Just like anything else in life, college does not hold the same experiences for everyone. Some people get in and out in four years, and others can only dream of five or more.

 

When I was in high school I cared a lot about my education. I put everything on the line and did what I had to. I had very specific plans for my future. It didn’t matter that I woke up at 6 a.m. and went to bed at midnight. A busy schedule is necessary when it’s the only way to fit every desired class. Honors courses and several extracurriculars were manageable when it was all I knew.

 

Upon graduating high school, it could feel like the hardest thing one had to work for. Some might feel they "bled for this, sweat for this or cried for this.” But whatever “this” is depends largely on what is wanted. For me, I knew I wanted to be a Spanish teacher, and that I would be graduating as part of SIUE class of 2022.

 

What I didn’t know was that, after almost five years of having these plans, I would realize teaching wasn’t the right fit for me. I didn’t know that my financial aid would be so low. I didn’t know that my plans were crumbling.

 

I went from 16-18 credit hours to less than full-time. I am doing less than half of what I did my first semester, and it still feels unreal to be giving up so much. I had this big picture, this big plan, and was following it up until 6 months ago.

 

The problem is life isn’t static or simple. Everyone says it’s OK for things to change, but I can’t recall anyone ever mentioning how much financial aid can change from year to year. They all just say, “Be smart with your money!” But there’s nothing “being smart” can do to change my family’s financial situation in a way that will help me.

 

I am where I am, and I am making the best of the situation - but that doesn’t stop how I feel. Inadequate. Confused. Backwards. 

 

I can’t help but think I would feel less of this if someone had mentioned how financial aid can change so drastically before it happened. Or if anyone had told me that award packages only estimate what you need. Advisers tell you it’s ok to change majors, and that’s as far as I have ever heard in my college career.

 

So for those that need to hear it: taking longer than four years is OK. Taking a break is OK. Being a part-time student is OK. My experience, whatever it is, for whatever reason, is valid and so is anyone else’s.

 

I feel less alone knowing there is research and numbers to say what I am going through is normal. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, on average, it can take 5.5 years to finish an associate degree. Bachelor’s degrees are taking an average of 5.7 years for completion.

 

Doesn’t that say something? Associates are intended to take two years, but it commonly takes over twice as long. This isn’t an isolated issue - this is something so resounding in society that there is active research on it. It’s widely recognized, and yet it’s not something discussed enough.

 

Education and mental well-being is much more than a four-year program in a chosen field. Part of college is learning time management and life skills. Mental health and financial needs are as much life skills as adhering to a schedule.

 

No matter what anyone says, your path in college is unconditionally valid. You may not be able to finish it on time or even ever, but you learned something while you were here and the value you put to it is was it becomes. Be open to the idea of a break or things changing, and be open to grow from any unexpected experience. 

 

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