Why there’s nothing to be embarrassed about being late for college

It’s graduation season again! As happy graduates post toga shots and report cards about the grueling college life, it’s a bittersweet time for students who are staying in college longer than expected.

Never in my smooth academic life did I think I would be one of those people, but I found I would be delayed a few years after I switched to a new major. I figured I could get away with a lot of credited courses and was shocked to learn that my new program’s fixed four-year curriculum was still inescapable. That fact brought with it nights of existential crisis, negative feelings, and confusion about whether to call myself “freshman,” “second grader,” or “third grader” when people asked me my grade level.

We are typically expected to graduate within the usual timeframe of four years. However, some may take five, eight or more years for various reasons. Many students are delayed because of changing courses, receiving inadequate units and grades, or even hiccuping with administrative requirements.

There are now those who decide to consciously interrupt their studies. Students decide to take a leave of absence or a gap year because of psychological problems, unfavorable living conditions or financial problems.

Unfortunately, even when the causes were unavoidable, a delay can still feel “shameful” due to the growing pressure to meet societal expectations.

When you’re not positioned like the successful people in your age group, it’s easy to think that you’re failing in life. In this generation, it is not enough just to study well and get a secure job. The bar of expectations is raised by the “Hustle Culture” that we glorify. Teenagers have a strong need to be on top and make their mark as if they are racing with the times. Often in this ideal there is no room for mistakes and delays.

Seeing everyone else thrive while finding yourself is always a hard pill to swallow. Luckily, life’s detours do have their silver lining. We asked clinical psychologist Abegail Joyce “AJ” Requilman of the mental health organization Empath, along with some previously and currently late students to help us deal with these feelings of unworthiness and failure.

Here are some encouragement to help you deal with the pressure of being late – and how you can eventually find peace with it:

Reflect and develop a growth mentality

In our fast-paced, hectic culture, there is more emphasis on generating productivity and less emphasis on the need to empower ourselves. When we’re consumed by the noise of social pressures, it helps to sit still and look within to see where we’re growing.

“Try to examine your inner dialogue. If you want to turn your challenges and setbacks into something positive and productive, try to adopt a growth mindset. Above all, set more realistic expectations for yourself and be open to the idea that no one is perfect, but we can always strive to be better,” AJ Rappler said in an interview.

Paolo, 22, a Voice Communications major, was delayed a year because he changed courses twice. Though difficult to accept, he developed a resilient mindset that enabled him to turn this setback into a springboard for growth.

“[What helped me was] more of my way of thinking, really. Eventually I came to believe that I had my own journey to fulfill and sometimes it took me longer than others to achieve what I wanted… This mindset has also helped me see delays as an advantage,” he shared.

“A delay only becomes an obstacle if you don’t maximize the extra time it brings. Like it or not, being late is now part of your college journey. Make it a tool for your success,” he added.

Letting your thoughts flow on paper or in a digital journal is also a healthy way to release pent-up emotions. A personal account of your feelings can be a good benchmark and reminder of how far you’ve come in the future.

Surround yourself with a good support group

Beyoncé once said, “Breathe in love and energy… breathe out doubt and negativity.” This is a reminder to surround yourself with people who lift you up and decrease your exposure to energies that can weaken your spirit.

AJ recommends setting aside time to reconnect with like-minded people who can encourage and support you to continue your academic journey. “Talk to friends you enjoy sharing your victories and struggles with. If you listen to others with a positive attitude about your situation, you’ll start saying those things to yourself, too,” she said.

Coral, 21, a public administration student, has been delayed for several years after deciding to move courses and universities. To cope with her extra years, she finds solace in knowing that she is not alone in her situation.

“You have to remember that delays are more common than you think. Having a support group that is in the same boat will help you cope with your situation and feel a little less lonely,” Coral shared. “In the long term, the time you spend in college wouldn’t even matter that much,” she continued.

At the same time, knowing when and how to seek help from friends might make things seem lighter. After all, no man is an island.

Explore and make the most of your time

One of the blessings of being late is the extension of your student benefits and privileges—whether it’s the allowance, opportunities, or mentoring you receive. AJ describes the college as “the best place to learn, explore, discover yourself, strengthen your social skills and have fun!”

“Take advantage of the fact that during this time you’ll get the most support and guidance from your professors, guidance counselors, and parents,” she advised.

Merry, 23, a late sociology student, lived by those words and held various leadership roles up until his senior year at university.

“I developed a healthy mindset to maximize my time at university because I wanted to enjoy this exciting phase of my life before venturing onto the ‘adult stage’…. I strongly encourage you to use the privilege of time to develop old skills and even learn new ones,” he said. “Try to change your perception of the problem by seeing it as a crucial time for holistic growth and opportunity.”

Now would be the best time to get involved in organizations, build networks, or pursue interests you haven’t had time for before! Let college be your territory of exploration while still free from the responsibilities of a working adult.

Concentrate on what is really important to you

As the protagonists of our lives, we must dictate our own paths and choices. There can be a lot of pressure to make a decision based on the opinions of our family or coworkers—but we’re pulled in different directions when we try to consider everyone’s opinions.

“When you focus on pleasing other people, you become blind to the things that really matter to you and your own goals. Focus on your progress and the path you’re taking to reach your goals,” AJ said.

An example is a degree in a program that is a good fit for you. Ysa, 22, transferred from a course in her fourth year that no longer suited her. Now that she’s studying communications research, she realized her decision was a better one than to rush through on a path that had been challenging and miserable for her.

“The decision to take care of myself and remember that my new course makes me happy is what I hold on to when I’m sentenced to stay in college,” she shared. “In these moments we are challenged to show self-compassion and make the best of the cards that are dealt to us.”

Be kind and patient with yourself

Finally, don’t beat yourself up for taking your time or making mistakes. If we fall behind, AJ said, we could build internal tension. This could manifest itself in pushing yourself to revise, or taking a break until you fall into a precipice of demotivation. If you’re feeling frustrated, remember to take a step back and protect your well-being.

“You may not be where you want to be yet, and you may be walking slower than you want, but as long as you try to move in the direction you set out to move yourself, you will eventually get there,” she encouraged .

Ica, a 25-year-old biology major, was told in her supposed last semester that she would have to write her thesis from scratch. In the process, she learned to prioritize her mental health and find solace in things that made her happy.

“I made more time for the things I enjoyed, like my hobbies (video games and music), and spent time with people who cared about me. I was also fortunate to see a mental health therapist and talking to them helped me process all of the pain and uncertainty I was feeling,” she shared. “There’s no shame in being late. It doesn’t reflect who you are as a student, much less as a person.” All of this advice tells us that delays shouldn’t stop us from working on the future we want. This setback may only teach us life’s greatest lessons if we let it. Acceptance may not be linear and fear of the unknown may eventually creep back. But in the meantime, the anxious late student can find solace in knowing that ultimately everyone goes through their own seasons in their own time. – Rappler.com

AJ is a Licensed Psychologist who completed her Master of Arts in Psychology with a specialization in Clinical Psychology. She has many years of experience in the areas of case management, assessment, counseling and psychotherapy. Throughout her clinical practice, she has worked closely with children, adolescents and adults with intellectual and emotional challenges, as well as clients with mood issues, anxiety, life transitions and substance abuse disorders. She is passionate about mental health awareness and has participated in several nonprofit initiatives aimed at providing counseling services to low-income communities. You can book a consultation appointment with her Empath’s website.

Sydney Cañamo is an intern at Rappler.

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