I didn’t graduate from college in four years. Or five. Or even six. In 2015, I finally earned my bachelor’s from Princeton after starting school seven years before, in the fall of 2008.
My extended path through college used to be a source of great personal shame. I was embarrassed that my twin sister and friends successfully advanced from semester to semester, while I lagged behind. In the course of three years, I left and re-enrolled at Princeton three different times.
My decision to take three leaves of absence was difficult, though necessary. My dad had been diagnosed with cancer just weeks after I received my acceptance letter to Princeton. I couldn’t understand how the best thing that happened in my life — being admitted into my dream college after years of hard work and sacrifice — could coincide with the worst.
When I began my freshman year, I thought I would be fine. But starting off in a new environment knowing that my dad’s health was going to get worse proved to be more than I could handle. After I became physically and mentally unable to manage the stress of college life and my father’s illness, I came home to New York. The deans allowed me to take my final exams months later, so that I could at least be graded for my first semester.
For the past two years, I have served as a college counselor at a high school in the Bronx. Much of my days are spent advising high school seniors as they make big decisions about where to apply and where to matriculate. This is my new favorite time of year. In the college counseling world, March is ever hopeful as students hear feedback and receive acceptances from colleges every day.
When students come to me for advice, I try to be as open with them as possible. I love sharing stories about living with roommates for the first time and the charming campus I was lucky enough to call home. Many of my students will be the first in their families to graduate from college. I remind them of how they are role models who will pave the way for their younger siblings and the generations to come.
But when students ask if college will be difficult, I tell them the truth. Despite how prepared I thought I was, college was an incredibly taxing time in my life in more ways than I could imagine. I was tested personally, emotionally, and pushed to my limits. There were several occasions when I didn’t believe I would ever graduate.
My dad used to say that my persistence was one of my best qualities. I am proud that I came back to school after each isolating and lonely leave of absence, eager to start over. Though it took me twice as long as the average student to earn my degree, I am no longer ashamed to share this part of my story.
I am writing this piece because I want my students to know that it is okay to take time off. If you are battling illness, loss, or just need a break, it is not only acceptable but brave to step back and reevaluate. I do not regret leaving Princeton after one semester of college and I do not regret asking the deans if I could leave again and again until I finally was ready to return.
Colleges are ranked based on their graduation rates, among other factors. I think this statistic is dangerous as it implies that graduating “on time” makes a school worthy of recognition. If I teach my students one thing this year, it is that there is no timeline in life. Whether in terms of school or other milestones, there is no such thing as “on time.” A friend taught me this after I withdrew from Princeton six years ago, and her advice was liberating. As I move forward and face new successes and setbacks, her words are forever etched in my mind.
Originally published at medium.com