• Catherine Staskawicz

Admittedly, I still haven’t graduated. May 2021 is my finish line, and even though I’ve already delayed my graduation date three times, I’m cautiously optimistic that this is really it

I came to Southwestern in 2016 as a newly admitted student, hardly able to believe how lucky I was to get to play college basketball, work in the library’s Special Collections, and study English. The head of Special Collections at the time, Jason Dean, was gracious enough to permit my clumsy handling of Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language and a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible during one such visit. Needless to say, I was spellbound and really looking forward to being a Pirate. 

Looking back on that now, it feels like a lifetime ago. A so-called super senior, I’m in my fifth year of undergraduate studies and attending classes as a full-time student for the first time since the fall of 2018. So what happened in the middle? Well… a lot. 

Undoubtedly, most high-school students anxiously awaiting college acceptance letters are probably tired of hearing about how the experience will be life changing and transformative, a chance “to find yourself.” The apathy is understandable: high school has quite possibly been monotonous and exhausting, and it’d be a lot more fun to go to college instead of hearing about it nonstop from parents, grandparents, and family friends. In 2016, I felt the same, doubting how much I’d truly transform over the next four years. As is likely evident by now, I was woefully incorrect in my assumptions.

My first two years at SU went mostly according to plan: I played basketball, worked in Special Collections, and studied English with David Gaines, a professor of English whom I’d met on several of my campus visits (Gaines has since retired, but his frequent Bob Dylan references, fondness for ending class with music, and galvanic yet graceful manner are impossible to forget). My biggest deviation from “the plan” was adding a business major toward the end of my sophomore year. Life as a student–athlete proved challenging yet rewarding, requiring me to fly without my parents for the first time, learn what climbing three flights of stairs in Cullen felt like after morning weights, and communicate with professors when I needed help or would have to miss class (turns out, SU professors really are incredibly understanding, supportive, and eager to help you succeed—the rumors are true). I found a sense of belonging and community among my teammates and classmates, learned to navigate the labyrinth that is H-E-B, experienced my first serious relationship, and attempted to embrace adulthood by finally getting a driver’s license and becoming dependent on caffeine. 

After sophomore year, things began to shift. As much as I had enjoyed basketball, I’d begun to feel a bit worn out physically and mentally, so I decided not to play the following season, making me a “regular” student for the first time since first grade. I found myself beginning my junior year with a lot more free time on my hands, Finance on my class schedule, a full kitchen to navigate for the first time since leaving home, and a roommate I didn’t know. I made many trips to Dr. Nguyen’s office hours in the hopes of wrapping my head around the time value of money, trying to embrace the shift in my trajectory at SU as best I could. Slowly but surely, I started to sense that I wasn’t feeling my best. Among other things, my energy reserves simply weren’t what I’d always known them to be, so by the end of the semester, I was relieved to spend the entirety of winter break at home, previously an impossibility due to the game schedule during basketball season. When the time came to resume classes in January, my parents and I realized that for some unknown reason, I was no longer physically capable of handling the demands of school. Far from it, in fact.

The prospect of taking a medical leave of absence from school was unexpected, unwelcome, and unheard of, at least for me, but my body had quite clearly made the decision regardless of how I felt about it. The following months proved to be both more difficult and more edifying than I could ever have envisioned: countless blood tests, doctor appointments, and hours spent unable to do much of anything at all taught me about hormones and proteins, how much movement starts to matter when it’s hard to move, and how lucky I was to have people around me eager to help in any way they could. My interaction with the world altered: I felt stuck in a never-ending present, a limbo that forced me to learn to embrace and accept the present moment for whatever it was or wasn’t. Groundhog Day, Hermione’s time-turner, Tom Cruise’s palpable distress in The Edge of Tomorrow… I, too, came to know time as a looped, warped, and stubbornly autonomous creature. 

Against my most fervent hopes, my leave of absence extended into the fall of 2019, interrupted periodically by my fitful attempts to function as I used to and the doctor visits that had become such a familiar aspect of my days. Providing a list of my symptoms felt like writing the longest grocery list on earth or trying to wade through the cetological chapters of Moby Dick. My feelings of stagnation and defeat ran deep, but as 2020 approached, I desperately wanted to return to classes, to do something. With the help and understanding of a great many professors and staff members at SU, I was able to arrange a part-time enrollment that allowed me to commute to campus and complete my capstone project for English. As difficult as even just one class proved to be, I was so grateful to be able to try again. 

As difficult as even just one class proved to be, I was so grateful to be able to try again. 

If you’ve read this far, I appreciate your time and applaud your patience. Currently, I’m working on finishing my capstone project for business, another business course, and an academic internship. Every day is still very much day-to-day, and I’m scheduled to make a trek up north to the Mayo Clinic in October for evaluation and possible treatment. Life for me transformed so far as to be nearly unrecognizable even before COVID-19, which has forced additional adjustments and adaptations on us all. Between my own unplanned “gap year” and this very unplanned pandemic, college has certainly proved to be life changing and unforgettable. 

I do not doubt that Southwestern has been a defining force throughout this entire experience. It couldn’t have happened anywhere else. I usually hesitate to speak with such certainty, but I truly believe that my situation simply would not have been the same at another university. Taking a leave of absence for a year while still remaining part of the campus community, being able to attend class as a commuter on a part-time basis, and frequently receiving emails from Dr. Sihi and other professors eager to know how I was doing… I’m not so sure I’d be able to say the same had I attended another university. I have transitioned from being a full-time student and athlete taking courses in person and working on campus to someone altogether different, all while remaining enrolled at the same institution. I feel lucky to have been able to do and be so many disparate things during the past several years, and I know my own transmogrification is far from over. Perhaps that’s been one of the biggest lessons in all of this: that family friend was right, you will change during college, and so hopefully you find a place where you can change. As peculiar as it may sound, maybe a question to consider when looking at colleges isn’t simply which one feels like the best fit for who you are and life as you know it now, but which one can still fit and support you when absolutely nothing goes according to plan, time loops endlessly back on itself, and life appears completely alien to the first-year version of you desperately attempting to plumb the depths of Eastern philosophy without drowning during first-year seminar.

With any luck and a lot of help, I’ll soon be able to call myself a graduate of Southwestern University. My undergraduate career has deviated sharply from how I’d envisioned it, but I’m certain it will prove to be one of the most memorable times of my life.