Take a deep breath. This will probably be the longest breath of your life. Even though it will be difficult, it will be a familiar one. The air filling your lungs will be the same you once eagerly inhaled during your first day on campus. It is the breath that drove your actions when you thought you knew everything, and the very same you breath you slowly exhaled while learning this wasn't true.
This familiar motion has been one of the few constants during your academic journey. It's a breath that has fueled early days of simple imagination and horrifying puberty, and later years of slow maturation and profound understanding. The longevity of your young life will feel surreal. Although you know this is only the beginning, you will realize how far you have already come.
As the air flows up toward your head, you might anticipate a moment of clarity as it refreshes your mind. You may await a flash that will sum up everything you have hoped to accomplish throughout college. Maybe even achievements you wish you could boast to your younger self will pop up, and advice learned from lessons that were once disguised as the end of the world will all come back to you. That's a lot to expect from one breath of air.
We are programed to think epiphanies will somehow come to us if the mood is set right, as if the last sunrise watched on our campus' horizon with our three closest friends are the exact ingredients for awareness and closure. We are forced to measure our achievements and are unfulfilled if they don't meet our expectations. We make graduation become our judgment day, assessing and comparing how well we have spent our time.
Graduation is tough, especially when you think it is the end. As with an end to any journey, we wonder how we got there. In college, there are often two mottoes that guide us: “Everything happens for a reason,” and “Pain is temporary, GPA is forever.” Proverbs of the optimist are constantly grounded by the certainty of the realist. Although balance is ideal and certainly accomplishable, our mantra seems to become the foundation of our regrets.
During the actual graduation ceremony, the realist may think of the concrete future they await, but they might also regret the memories they failed to create. Perhaps the free spirit will find remorse in their confidence in fate, while possibly facing the hard decisions and responsibilities that fate helped to avoid.
Each college graduate will go through some similar journey outlined by the five stages of grief. There will be denial of graduation, anger from the unfulfilled, bargaining for more years, depression due to time travel's failure (seriously, how have we not done this yet?) and acceptance that the past has happened and life moves on.
But if life is measured in breaths, then you have barely lived. One date set by a school's administration does not mark the end of a timeline for accomplishments. It does not determine how you should price the time you spent. It most certainly does not determine your fate.
However, with fate comes its burden: It presents great adventures, but they are filled with choices only you can make. Balancing between adventure and responsibility will guide your growth, instead of those dreaded midnight deadlines. Whether you are a rationalist, a dreamer or something else entirely, one thing you are not, is a failure. You made it. Congratulations.
So, deny graduation. Your last moments will feel natural, not forced. Let yourself be angry, and bargain for more time. Be sad when it doesn't work because those feelings mean those moments mattered. Accept the fears of the unknown world beyond graduation, let them motivate you. Realize that you'll never stop learning.
Mostly importantly, as you sit in the audience on graduation day wondering how the future will play out, take a deep breath. As you take a deep breath, remember to keep breathing. When you focus on that, all of your memories and lessons from the last four years will finally make sense. And that clarity provided by your graduation ceremony is the ultimate closure.