I had waited till I was in my apartment to open the envelope. Normally, I was excited to receive mail from my mom. It almost always contained money. Sometimes she’d write a cute little message to encourage me.
But this envelope was different.
It was stuffed with tri-folded papers that bore my name.
Beneath my name and a paragraph or two of lifeless text, there were dollar amounts. These amounts totaled together in sums of money I had no comprehension of at the age of 23.
I can’t tell you what your college graduation will be like.
But I can tell you how mine went.
It wasn’t pretty. I wish I could turn this into a funny, witty joke, but there were few laughs to be had during the time. I thought college graduation would be cool, fun, and exciting, like high school graduation but more cinematic and sexy.
What I felt when I finished college couldn’t have been further from how I felt at the end of high school.
It was a few weeks out from college graduation…
And I was seeing the grand total of my student debt, laid out in front of me for the first time ever.
I thought I had been calculating along the way. I thought I was better at math than this. I was realizing a lot of things I thought I knew were completely wrong.
The tri-fold papers dropped from my hand as I collapsed in the cheap, wooden chair behind me. I looked around my sparse apartment furnished with second hand goods, wondering if there was anything I could sell.
Even if I managed to get rid of all of it, the money I made wouldn’t make a dent in my debt.
My life was imploding.
I think it had been for the past year, maybe more. And I was finally realizing it.
It wasn’t just the debt.
I had no real job. No steady income. I was about to leave college, which meant I was losing the structure that held my life together for half a decade. I could already feel the strain on my college friendships.
I didn’t know it then, but I would lose most of those friends over the next year.
I felt inadequate.
My sister and her husband had just given my parents’ their first grandkid. My brother had married months earlier and was looking to buy a home so he could start a family. My roommate was in the middle of planning his wedding.
I was going to be a groomsman, and I didn’t even know how I was going to pay for my tux rental.
It seemed like everyone around me was in love, pursing a cool opportunity, accepting a great job, and all around adulting like a boss. Meanwhile, I was alone, jobless, directionless, and very poor with no sign of how I could possibly move forward.
My adult life had just begun, and I had already failed.
I stumbled through each day, blindly hoping something would click. I took a minimum wage job at a Panera Bread where I worked with mostly high school students. I moved to a low-end suburban apartment because it was the only place I could afford without going home.
My car was on the verge of falling apart, and if it did, I would not be able to put it back together.
On the edge of complete failure, I experienced a minor relief.
Life slowly improved. I inherited my grandma’s car. I picked up a second job, and while it required no education and had terrible hours, it paid well enough. I even had a little spending money.
For a moment, things felt optimistic.
And then it got much worse.
My feelings of optimism lasted about a month before my social life, along with what little respect I still had for myself, fell apart. It’s strange to have people you once cared about the most suddenly bring you nothing but pain and anxiety.
Stripped of my defenses, I realized just how far away I was from everything I wanted to be. My second year out of college, I experienced depression in a way I didn’t realize I could.
It was like my blood was poisoned with sadness, coursing through me, strangling any hope or joy the second it appeared.
I grew to hate almost every decision I had made the previous 5-6 years. I wasted hundreds of hours trying to figure out how I could have done it all differently.
And finally, I started to write it all out.
After all, that’s what I went to college for. To be a writer.
I wrote out everything I wished I had known. All the terrible and embarrassing moments I went through. The seemingly small choices that snowballed into big consequences.
I started talking to friends and family members, listening to their stories and what they had gone through after high school, and I wrote that down too.
I realized that I wasn’t actually alone in these struggles and mistakes. I saw that there was good amongst all the bad. I started to believe that there was still a purpose beyond the wreckage.
And maybe, while I reassembled my own life, I could help others avoid the mess I went through.
Everyone is going to face struggles in their life.
Whether a person goes to college or not, the transition from teenager to adult gets messy. There are going to be challenges.
That’s not a bad thing. Struggle and adversity build strength. They’ll grow you and push you. But so much of the stuff I got caught up on, that millions of graduates get caught up on every year, was petty and avoidable.
We made too many decisions based on ignorance, false hopes, and bad advice.
We learned the hard way that college isn’t a one-size fits all item. In fact, some might be better off skipping it altogether.
I can’t tell you what to do with your life after high school or college.
But I can tell you what I did with mine.
What my friends did with theirs.
I like to think if you’re willing to listen, you might see your own life a little more clearly. Or you’ll at least laugh at our failures while basking in your superior decision making. One of those two.
To get the rest of this story, check out That College Book: Everything Nobody Told Us About Life After High School. It’s not just my story. It’s the story of a generation that was told to go to college first and ask questions later.