Essence of Living: I Finally Graduated College

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“And miles to go before I sleep …” – Robert Frost

If you’re reading this post, I graduated from college.

Key word: Finally. I don’t know how anyone expects an 17- or 18-year-old to know what they want to do, let alone what college is right for them at that age. You’re supposed to be an “adult” and be making your first adult decision, but the fact is, I’m nearly 10 years removed from that and I’m still not adulting yet.

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I did it! (Dress: Calvin Klein, “Congrats” balloon: Spritz for Target)

I finally graduated from college this weekend. It took me NINE YEARS. I transferred between five schools and switched my major four times (five if you count me changing my mind my senior year of high school.) It’s hard to know what you want.

My mom wanted me to be the next Heidi Watney or Tina Cervasio on the Red Sox sideline, and while that certainly isn’t my dream job, it is a dream job and maybe I should’ve listened to her. My ACT scores all topped out in broadcast journalism, writing and music. I wanted to go to school for musical theater, my parents said no, so I went for art my junior and senior years. I decided fashion design was what I would pursue. I applied to every prestigious art school across the country and got into most of them–FIDM, SCAD, SAIC, Pratt, Parsons—and then I took “Media & Society” the second half of my senior year of high school. Just an elective to chew up some credits. An easy “A,” I thought.

It was. We studied the Nielson ratings. I fell in love with CSI, the three-citied franchise dominated all the top spots then. I decided, the student who took two science classes, that I would apply to more schools for that instead.

My guidance counselor thought I was nuts. Maybe I was. She told me I wouldn’t get in anywhere. She was wrong. My extracurriculars were excellent, my grades were “eh,” my essay was amazing and my SAT scores were some of the best in our class. I got into nearly every non-art school I applied to … for a degree in forensic science.

I eventually chose Penn State, the program was one of the best in the country and the school had name recognition, a decorated football program and was a top party school. Sounded like the college experience to me. Unfortunately, by the time I committed, housing at State College was totally full and I was somewhere around No. 200 on the wait list. First and second year students have to live in PSU-sponsored housing. I got deferred to four other campuses before I ended up at a small, mostly commuter campus in rural eastern Pennsylvania. 

I made a few good friends, we had some fun, but by mid-April of my second semester, I was done. I was depressed, skipping class and secluding myself in my apartment. I couldn’t wait a whole year longer to head to University Park, so I came home. 

I ended up at Holyoke Community College, where I probably should’ve gone to start. I loved it there–my teachers were top-notch–I succeeded in my classes, and I was working full-time on top of it. I took as many classes as I could there and I set my sights on transferring again.

I chose John Jay College in New York City for many reasons. At that point, I was a double major in forensic science and psychology, and I could continue that program there. I also had the advantage of being in New York City, the place I love more than life itself, and I could audition and be involved in musical theater again. New York would make and break me.

I started a little blog, you might’ve heard of…it was Shoes, Shirts & Other Sh!t. I documented the random things, until I had an amazing opportunity that changed my little blogger life. (Thanks, Lianne!) Suddenly, I was a mini-journalist. I literally had no idea what I was doing, but before I could figure it out, I was backstage at fashion week, then sitting in the first row for the shows…interviewing Elizabeth Hurley and Ashley Greene…going to showrooms for previews and testing out beauty products. I loved it. And I was also involved in multiple theatrical productions, two of which I was the lead–both just off-Broadway.

“When did you go to school?” you ask. Well that’s an excellent question. I really was phoning it in. I went to class intermittently and I hated it. I had changed my major to behavioral analysis in an effort to graduate sooner, but it was too late. I was barely passing the classes I was taking, I had lost my actual paying job when the salon I was working at closed and I had moved into an apartment that I hated after looking at 53 apartments and basically being out of options.

So my mom sent me movers to help pack my things a second time in a month and I came home. I went back to HCC. At this point, it’s the summer of 2012, and if you’re counting, I should’ve graduated in May 2011. 

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With my Aunt Joann, Auntie Karen, Mom, best friend Sinnet, and Dad

I switched my major to communication. I aced nearly every class. I got a B+ in Mass Comm, I hated my teacher. I loved learning again, I loved going to class and I didn’t even mind doing homework. I hated that I wasn’t in New York, but I felt like I had teachers and an advisor who cared about my success. I got involved in theater there too and in the school’s radio station, and got an A.A. in Communication in 2013. It was something.

I was supposed to transfer into Westfield State, but I missed the deadline. I was a “continuing ed” student my first semester and I hated it. I didn’t know anyone, commuting was terrible and I barely survived the semester. I decided to skip out and enroll in online classes at Southern New Hampshire University the next semester, but I hated that even more and none of my core classes I had taken to get my A.A. transferred in. I finally went back through the actual transfer process and went back to Westfield State January of 2015.

This time I had a transfer orientation, and a transfer advisor from the comm department (thank you, Maddy!). This time, things felt real again. I had a schedule made and classes to go to. I had  a real advisor in my major assigned to me, not just some dud in the admissions office. I got straight A’s that semester and made the Dean’s List for the first time in my life.

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Getting ready for commencement with my friend Talia

I was scheduled to graduate in December, taking online classes over the summer to complete my requirements, but last summer, I spent down in Baltimore. I got caught up in the whole not-living-at-home thing again, was enjoying my new friendships, working a lot and going to my internship three days a week. Classes were on the back burner again. 

So I set myself back another semester. I took a full, six class course load in the fall and made Dean’s List again. I hadn’t taken that many classes since my freshman year at Penn State. I was involved in our campus TV station and made friends, who all were kind enough to tell me they thought I was 21 or 22, too, when they found out I had a few years on ’em. (My wrinkles thank you all.)

I finished this spring, even in my most “checked out” state. I even took an independent study with one of my favorite professors from last semester; I didn’t need the credits. I hated comm research, and oftentimes, I was daunted by papers for my other classes, wondering when I would have time to write them with back-t0-back classes and working two jobs. I figured it out though.

I got straight A’s again; I made Dean’s List again; I was inducted into the national communication honors society, Lambda Pi Eta, and won two awards for our department. I keep joking that I stood up more than I sat at our annual awards dinner.

And Saturday, after nine, long, terribly confusing, often terrifying, years full of sweat, blood, tears and yelling … finally relief … 

Candidate for the Bachelor of Arts in Communication:

Erika Leigh Belezarian, Cum Laude

It was a blur. I don’t remember if anyone clapped or cheered for me. I don’t even care. I remember our president congratulating me, so sincerely, without even knowing how long this took me, but it felt like he knew, and then he said to me, “let’s take a picture!” for the camera waiting in front of us. I remember hugging our department chair, Susan, for what seemed like forever.

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Then the tassel turn. I remember processing out … into the tunnel under the arena … where all the professors were waiting and clapping … and the joy I felt … finally reaching our department– having each professor hug me and my fellow grads; congratulating us.

And that was it.

Nine years I waited for that moment and it was perfect. I thought hearing my name would be the best part, but it wasn’t. It was seeing the amazing professors who helped me turn it around when I was uncertain of how things would turn out.

I wish they had been my professors all along when I first left for school in 2007, but I wonder if I would appreciate them as much as I do now. 

My story, if you can learn anything from it, is to weigh all your options before making a decision, even though, I’ve lived a whole, amazing, if not, adverse, life in the process … and also to never give up

And mom, I’m sorry for not listening to you. 

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