According to the U.S. Census Bureau, I joined a distinct subset of the American public when I walked across the stage at the RBC Center last week. With only 45 million college graduates in a total population of 296 million, possession of a college degree is less common than being married (just above half of the population) or owning a house. But it’s not as rare as, say, being a veteran of the armed services or living below the poverty line (oddly enough, each falls somewhere around 12 percent). But I suppose it’s a start at being an “individual.”
College–that place that the tour guides, pamphlets and advisors tell you is some springboard for the mystical, mythologized “person”–is a difficult place to become just that. For my generation, college is the requisite step turned into a most basic criterion for gaining employment and–in lots of cases–respect. Seeking out individuality on overstocked college campuses is an overwhelming task of finding self-identity in a confusing and crowded web of foreign classrooms, dormitories and dining halls with other kids looking for the same things in the same places.
But, given that, the strangest thing happens in today’s cramped system: It actually works. Four years after arriving at N.C. State, I do feel like a different person, a person who has spent that time with 30,000 others doing exactly the same thing but in a completely inimitable, nonparallel sort of way. I think the other 29,999 or so–from the Cox Hall Brains straight down to the Frat Court’s Ohmigas–feel the same way.
I found myself at State in August 2001 by default. I had turned down a scholarship to UNC-Chapel Hill after realizing I didn’t enjoy the mood around East Franklin Street, and decided not to apply to Duke after realizing that $35,000 should be the price of a nice car, not a freshman year. I began as a double major in English and biology under the dual-degree Jefferson Scholars program, hoping to head to medical school and become an endocrinologist. After signing on to write a few stories for N.C. State’s Technician about touring bands coming through town, I switched the English major to a multidisciplinary studies degree rooted in English, music and communication classes. One semester into it, the Independent hired me as a freelance music writer, and–somewhere along the way–I dropped the humanities portion of my curriculum without actually telling anyone. I was ready to get out, to get to work. More often than not, schoolwork would take a back seat to writing, which often meant I would work on stories all day just to begin cramming in Krebs cycle stages or polymerase chain reaction steps around midnight. And, though the hours may have been intolerably long and the work fairly difficult at times, I’m pretty sure that my college tale is, in fact, individual and worthwhile.
After all, here I am with a now full-time Indy job (again, not so rare in 2005, whose graduates have had the easiest time finding jobs since those of 2000), doing something I really value. For the first time in four years, I am out of a dorm room and dealing with accidentally sticking my hand in ceiling fans, remembering to lock the door and trying to find a place to put all the records that magically appeared over the last four years. And, for the first time in 21 years, I’m on my own, worrying about the price of gas, car insurance and groceries. And, even if 90 percent of Americans–graduates or not–have the same concerns, I’m glad that, at long last, they’re my individual difficulties now, too.