Six years ago, I was 18 years old, starting my first semester of an undergraduate business degree at a state university. My tuition was fully covered by one scholarship, I had another $5,000 university scholarship, grants, and a family education trust that left me with about $2,500 per semester in loans. I had it made. Well, at least I thought I did.
As I said, I was 18. That made me smarter than everyone else. And, being convinced I knew best, after not being truly challenged with academics at really any point in my life, it was an epic crash and burn. Sure, there were three classes that I look back on and tell myself, “you knew you should have dropped that class during the first week or withdrawn before the end of the semester.” But I figured — I’m smart. I’ve always been that kid that can completely tune out for half an hour, an hour, or even an entire class, and still know everything I needed to know. I snoozed through high school. I even snoozed through my freshman “gen-ed” classes in college. When I took a few higher level classes (don’t forget, I’m smarter than everyone else) that I was disgustingly unqualified for — poof, two D’s first semester, two F’s second semester, and my financial aid was no longer there for me to utilize. With no financial aid, I couldn’t afford to continue my degree.
I was 19 years old with no financial aid, no degree, no realistic way to pursue said degree, and no direction in life. Naturally, I started a career in retail. I was a fashionable girl with charisma with little-to-no job experience, so it seemed like the most reasonable option. A couple of years passed (promotion here, dollar raise there), and I felt like I was on a hamster wheel. I lived with my mom, barely paid any rent, and still ran out of money between paychecks. I stayed late, showed up early, managed an entire store without a raise, and still, no real growth. I was working 45-55 hours a week at $9.50 an hour spread between multiple locations. Sometimes I would clock out and stay an extra hour or two when I knew I would get yelled at for the amount of overtime I worked, but I had to get something done. I just thought to myself, “If I push a little bit harder, I’ll be rewarded.” I wasn’t.
I ended up in the optical department of a vision center in the mall, working tirelessly, but learning valuable information on fitting glasses and how spectacle lenses work. After a few years in retail, my self-confidence was pretty low. I didn’t know if I had what it took to be a certified optician. I was a college dropout, 22 years old, and I still lived with my mom. I also had never worked anywhere that wasn’t at a mall. How could I become a certified optician at an eye doctor’s office? I decided to leave the vision center in the mall after a particularly rough day. I more or less had skinned myself alive for a specific pair of glasses for a customer, and they more or less spat in my face afterward. I quit that day with no notice and no other job lined up. I interviewed two days later with the optical manager at a large ophthalmology practice because I was friends with her son and was scared to death that I would never get a job again after how I quit the last one.
I now work in that same practice, fitting patients for glasses, and I take a lot of pride in what I do every day: helping people see. For the first few months of work, I felt like a toddler in her mom’s high heels — I was just a kid working in an office with all of the grownups. I soon learned that I was just as capable as all of my coworkers. I earned my American Board of Opticianry certification after about a year of apprenticing. I thought I failed the day I took the test and laid in bed and crying for hours. I was depressed for weeks. And then I checked my email on a whim at 11 PM on a work night and saw the email that I had passed. And here I stand today, 24 years old, making $40k a year, living on my own, degree-less, and happier than I’ve ever been. I went to college, experienced what I could, learned the lessons I needed, and it was worth it. If I hadn’t made the mistakes I made, I fear I would have finished my degree and ended up in the same place I had ended up at 19, just with a degree.
Why am I proud? I tried, accepted defeat, and learned a valuable lesson about owning up to my own faults. I wasn’t going to listen to anyone telling me that I didn’t know everything, I needed to prove it to myself through my own ignorance just how naïve I really was (and I’m still learning). I am smart, yes, but I’m not smarter than everyone else. The universe does not owe it to me to be easy for me to navigate. And though I still compare myself to other people my age with multiple degrees, who are traveling Europe and “living their best life,” I recognize that I did not do what they did to accomplish the same achievements. I forgive myself. And I am proud of myself for failing so early because I could have failed a lot later on and it would have cost a lot more, and I may have never learned how to let myself succeed.
Catherine believes self-reflection is the key that unlocked her untapped potential. The one thing she’s sure of is that the true meaning of the fleeting insignificance of human life is to enjoy it.
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