Opinion | Life doesn’t depend on your 20s

By Anna Fischer, Staff Columnist

Close your eyes and think of the date Dec. 16… what comes to mind? If you answered National Ugly Sweater Day, Stupid Toy Day or the 241-month anniversary of The Pitt News Senior Staff Columnist Anna Fischer’s birth, you wouldn’t be wrong. However, this upcoming Dec. 16, another world-changing event supersedes all others. My dear mother, Meg, is graduating college and finally receiving her bachelor’s degree. 

My mom dropped out of college in her junior year, and she always regretted not completing her degree. Despite not having a college degree, my mom built an amazing life for herself and became the primary provider for me and my brother growing up. Going back to school took immense strength, perseverance and bravery. But one of the most important lessons her decision taught me was that life is long and unpredictable, and it’s never too late to achieve your dreams. 

I want to share her story with you. I hope that reading it will not only give you inspiration, but reassurance going into finals week. Her story proves that your life simply doesn’t hinge on these few years in your early 20s, no matter how much it may feel like it.

As college students, our entire lives are absorbed in exactly that — college. Being stuck inside the microcosm of the college experience can make it feel like college success is what determines the subsequent 60 years of your life. Pulling back and looking at the larger scope can relieve some of that anxiety. In the United States, four out of 10 people 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree. That means that more than half of the population makes a living without one. Also, only 62% of college students finish their program within six years. A significant number of students, like my mom, don’t.

These statistics aren’t meant to scare you or make you think about “failing” college. It’s important as college students that we understand that it is possible and in fact very common to make a life for oneself without having a degree. After dropping out, my mom worked at Applebee’s, then later in realty and the telecom business, where she ended up staying for 17 years. She worked as a director of customer services for Sprint and made enough money to support me and my brother — all without a college degree.

Whether you graduate with your degree early or it takes you 12 years, whether you drop out or take a break, life holds innumerable opportunities for you. The stress of trying to plan your life in your early 20s has real effects. 44% of college students report symptoms of depression and anxiety. The pressure of perfection and the American culture of hyper-achievement causes college students to believe that their lives depend on college success — so much so that some would rather take their own life than fail.

Before she dropped out, my mom made an attempt at taking her own life. She was overwhelmed by the pressure of failure, the pressure of having everything figured out so early. After dropping out, she had the freedom to take her time and decide what she wanted from life. It was no longer set in stone.

That didn’t mean life was easy for her. She was laid off for the first time in her life when I was in high school. It was a drastic change for her, and ultimately what prompted her decision to go back to school at our local community college for nursing. At 52 years old, she changed the course of her life.

Even if you graduate according to your four-year plan and get your dream job, life is ever-changing. Who knows, maybe the world will decide to throw a global pandemic your way. What I’m trying to say is that even if your plan for your 20s works out, your life is long and unpredictable. During the pandemic, 4.3 million Americans quit their jobs in August 2021 alone, and 53% of those Americans shifted their field of work entirely, like my mom.

Life can throw things at you in your 20s that can change everything. But it can also throw things at you in your 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and so on. You have so much time to make what you want of this life. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself to have that 10-year plan set in stone at 21.

When people ask me what I’m planning on doing after college, the truth is, I don’t know. I know I want to travel the world, I know I want to work with books and I know I want to get a graduate degree one day. But most of all, I know I want the strength, bravery and resilience that my mom taught me. I’m trying not to stress about my 20s, because I don’t want to spend the rest of my life stressing about my future instead of living in my present. I still have plans and goals, but I’m okay with not knowing exactly where I will be in 10 years.

In fact, the only certainty I have about where I’ll be in the future is in the crowd at my mom’s graduation ceremony on Dec. 16, cheering her on as she is handed her long-awaited diploma.

Anna Fischer writes about female empowerment, literature and art. She’s really into bagels. Write to her at [email protected].