Today I uploaded my last critiques to the Academy of Art University online learning portal, completing the requirements to earn a BFA in Art Education. I attended the graduation ceremony in San Francisco on May 10th and wore my cap and gown and regalia and proudly walked across the stage in front of my parents and boyfriend to receive my "commemorative scroll" (diplomas won't be here for another 3-4 months). It was a joyous occasion and finishing this degree is something I never thought would happen for me. It represents an enormous amount of work in school of course, but to me, it also represents how far I've come in my personal and mental health journey since I started college in 2007. I wanted to share a bit of that journey with you and what I've learned along the way about higher education and myself.
College was something I daydreamed about in high school but I wasn't one of those students that had their heart set on a dream school. I toured one art school, Otis in Los Angeles, during high school. After the dreamy tour through the art facilities, showcasing student work, and talking up the school's impressive staff, they sit you and your family down and show you the price tag. It was a bit too overwhelming for me (not to mention my family), so I sort of put the whole college thing on the back burner. Then came senior year. I loved learning and was a good student in high school. I went to an affluent high school and the major focus was on going to a four-year university. As Spring came and students started talking about what impressive colleges they had gotten into, I felt so removed from it all.
I finally decided to attend Santa Barbara City College in the Fall of 2007. I was excited to start a new life in a new city, however, I quickly became overwhelmed. It wasn't so much the school work that overwhelmed me, but more the circumstances and expectations associated with college life. Santa Barbara is known for having a student culture of excessive drinking and partying, which honestly scared my 18-year-old self. I also had my first (and really only) really negative experience with a professor that left me scared to come to class. I found it difficult to make genuine friends and connections. Also, the financial crisis happened right after I moved away and the crushing weight of feeling future-less was constantly being thrust at me from many different angles. I found my anxiety reaching an all-time high. Within six months I was back in San Diego.
The one positive thing about my time at SBCC was my art history teacher. I loved learning in her class and she made the course really engaging, and I found that I loved it so much that I was tutoring my classmates on the weekends before the big tests. I still had the knack and affinity for art that I had had in high school. I had been thinking about pursuing a degree in psychology, but I always found art nagging at the back of my mind. In Spring of 2008, I enrolled at Southwestern College here in San Diego and began taking more art courses. I remembered considering Academy of Art University in San Francisco in high school and decided to make it my goal to transfer there the following Fall. For the next 18 months, I worked on taking as many art and transfer courses as I could. Sadly, however, I found myself once again in interpersonal relationships that amplified my anxiety through the roof, at times making it difficult to go to class, go to work, or even feel happy. I kept my eye on the goal of attending AAU and won a scholarship for Summer study. In the Fall of 2009, I packed up my bags and my parents drove me to my dorm room in San Francisco. I was ready, once again, to start a new life and get away from my "old self".
The first few months in San Francisco were great. I loved living in the city and going to art school, I felt like I was living my dream. Being in the art classes with the amazing teachers and talented students made me feel excited and humbled. I was also enjoying living in the city. I had a part-time job at Anthropologie and in my free time, explored the town and all the unique things that it had to offer. But the city quickly started to overwhelm me. My inability to establish good boundaries with others was causing my anxiety to increase. Living in the dorms was difficult since people were constantly around and distracted me from school work. I had a hard time saying no and prided myself on being a "Yes Girl", someone who says "yes" to every experience thrown her way. I started skipping class and not performing as well at work due to feeling out of place or ashamed. I also started spending too much time with people who were not good for me or my goals. I stopped going to school at AAU after the Summer of 2010. My anxiety started to spiral out of control when I moved out of the dorms and into an apartment with roommates and I hit bottom in October of 2010. I struggled along in the city for more months, trying to pick the pieces but not being able to. I moved five times in two years, searching for a place to fit in. I didn't want to give up and move back to San Diego and feel like a failure. But I continued to have gripping anxiety problems, life in the city was extremely unstable, and I was the unhealthiest I've ever been. I made the difficult choice to come back home in May of 2011.
Being at home gave me the stability that I desperately needed at that time. I spent the first couple months basically sleeping and getting back on track physically and mentally. In Fall of 2011, I enrolled back in college, this time at San Diego City College. After a student came to a class I was taking and talked about a psychology certificate program, one in which she was involved in peer counseling, I thought this would be a good option for me. Since I felt that art school had been a failure for me, I thought I might return to my original idea of a psychology degree. I talked to a counselor about this and she basically frightened me out of it, saying that the only option for a job I would have with this certificate is restraining severely mentally ill patients in an institutional setting. I never bothered to get a second opinion. I was starting to feel the anxiety creeping back in, but I decided to keep going to school and enrolled in art classes instead. I had some really inspiring teachers and was able to finish my AA in Visual Arts in Spring of 2013. I was proud of finishing this goal but felt it didn't really mean anything since it was only a 2-year degree. I was also discouraged about myself because so many people I knew had finished their four-year degrees no problem and were working jobs in their field, making big salaries, seeming so much more adult than me and so much farther in life.
Later that year I got a great job that allowed me to move out on my own and gain some more autonomy. Living on my own was exciting and my life felt good. I enjoyed my job and I had established some good friendships. I felt ready to go back to school. Luckily AAU offers many of their programs online, so the credits I'd completed during my time in San Francisco didn't have to go to waste. I thought about returning to finish a degree in fine art (which was my original plan at AAU) but decided to pursue art education instead, as I'd found a passion for education through my HR and Training job. I went back to school full time online in Spring of 2016.
I was so nervous in the weeks leading up to the big back to school day. I was nervous if I'd be able to even do school after such a long break. I was retaking Color and Design, which was one of the classes that caused me so much shame and anxiety the first time around in 2010. I was worried I would fail again or that I'd invest more money and see it go nowhere. For the next two and half years, I worked on school almost constantly. I also continued to work my full-time job. I prioritized school over everything else, work was second. I found that the online model at AAU really worked for me. There were fewer distractions in my life and in school and I found my online teachers to be so incredibly supportive. It sounds crazy but I was getting the personalized interactions, critiques, care, and feedback I was so desperately craving in my school experience from my peers and teachers online. I was also connecting with my classmates about art and education, not partying, which was exciting and fulfilling. I was getting straight As and helping my classmates do better on their assignments. I was even a candidate for valedictorian in my final semester.
If there's anything I've learned from this experience is that it isn't going to school or the assignments that are difficult for me. I love school (and if I didn't my career choice of being a teacher wouldn't make much sense). However, I do need to manage my anxiety in order to be able to accomplish goals. I learned a lot about what I can do to manage it through my 11 years in college. I have to set boundaries with other people, I have to say "no", and I have to be okay with missing out on some fun times. Saying "no" when I need to doesn't make me a "no" person. I also need to skip out on any excessive partying, because I've found that this does crazy things to my mental state and while the party may be fun, I get too down afterward. Besides, a lot of the relationships I made through partying with people were fleeting at best and totally devastating at worst. I also have to stop myself from believing I know what others are thinking about me. I have a crippling fear of making mistakes and disappointing people. This is probably my biggest obstacle to work on. Establishing boundaries with others and myself helps me manage because there is no cure for anxiety, I'm stuck with it for life.
Through this second tour at AAU, I found myself finding out who I am as an artist and exploring more artistic expression. I started making more artist friends and seeking out opportunities to show my work. I think this is because I was immersed in art because of school and it imbued what I did outside of school as well. I started adding more to my plate and really seeing the benefits of saying "yes" to things that benefitted my mind and soul, not just entertainment for the night. It wasn't always easy, there were definitely tears and bouts of anxiety, but I feel better equipped to deal with it now than I did at 20. And that's just how life goes right? You don't get the experience until you have the experience.
As I go back to school for my credential, to in-person classes again at SDSU, I hope I can keep these boundaries and help keep my anxiety in check. I hope I can advocate for myself and not be so easily derailed by others. I'm still learning that feeling bad or stressed out shouldn't be my default state, but this is something that's going to take work for me. And I know it always will. I could resent it or I could grow with it. Reaching the goal of my BFA shows me that it can be done, that I can grow with it.
I hope this story helps anyone out there struggling with anxiety to see that they're not alone. I also hope that this story helps anyone who is doing things on their own timeline. Society is a cruel timekeeper, but it's okay to let things come when you are ready not when people say you should be. Sometimes, I wish I could go back to my 18-year-old self and say, "take some time off and just wait. Save yourself a lot of grief." But right now feels like the perfect time for me.