Always a student, never a graduate.

I am officially a graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Graphic Design from The Art Institute of Pittsburgh.

I received a 100% on my final portfolio grade, at portfolio review I received a Merit Award for academic excellence for my portfolio and I graduated with my 4.0 GPA in tact. You may call me an overachiever, but achieving those goals feels incredible.

I am the first in my family to graduate. It took me a decade to do so.

Let me tell you a little story about why it took so long and why it is such a huge personal accomplishment to finally earn my degree.

I graduated high school and began college in 2004 at 17-years-old. I was always the youngest in my classes and I was often told I had a lot of potential and was ahead of the game. But as it inevitably does, life got in the way. I attended community college for two years. I was home schooled my whole life and so I started my college life with baby steps, first attending a dual enrollment program at a community college during my junior and senior year of high school, and then by taking only two or three classes per semester while also holding a job or two. I was focusing in general arts and taking English/Creative Writing classes, as well as a photography course or two, on the side for my own pleasure. In 2006, I applied for The Art Institute of Pittsburgh – I was interested in Photography, but after seeing my drawings, they talked me into enrolling in the Graphic Design program. I was there for one quarter, and then life happened and I had to drop out due to financial reasons. It was a really hard move for me to make and the black cloud of failure followed me for years.

I spent the next few years working as a teacher and manager at a local art school that I had been working at since I was 16-years-old and attending lessons at since I was 8-years-old. I had the opportunity to build a life through that art school; I could have taken it over and been owner. But I always had that lingering feeling in the back of my mind and heart that told me I wanted to go back to school. I have always had a hunger for learning, I’m one of those girls, and I desperately wanted to be back in school and to earn my degree.

In 2010, I made the big decision to return to school. I worked my butt off to get my portfolio together and apply for a few choice schools. One of those schools was the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. I applied for their Illustration program, and I was accepted. In August of 2010, I moved to Baltimore on my own. I had never lived outside of Pittsburgh (although I’ve traveled all over the world) and I was choosing to leave my family and my long-term boyfriend back home. I was terrified and it was – at the time – the hardest thing I’d done. Although I loved MICA, I was miserable in Baltimore. I was so alone and so lost. I was the oldest in almost all of my classes, felt so awkward and out of place, and I absolutely hated doing a long-distance relationship. But I had fought for it, and I was determined to see it through. I was going to best that black cloud of failure and not let it in my life ever again. I was not going to leave another school, no matter how unhappy I was there.

And then in January of 2011, when I was home over Christmas break, my boyfriend and I were in a terrible car accident. That is an entire post of it’s own – maybe one day – but to make an incredibly long story short – we were hospitalized for awhile, we underwent multiple surgeries, we both had to have in-home nurses tending to us for months after the accident, the hospital bills went well over $100,00. Each. I had no choice but to drop out of MICA and move back home to Pittsburgh. I needed my family’s help – emotionally and physically – and I could not be away from my boyfriend after coming so close to losing him. On top of all the physical and emotional struggles I went through following the accident, I now had that black cloud of failure over my head again. It seemed I was not meant to graduate from college.

But in July of 2011, still recovering from the wounds I suffered in the accident, I was at a very low point in my depression. I was unemployed, I was out of school and I was scarred from the accident – mentally, emotionally and physically. But I had fought so hard the year before to return to school, I wasn’t about to just let that all go to waste. So one summer day, I took a walk down to The Art Institute of Pittsburgh on a whim and I spoke to admissions. Two weeks later, I started the Summer session there, pursuing my Bachelor’s in Graphic Design.

Two years and then some later, nearly a decade after first beginning my journey in college, I have finally graduated.

It wasn’t easy. I worked multiple jobs, I held an internship, I wracked up debt while also paying as much as I could out of pocket. I struggled with always being the oldest in my classes. I struggled with feeling inexperienced. I struggled with making friends. I wondered often if I was in the right place, doing what I was supposed to be doing. I have never had a lot of self-confidence and I battled with that many, many times throughout the past two years. But I was fortunate to have incredibly supportive instructors who – whether they know it or not – convinced me to stay in school and to follow it through. They believed in me and it gave me the courage, and maybe a little bit of confidence, to do it.

And here I am.

Finally a graduate.

It’s a special thing for anyone to graduate. But for me, it feels a little bit more of a personal achievement due to the incredibly emotional journey that it has been. It wasn’t just about getting a degree. It was about finally proving to myself that maybe, just maybe, I have something worth sharing. And that sometimes, we really can achieve our dreams.

And now I’m going to sleep for a week.

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