News

Gone to Graduation in My Mind: Leaving College Amid a Global Crisis

April 17, 2020 
Story by Hannah Lang ’16
 

This is what my last few months of college were supposed to look like:

Papers. Projects. Sunny days sitting on the quad between classes.

Graduation day, complete with Carolina blue cap and gown. Family brunch at the Carolina Inn. Way too many pictures in the harsh lighting of the Carolina sun.

Parties. Ceremonies. End of the road moments.

It would be a tearful, traditional, goodbye to what — according to conventional wisdom — had been the best four years of my life.

And here I am — in my pajamas at 11 a.m., sitting on my dad’s couch with a nearly finished bachelor’s degree and three half-finished applications for open positions at grocery stores. No graduation, no end of the road moments, no post-grad summer internship to jet off to when it’s all over.

Here I am, living through a historic event. It’s tragic and traumatic and exhausting. Many people are suffering, and I’m enormously lucky to be healthy and safe.

Still, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on what I’d imagined this month would look like.

I took for granted that it was all going to happen for me — the cap and gown, the sunny days, the pomp and circumstance of taking my first step into a seemingly bright future. But now the economy is tanking, the world is shut down and I turn on the news every morning to thousands of people sick and dying.

It is, to say the very least, not what I expected for my senior spring.

**

At first, I didn’t want to go to UNC. I grew up in Chapel Hill and I wanted to get out, if only to signal that I had quite literally moved on to bigger and better things.

The last thing I want to do, I told my guidance counselor, is move 10 minutes down the road.

I applied because she told me I could get in, and I needed a safety option given all the selective colleges I had on my list.

Fine, I told her, remembering the project I’d done in seventh grade when the class was assigned a research project on the university of our choice.

One by one, my classmates had presented their homemade posters: UNC-Chapel Hill, East Carolina, Western Carolina, UNC-Charlotte.

I probably scoffed, which is embarrassing to recount now. I was an elitist and rather arrogant 12-year-old.

I walked up and slapped my light-blue poster board covered in glued-on pictures of grecian columns and manicured lawns onto the desk in front of me. “COLUMBIA,” I had scrawled in handwritten bubble letters across the top.

Schools like Columbia, with their sky-high tuition and rock-bottom admissions rates, had to be the best, I thought. And I was going to be the best.

Bigger and better things, I told myself. If I just worked hard enough, I’d get there.

**

I was the kind of kid who read books during recess, so as you might imagine, I wasn’t popular in grade school.

When things were hard or when I felt alone, I relied on the image of some far-off version of my life to get me through it.

Still, I was frequently reminded that as much as I wanted to will something into existence, things were often more complicated. I wanted to be a brilliant ballet dancer, but I didn’t have the body for it. I wanted to be the top of my class at my private high school, but years in less rigorous schools left me playing catch-up.

And when I applied to college — nine, including Tufts, Georgetown, Swarthmore, Duke, University of Chicago and Columbia — I was rejected by all of them, except for one.

Thanks to my years spent shooting for the Ivy League, I had the scores and the grades to get into UNC-Chapel Hill.

I remember grudgingly communicating with some higher power: Fine, God. You want me to go to UNC? I’ll go to UNC.

And it wasn’t half bad. I wrote for the student paper and got a part-time job at a beloved burger joint. I saw Barack Obama speak and rushed Franklin Street after we won the NCAA basketball championship and danced in a student production of The Producers that governor-elect Roy Cooper came to see. And that was just my freshman year.

I let loose and had fun and was still learning, all the time. And Chapel Hill, that sleepy Southern hometown that I told myself would soon be in my past, found a new, beloved place in my heart.

A part of me couldn’t let go of the idea that if I just put my nose to the grindstone and focused on the right things, I could guarantee the distant future would look the way I’d always imagined it. That’s what I told myself as I sat in the library late at night, scrambling for good grades or agonizing over my latest story for The Daily Tar Heel.

The harder I worked, I thought, the more certain that bright and beckoning future became. And at graduation, after a four-year delay, I’d still be on my way.

**

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the lives of every American on its head, and mine is no exception.

My summer internship has been deferred, my graduation is postponed and I’m looking for a temporary place to live in the Triangle. I’m applying to all the jobs I can: receptionist, grocery clerk, part-time copywriter. It is not the adulthood my seventh-grade self dreamed of.

Looking back, there were so many times that I let my investment in a glitzy future take me out of the present. It seems pretty stupid, now that I realize none of it was ever a given.

If I could go back to my 12-year-old self — or my 16-year-old self, or my 20-year-old self for that matter — I would shake her by the shoulders and say this:

Listen — look forward to it, but don’t bank on it. Don’t let it be all you have. Don’t put yourself in misery now because you think that somehow this self-directed suffering in the present will guarantee you something in the future.

You roll your eyes when people say it, but it’s true: all you have is right now. All that’s guaranteed is what’s in front of you. You’re going to learn that many, many times over the course of your life. My only hope is that each time it sinks into your thick skull just a little more than the last.

I’d like to think she’d listen to me. But I was a pretty arrogant seventh-grader.

Editor’s Note: After penning this piece, Lang shared that she has been selected for an internship with the Wall Street Journal economics team in Washington, D.C., beginning in January 2021. This summer, she is serving as The Daily Tar Heel’s online managing editor.
Originally published on mediahub.unc.edu.