A matter of months away from my college graduation, a bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Georgia, leaves me reflecting a lot on how I got here, and where I’m going. So here I am, putting pen to paper about it (for turn of phrase) like journalists do.
Granted, my path was pretty clumsy, and maybe not one to try to follow to a T...but it is a way through, I suppose.
(And by the by, there are interesting tidbits of information throughout, but if I start getting too wordy for you, there’s a TL;DR bulleted list of advice at the end)
Making the Most of High School
In high school, my biggest goal was always getting to college. Growing up, it was more of an expectation rather than an option—my dad having floundered his opportunity to go to college—I was pushed toward it as early as elementary school.
So once high school arrived, I was very well aware of all the embellishments needed to become a worthwhile college applicant, and to receive the life-changing Zell Miller Scholarship in the state of Georgia (which I’ll explain later). So, academics-wise? I didn’t take a class any less rigorous than an Honors course, and took Advanced Placement classes where I could.
My school did offer dual enrollment, but I had no means of being able to get to a college, living with just my dad who worked all the time, and because I was a very late bloomer when it came to driving. But, while being advised, I was told that AP was more likely to get you into college, but dual enrollment was more likely to get you college credit. Whether or not that’s true, I’ll never know.
I ended up taking seven AP classes during high school; U.S. government, U.S. history, English literature, environmental science, macroeconomics, and two studio art portfolios in design and drawing. I earned college credit for all but three. The less classes I had to take in college, the better.
Those two art portfolios might stand out—two years of art class? For what? Well, not to toot my own horn, but I know my way around pencil and paper in more than just writing. I had always taken to art, and for a long time, thought I was art-school bound. But, being an artist requires a self-discipline that my mental illness and neurodivergency don’t often allow.
In about junior year of high school, I had a reckoning with myself: if I wasn’t going to be an artist, then what WAS I going to do? Conveniently enough, history unfolded right there for me to make that decision. At the same time that I was taking U.S. history, Donald Trump had won the presidency by bashing anyone from the press to marginalized people. Not being old enough to vote at the time, that really didn’t sit right with me.
That’s when I realized that I should be a journalist; to use the writing skills renowned among my teachers and peers to make a difference, and hold people accountable.
So, I was back on track with knowing what to do with my life, but I still had to get to college in the first place—I’m still fleshing out that application. And important to being a college applicant is being well rounded; to not just have academic prowess, but to grow yourself as a person too. So you need extracurriculars, of course.
My favorite thing as a goth, queer person with a personal vendetta against conformity is to tell people that not only did I spend four years in JROTC (much to their shock), but I wasn’t bad at it either. In fact, I was on a competition drill team, started my corps’ academic team, at one point held as many as three group staff positions at once, and was one of the few to max out my rank by the time I graduated.
But being queer, in JROTC, in the South was undoubtedly a challenge, to say the least. Some days were harder than others, when your classmates would make transphobic jokes, and the teachers you admire would openly fantasize about committing acts of violence against LGBTQ+ people, call gay couples “the degredation of the American family,” or essentially say that girls in revealing clothes were “asking for it.”
So yeah, it wasn’t easy in that realm, or in terms of its strict structure that felt a lot like home. But I did get to travel a lot and do things I wouldn’t have gotten to do otherwise, and it did help me learn more about civics. And...flawed as it was, I had some group of people to belong to. Looking back, I’m glad it's over with, but if I had to do high school again, I’d probably still do it.
If anything, it showed me what I DIDN’T want to do after high school.
But JROTC wasn’t all I did! I was also on the high school’s academic team, which I continued from having started in middle school. My team was the undefeated regional champions all four years, and each time scrapped just shy of a state championship. It was a much smaller group, but they were also good people to know, and my varsity coach was my favorite teacher, so it was all around enjoyable (often much more so than JROTC).
So, that set me up for college pretty well, I’d say. But when people like my younger coworkers ask me about how I applied for college, I jokingly tell them I did a “speedrun.” I only applied to ONE college, after taking ONE SAT test, and by immense fortune everything fell into place. And naturally, even getting in that application was a scramble.
That year, UGA’s early action deadline was before my SAT score would be released, so I had abandoned all hope of applying by then, until I was sitting next to my class salutatorian and she explained that there was extra time on the back end of the applications for things like test scores and recommendations, and so long as the College Board directly sent my test to UGA, it would be fine.
So the week of the deadline found me scrambling to ask for recommendations, and through no shortage of luck I was able to get my application in on time. I was accepted about a month later.
Crash Course in College (and How It Sorta Got Away From Me)
Cool! I’m in college now! So how did I get THROUGH it?
Well, for starters, I am one of few people who will have the immense privilege of graduating debt-free, and actually, with way more money than when I started college.
This is in large part because of the Zell Miller Scholarship here in Georgia; graduate high school with a minimum 3.7 GPA and at least four academic rigor courses, and make a minimum of a 1200 on the SAT or a 26 on the ACT, and the state will pay for your tuition at any in-state college of your choosing. To keep it, you have to maintain a 3.3 or higher in college.
So on top of maintaining such an illustrious scholarship, my Pell grant was considerably high because it’s just my dad and I at home. So that would cover most of the rest of my costs. But that’s not all: I also stayed home for college.
My house is a half hour drive from UGA, so I commuted the entire time, for better or worse. On the upside, I didn’t have to pay for room and board, or for a meal plan, so all that extra scholarship money went directly into my own bank account, and I was able to use it to pay for books, parking costs, and photography equipment, and still leave college with thousands of dollars.
I can use this to pay for a moving service, decorate my future home, and also just start my “real adult life” with a solid financial foundation.
But this decision wasn’t without a cost in other ways—primarily mentally. Despite making the choice to commute, I didn’t actually get a license until late 2019. Before that, I had the fortune of my dad carting me to school because he worked in Athens. Though, that meant I had to go home when he got off work, and before any extracurricular events started.
Of course, it would be me to get my license, a so-called ticket to freedom, a matter of months before a pandemic shuts down the entire world. So, needless to say, I missed out on any college experience that didn’t immediately pertain to class. Even as things begin to reopen here in my senior year, my dad can be overbearing when it comes to me leaving the house, so it's still a bit cumbersome to try to go and do anything for myself.
And, being closeted in terms of my queerness and my spirituality, I exist in my own home as a diluted version of myself, keeping most of my interests repressed in fear of my family. So, as of right now, staying home is something I somewhat regret socially. Maybe once I’m on my own in the “real world” I will be able to appreciate living debt free and having this financial standing I’ve made for myself. While I wouldn’t try to dissuade anyone from staying at home as I did, I firmly believe it demands a personal cost-benefit analysis that everyone should take seriously. Both choices have their pros and cons, especially as everyone comes from different backgrounds, so the choice is yours.
With limited mobility, though, I made do in other areas, such as garnering journalistic experience. I signed on with The Red & Black, the independent, student-run newspaper in Athens as soon as I could as a freshman, and stuck with it for three years. I could cover local events, using Athens’ public transportation to get me where I needed when I needed, and did a lot of phone interviews before it was cool (haha).
I stuck with it for three years before I ended up here at Awesomely Authentic.
Now, on the brink of graduation, I’m looking for another internship for the spring. The pandemic, at least, seemed to open up more virtual opportunities that might not have existed before, and in that way, I’m grateful. Following that, though, I would like to have a job out of graduation and live on my own, with my dog, on my own terms.
In all, my path to and through college had its own ups and downs, its gains and losses. It was pretty clumsy at times, but like with many things, I somehow seem to make it work. I hope that post-graduation I can really take my life into my own hands, and improve mentally, emotionally, and as an overall person.
TL;DR Advice from a Graduating College Student
Plan when you can; having an idea of where you want to go is the smoothest way to move along, I lucked out with my fumbling into college, but knowing what I wanted once I got there (and even beforehand) helped me make decisions to better progress me through.
Take advantage of your current circumstances for the benefit of your future self. That being said though…
Take care of yourself in the present; weigh your decisions with your mental health and other factors, because it ultimately isn’t good for you if you burn yourself out.
For neurodivergent people like myself: college loses a lot of the structure of primary school that you’ll realize you had a love/hate relationship with. Be ready.
Don’t let college (or even high school) be just about academics! Live a little, get involved! I really couldn’t and I regret it immensely. Not only will you have more fun but it will make you a more well rounded person.