Because I’ve just graduated, I know that I should be ecstatic. I’ve had a break from the seemingly endless schoolwork and the pressure to get good grades. Finally, too, I’ve gotten some sleep. And, fellow UC graduates, we’ve received a college degree from a system that “once again scored very well” among the world research universities, “with UC Berkeley and UCLA in the top 10,” according to the Times Higher Education magazine and as reported by the Los Angeles Times. So, naturally, I’m overjoyed, grateful and humbled — more than I can ever express. But I’m also scared about being in the real world. Really, really scared.
How, I ask myself, do I prepare for the challenges beyond school? Then I realize that after four years in the UC system, maybe I’ve already started to.
Before coming to UCLA, now my alma mater, I had a naive perception of college. I thought that surviving four years of honors and AP classes was adequate preparation for higher education. I also believed that my high school graduating class of 500 was the largest I’d ever seen, which, when I now imagine the nearly 30,000 undergraduates enrolled at UCLA, makes me feel, well, quite stupid.
Within my first days as a freshman, I began to understand the warning that “It’s one thing to get into UCLA — another to actually stay here.” Still, I never expected that I’d later be shopping for an inflatable neck pillow on Amazon and carrying a blanket so that I could nap in between writing essays in Night Powell, our library open practically all night. Worse, after what felt like endless studying and feeling pretty confident about my understanding of the material, I’d come out of a midterm or final no longer thinking about getting an A but just really hoping that I’d passed.
After experiencing this again and again, I felt really discouraged. At my most miserable state, I’d ask myself, “What’s the point? Why am I working so hard when I’m never going to use any of this in real life?” I became convinced that all I was learning, was that I was a failure. As a result, I started to feel very angry and very bitter about school, but most of all, I was just sad. I can still remember sitting in my dorm room Googling “What if you’re not meant for college?” in between emailing my parents, whom I didn’t want to disappoint, that I was having the time of my life at UCLA, as tears streamed down my face from behind my laptop screen.
Fortunately, after much adjustment and a change of perspective, my attitude shifted. I began to see that the UC system set high standards for us not because it wanted us to fail, but because it knew, well before we ourselves did, that we could do better. I learned that it gave us a tough academic environment not to make us doubt our sense of self but to help us figure out who we truly are — because it is in the hardest moments that we’re forced to ask ourselves, “Is this what I really want or what others expect of me?” Being in the UC system, too, has encouraged us to be more ambitious, because after all the sacrifices that we’ve had to make — the many sleepless nights, the overexerted brain cells, the tears — we finally understand just how much we’re worth and the incredible contributions that we can offer to the world. So even if we never remember any of the lessons from our classes (though it’d be nice if we do), I hope that the strong characters we’ve cultivated along the way will be invaluable to our futures.
Of course, I’m not as naive as before to suppose that the road ahead won’t be full of challenges and disappointments. My fellow bachelor of arts majors, get ready to keep defending your degrees against skeptical families, friends, employers, even strangers, who sadly don’t value our majors as much as we do. And to those with degrees in the sciences, engineering, technology and mathematics, many of you are aware of the cutthroat competition in your future pursuits, whether that’s in medical school, research or graduate school, among others. Add the continued after effects of the economic recession and the 9 percent unemployment rate in California alone, and it’s a wonder that I haven’t already hyperventilated as I write this.
Graduating from the UC system, as much as we would like to think otherwise, does not guarantee success. Nevertheless, I believe that the persistence, self-awareness, ambition and strength that we’ve gained will lead us closer to better lives than had we never been UC students at all. So, Class of 2013, let’s not only celebrate the fact that we’ve graduated but also our experiences in the UC system and, in particular, the difficulties that we’ve faced leading up to this moment. For only by never forgetting such challenges as UC students can we remember, especially in the toughest times ahead, just how resilient we really are.
Abbie Mendoza is a 2013 graduate of UCLA.