Around this time last year, it became obvious that I wasn’t on track to graduate this spring. The writing had been on the wall for sometime, in retrospect, but there was always some hypothetical plan that could get me over the finish line just in time, until there wasn’t.
I was ambivalent about the prospect of going to college in the first place. For a kid from a middle-class family in New England, it seemed like the path of least resistance (for it to feel that way was, of course, a tremendous privilege in itself.) But for me, college presented major questions of feasibility — the specter of chronic mental illness had made it difficult enough to graduate from high school, even with generous accommodation. When I opened the acceptance email from Northwestern, though, the initial rush of joy calcified into unbridled determination: I would go, and I would graduate, goddammit.
In purely statistical terms, my four years here have been a train wreck. I have never managed to make it through a quarter carrying four credits. Major low points have at various points derailed my schoolwork, repeatedly tanking my GPA. I’ve rarely ever worked up the nerve to explain my circumstances to professors — how do you tell someone that you weren’t in class because you had a psychotic episode at Target earlier that day? Is there any chance they’d see you the same way if they knew?
In the wake of hospitalizations or dropped classes, my mother would encourage me not to catastrophize, reminding me that “worst case scenario, it’ll just take you longer to graduate.” The prospect made me sick to my stomach. Graduating on time was not just a matter of months on the calendar; to me, it represented inclusion in a normative category, a certification of my ability to live a life of value in spite of my illness.
In her essay “Yale Will Not Save You,” the writer Esmé Weijun Wang recounts having a similar belief in the deliverance of elite education during her college years. “‘I went to Yale’ is shorthand for I have schizoaffective disorder, but I’m not worthless,” she writes. Yale ending up asking Wang to leave after she went through a hospitalization; she graduated from Stanford instead.
Elite universities have cleverly framed discussions of “accessibility” and “inclusion” as if it’s an unfortunate oversight that many would find them inaccessible or exclusive, rather than acknowledge that their exclusivity is in large part the very reason for their existence. Everyone wants to see the reality of who gets to attend a school like Northwestern expanded, so long as that expansion doesn’t require any structural change on the part of the institution. So the burden of assimilation into a place created to keep us out falls, conveniently enough, on ourselves.
At the beginning of this year, I transferred into the School of Professional Studies, and have since been making progress towards my degree at night. At first, I didn’t tell anyone, including my closest friends, about the switch — I was embarrassed that my best efforts weren’t good enough to graduate from Weinberg. I still am, sometimes. But I’m trying to instead be proud that I’ve found a way to make this work, and that my sense of value in this world is no longer contingent on it working.
Statistically, my time here has been a train wreck, but qualitatively, it has been all sorts of things at once: frustrating and inspiring and joyful and sad, full of triumph and heartbreak in equal measure. This is what my mom had referred to as “the worst-case scenario;” it’s a little lonely here, but it’s also lush in a way I wasn’t expecting. Congratulations to everyone graduating this weekend; I look forward to meeting you on the other side.