On Friday, I attended the graduation ceremony for my Bsc in Psychology with the Open University. It was emotional and gratifying, finally getting some fancy robes and a glass of bubbles after years of work. Studying while working full time and still trying to be a human being is hard, but it was worth it. I can’t escape a certain sadness though. And it’s not just because the journey’s over.
To be clear, this isn’t my first undergraduate degree. The OU is a great opportunity for people who couldn’t easily access higher education at 18 – it’s one of the things I love about it, but I’m not one of those people. I went to a good university at 18, and got a good degree – albeit in a slightly obscure subject – and left without debt and with decent grades. But I also left without any clue where I was going next, and with the start of what would become serious depression. When I look around at those who shared my first undergraduate experience, they often have advanced degrees – sometimes more than one – or decent/meaningful careers, or extensive experience in activism/community building – or indeed all of the above. And I don’t. I have another undergraduate degree, true – but in career terms I’m about where I should be at 22, not at the 32 I’ll be turning soon.
And I know why that is. The above mentioned lack of direction at 22 left me drifting through volunteering placements and into a crappy service job. And that serious depression became crippling, taking years of my life and almost my entire self. It took more strength than I thought I possessed to shift that black dog and hold onto life. And then, trying to find the direction and motivation that I should have had at 22 wasn’t easy. I studied childcare and worked in early education, finding joy in the great and small achievements of tiny humans.
Then I found the OU. I have always enjoyed thinking about thinking, about why we behave how we do, how we learn and the multitudes of variations in psychosocial development. I took an ‘Intro to Psychology’ course, and loved it. I got married to the love of my life, who stood by my side when I needed him most. I kept working, and took more courses, deciding to do a bachelors degree. I stopped seeing my psychotherapist, and came off the medication. I took more courses, submitted assignments and sat exams, and remembered how much I love learning. And how much I loved living. I started volunteering again, in Ireland and then for a longer stint in South Africa, always learning. We moved to the US, and – well you can read the rest of this blog for that. I started working in the field of autism, and realised that I had found something that challenged me and that I was good at. I felt cut off from my OU community sometimes, with an 8 hour time difference and thousands of miles between us. But I stuck with it online, and went to summer schools, running experiment and sat around discussing the morality of Milgram and our own real life journeys that brought us here. I made great friends in my fellow OU students – from so many different walks of life and different paths, with their own struggles and history and victories. I took more exams, and got friendly with the folks in the examinations office in UW. I submitted final projects and reports. I took my last exam in June, and on Friday, I celebrated.
So when I look back at my journey, I can’t help but be a little sad. I could have taken a HDip in Psych back at age 22, and have been done in a year. I could have spent more time getting relevant experience, and found my place sooner. I look at some of my colleagues in work – recent psychology graduates, early 20s – and think how much time I lost. But I cannot walk their path, only my own. It has not been an easy road, but I took every step – and so many family and friends walked with me and helped me, especially my partner, without whom I would not be here in every sense.
I start an MSc in September. I could have started one 10 years ago, as so many of my contemporaries did. But instead I have another bachelors degree, again with good grades – better grades 😀 – and no debt. But I have not wasted those 10 years between my first and second graduations. I have lived and learned and loved. Despite everything, I will always be grateful for this journey.