a firmer sense of belonging. Every morning I come to campus, I come away with a bit more of myself. Me with or without an ostomy, with or without my husband and first l’ve of my life, and with or without the “why me’s” I’ve wanted to shout as I watched year and year go by from the window o a hospital room, wondering when life would finally start or me.
College taught me that life can tart now – at any given moment. It’s a lesson I need to continually remind myself when life takes a detour. It’s never too late to get back on track. As I finish the academic year having gained and lost a husband, lost and gained a few more medical complications, and allowed myself to learn from every surprise in my path, I’m filled with pride for what I thought I could never achieve. When I doctors forbade me from eating and drinking for years, I barely had the focus to concentrate on reading a magazine ad. Now, what amazes me the most is that I’ve really finished my third year at Hampshire College! I’ve written a three-act play about my story, I’ve taught art to children, and continue to study art education; I’ve also learned how to make puzzles, sculptures, studied Asian performance art, and have even become well-versed in psychology.
Late Bloomers Still Bloom
I’ve shown myself that it’s never too late…for anything. That even late bloomers bloom, and in the most beautiful spring colors.
Of course, there are also real-life matters to figure out as I finish my final year of college. I’m still figuring out how I can sustain a business, pay the bills, take care of my medical situation, and make a two-and-a-half-hour commute every week. But I feel so lucky to have the chance to learn and get my education at any age.
In my final poetry session at Hampshire, my professor used me as an example for the class. I was the only one gabbing on and on about a poem, and he asked why more students didn’t volunteer their opinions. I responded: “Professor – in the class’s defense – I feel like I kid in a candy store going to college at age twenty-eight. If I had just been through eighteen years of school and had to go right to college — and concentrate some more, I think it’s possible I wouldn’t give a hoot what you were saying!” What I was trying to articulate, I think, is whatpsychology calls cognitive reframing – that actually my long-delayed college student status had turned out to be a gift— far better, in fact, than if things had gone as I had originally planned.
It’s true. I almost feel like I’m sneaking my hand into a big jar of candy, reaping the sweet rewards of learning from inspiring, amazing professors, students and ideas – and knowing that as a teen, I probably would not have cared as much. Now, at this age, I’ve also got real-life experience behind me — to really put into action what I’m learning in textbooks. In effect, there is a “context” behind my professor’s lectures. I’ve always been interested in the arts, creativity and working with others, and now I’m gearing myself towards a degree in expressive therapies – an amazing way to integrate my love of the arts with education, and a way to help others heal, as I have healed from my own terrible trauma. All because of life’s crazy interventions…and college, of course!
I’m grateful that life’s been rocky and turbulent. Only now have I realized how strong I am and how independent I can be. And, I’m so grateful for these forced “gap years.” It’s better late than never – and sometimes, it’s just better late.