There is nothing I enjoy more than a triumphant cinematic graduation scene. Arguably the best example is when Elle Woods graduates law school in Legally Blonde—although honourable mention must be given to Rory Gilmore when she graduates both high school and college during the run of Gilmore Girls, and Lizzie Maguire’s eventful graduation from junior high.
I love these moments because graduation (no matter what it is from) represents the end of a struggle. Achieving qualifications is not only a struggle to pass, but it also involves a struggle to maintain a sense of self and a balanced lifestyle in the process. So it is only natural to relish in the montages and reflections that come with these scenes in movies and television series. As the observer, we are acquainted with the character’s struggle and could not be prouder of what they overcame in order to stand at graduation.
My time at law school coincided with the most intense years of personal development I have experienced to date, due to significant external and internal events. So when I graduated last week, a private triumphant montage played in my head as finally I graduated from law school. I graduated with first class honours in law and a bachelor of arts in political science. I say this proudly (and partly in shock) because while some may regard that sentence as boastful, to me, it encapsulates more than an achievement. It is proof that I can conquer anything and achieve highly.
When I marched into the arena to graduate I did so surrounded by friends who no doubt were all experiencing their own private cinematic montages as well. Despite wearing robes so heavy they choked me, I walked a couple of inches above the ground because I was finally claiming victory over the metaphorical weight of study, toxic circumstances and mental road blocks that plagued the last five years. While I know I will experience stress again, none will be comprise the unique blend of stressors that occurred at university.
When I took my seat at graduation I did so with the realisation that the university had not made a mistake. I would be graduating and be considered qualified by society. My journey to university, like many peoples’, began with words of encouragement. As long as I can remember I have known the end goal was university because my Dad’s favourite go to subject was “What do you think you want to study at uni, buster?” My father did this with no agenda other than showing an active interest in my continued learning. He never considered me too young to start aspiring to be a more qualified version of myself. Hence why we formulated plans for me to become a nurse, teacher, psychologist and journalist over the years before I settled on law. Even while I was studying law Dad would always took me seriously when I threatened to drop out and helped me think of different action plans.
A dominant moment I kept reliving while I watched other people graduate was the 18-year-old version of myself sitting outside that law building a week before university began. At the time I fought back tears as I wondered how on earth I was going to cope. It is in my nature to be fearful. Before I began law school I was scared of being alone, of being stupid and failing. The fact that I was sitting at graduation five years later was proof that I learned to harness this fear and not give up. I failed numerous tutorial tests during first year, arrived at exams ill-prepared and had terrible feedback on my first honours draft, but these experiences only increased my desire to improve. I loved a good comeback story so much that I never stopped making my own.
My montage of moments consisted of more than academic achievements. Personal development is inevitable while you are at university. For me, that personal development spanned a spectrum of achievements as trivial as finally learning how to drive to seeking professional help for past trauma and anxiety. In fact, I was attending therapy in the last six months of my degree and finished the day before I handed in my dissertation. After finishing university I moved, started my graduate job and finally started to feel free from my past circumstances. I did not carry any burdens over into my new life and that is because of the hard work I completed on my mental health at the end of my degree.
While at university I experienced many traditional university experiences. I had my first proper group of friends and boyfriend, I took classes that I thought I would love and hated and vice versa, I broke three laptops, did all-nighters, started and overcome an energy drink addiction and started going to the gym. All of these experiences share one common element: now with the gift of hindsight, I perceive all of them differently and would therefore act differently. That is a gift. I can acknowledge that my youth and lack of experience contributed to mistakes and behaviour I am not proud of. Instead of being sad, I am confident these mistakes will not be repeated in my next life chapter.
I also encountered some not so traditional experiences such as life-changing earthquakes that ruined my city. I choose to complete university without ever consuming an alcoholic beverage. I preferred to spend time with my family than at parties. And in the absence of professional opportunities I committed a lot of my time to charity work. It is these less traditional experiences that have shaped me more than the traditional ones. The closeness of my family throughout my degree is a huge reason why I succeeded the way I did in the end. And I am immensely proud to have stayed true to myself and my broken city.
I became a feminist at university. Interestingly, I cannot pin this down to one particular moment. Instead, it is due to a combination of my mother’s values, political science classes, lecturers, and the incredibly strong women I befriended throughout my time at university. As the years ticked by, I learned to surround myself with only those people who supported me. Particularly during my honours years, I was friends with girls who studied with me, wrote with me and proofread my work when I got nasty (but honest) feedback. I never felt like I was competing with my female counterparts. I have carried this attitude into the workplace, and I am already starting to see the benefits.
I am not the same person I was when I began university. Thank goodness.
University made me a better version of myself. While the struggles I endured were unbearable at the time, I would do them all again, because when I crossed the stage to receive my degrees I was proud to be seen by an auditorium of people as the woman I had become. That is the final lesson university taught me – I do not need to apologise for feeling proud.
Some people would say graduating from university is closing a chapter. I consider it as finishing a whole book. I will not encounter the unique circumstances and stresses of university or the younger version of myself again. I am pleased to put that book on the shelf at last and open a new one. Let’s hope it is far more interesting than a legal textbook.