As I sit in class, I develop a knot in my stomach. It’s tumbling along with my thoughts. I question if I’m on the right track, education-wise. 

This is the beginning of my fifth year in college, but only my third year at Missouri Southern. I graduate next semester. Am I graduating when I’m supposed to? Should I have already graduated? 

Many people in today’s society have expectations for students to enter college straight out of high school, and graduate by the time they’re in their early-to-mid-twenties. 

That’s what I did, and I’m in my senior year of my education at Missouri Southern. I’ve had people question the fact that I’m still enrolled in classes. 

People have asked if I’m still in college and if I’m going to be a “career student.” 

It baffled me when I heard this. I started at Southern when I was 18 and I turned 21 in July. I was dual-enrolled in classes at Crowder College through my junior year of high school. 

When I graduated high school at 17, I also graduated Crowder with an associates general studies degree. 

This meant that when I got to Southern, I didn’t have to take any general education classes. Since starting here, I’ve primarily taken classes for my bachelor of fine arts degree, along with some experimental electives throughout the semesters. 

For a lot of people, finishing an arts degree can take five years, because of the amount of studio classes required. Students often spend up to 10-15 or more hours a week on studio work outside of class, rather than three to six hours for traditional lecture courses. 

Since there are several studio courses required for arts degrees at Southern, it is unrealistic for students to be able to take multiple studio course in a single semester on top of additional classes and work and personal life. 

Since then, I’ve picked up minors in mass communication and art history, and I recently added on two art certificates in digital illustration and page design and layout.

That means, come May 2020, I will have a bachelor of fine arts degree, two minors and two certificates before I turn 22. 

That’s five different credentials, all attained within just five years. 

I know people who have chosen to get a degree simply to add a line on their resume. They choose not to use their degree in their career. I know some people choose not to continue into higher education. Either choice is perfectly viable; I’m not criticizing it in any way.

However, it’s hard for me to accept criticism from people who choose not go into higher education, or earn a degree they don’t use after graduating.

It baffles and irritates me that these people are judging me for learning something that I am actively pursuing. 

Not only have I continued to create art through photography, printmaking, and digital design, but I am learning so much about myself. 

I’ve gained some work experience at The Chart, I’m learning lessons about life from people, and improving my writing at the same time.

I’m working on my senior thesis now, branching out into new media, and getting ready to work on my senior show in May. 

When I’m doing this work and learning so much, it’s disheartening to hear someone talk about my college journey in such a dismissive or flippant tone. From the outside, you might just see that I’m still taking classes, but from my perspective, I’m learning about things I love, honing my skills and growing as a person. 

That’s how I feel, and I’m still considered within the parameters of the “traditional” college experience, where you get your start at 18 or 19 and graduate with a bachelor’s degree in four years. 

So I don’t get why it’s such a big deal for me to be in school at the age of 21. Additionally, it’s also unfair to people who don’t fit that preconceived idea of the college student.

I see so many non-traditional students working hard, learning, and loving the process of creating. It’s rude and unfair to expect anyone to conform to this preconceived notion of an idea, and judge them whenever they stray from that idea. 

Why is it fair for someone to enforce their expectations on a student when that student is actively furthering their education? It is ridiculous to expect everyone to graduate by the time they are 22 and immediately enter a workforce where they are using their degree. 

There is nothing wrong with doing so, but it should also be socially and personally acceptable when others break that mold. 

Each person creates their own path, and because no two people’s lives are exactly the same. 

There is a variety of paths that students can take throughout college. Not everyone graduates within a specific time frame.

Approximately 19% of students graduate from a bachelor’s degree within four years, according to a report by Complete College America, a nonprofit group based in Indianapolis, Indiana. 

Another thing is that if someone’s journey doesn’t impact you in any way, then what’s the point in judging them in the first place? If you are a third-party observer in their journey, why should anything they do matter to you? 

The truth is: it shouldn’t. Unless you’re part of something, then don’t

As I write this, I feel a metaphorical weight lifted off my shoulders. The knot in my stomach is gone. I will not worry about your third-party judgements on my life and what I am learning. 

I will walk the halls that have become second nature to me with a sense of pride and excitement, knowing that wherever I am headed, I am learning and growing.

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