Graduating 8,846 miles away from uni

As the four-wheel drive lurched over a bump for the 236th time within the past hour on the sandy path, my mind jumped back across time.

I was among nine passengers on a tour of Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world. Two of the passengers were my friends and two more were one of the girl’s parents. The rest were strangers from around the world. We were pressed together in the back like a squadron on patrol, sitting on parallel benches, knees brushing.

Having chosen the hot seat, my body frequently lifted off the last seat on the bench as we sped over mini sand pits. I looked out of the back window and watched the path slip behind us. I adjusted my college jersey and swept back my hair. I had no cap or gown. I had no ceremony. I was due to graduate from the University of Alabama in two hours, at 9 a.m. on May 7, while people crowded in alphabetical order at 6 p.m. on May 6 in the U.S.

Staring out my window, the sandy path blurred and I watched the past four years emerge. The excitement of new independence and a new beginning. The stress of trying to achieve dreams. The adventures around the world. The development of romance. The growth along a personal journey.

A twinge in my chest took my attention back to the track. How symbolic. Here I was about to start a new part of my life and I was staring at the path we had just crossed.

I liked this imagery. I was on the other side of the world, studying abroad in Australia for my last semester of college. While I had no type of closure, this path gave me a platform to project my graduation.

As my eyes darted along the receding terrain, I imagined myself as a young kid. I projected an image of myself pieced together through old photos and remnants of memories digging in the sand and concocting fantastical worlds.

Then I imagined myself as the hardworking fourth-grader trying to prove herself, an American in a French school. The awkward middle schooler with her nose in a book emerged off to the side, lost in someone else’s words. The high school band geek with a flare for writing blurred into view, coming to terms with what it means to be a part of society.

Then finally the college student with a burning passion to be an international journalist appeared like a reflection. She may have gone through different hairstyles and different sized jeans, but she kept to a goal she still doesn’t understand how to fulfill.

I imagined my life like this as we swerved through rain forests rooted in sand. When we finally stopped at our destination at Lake Birrabeen, my steps felt heavy.

We came upon the empty white beach as the clouds quilted the sky. The beautiful turquoise waters rippled slightly under the wind’s breath. My friend, Chloe, and I walked into the water and took pictures as my other friend, Josefine, walked along the shore with her parents.

Our group scattered to enjoy the scenery. Josefine came back and we all walked into the shallows of the lake. Ten minutes later my alarm went off. As the beeping interrupted the otherwise quiet of the expansive lake, I yelled out: “I graduated!”

That was it.

I like to think a literature teacher would enjoy the scene. I walked into the water as an undergraduate and came out as a graduate. Like a baptism, I was a new person. The only difference? My feet were wet.

 

My graduation view of Lake Birrabeen on Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world.

 

My only graduation photos are in front of a lake. My only walk was a couple of joyous leaps. My only celebration was a cartwheel.

Chloe and I sat together in the sand afterward. I played with the soft grains like a kid. We listened to music and laughed. Then we left.

People were surprised at my university when I told them I wasn’t walking for graduation, a big tradition at American schools. I shrugged indifferent. Usually they then countered my nonchalance by inquiring about how my parents felt about it. My mom cannot remember her own college graduation. My dad spoke about his without much enthusiasm. They didn’t care about my choice. Besides, my younger sister is graduating high school so they already have a ceremony to attend.

Looking at my choice, I could not imagine a better way to end my college experience. I managed to travel every year of my undergraduate degree. I find it only fitting that I spent graduation in another hemisphere.

I am grateful for so many things and so many people. Looking back, I realized how much I have grown. The past four years have been amazing, challenging and rewarding.

But it’s time to let it go.

I have no idea what I am doing once I return to the U.S. I would love to work as a journalist and continue following my passion, but I am not going to worry about it. The road ahead is an unknown, and I am OK with that.

I clambered back into the four-wheel drive, taking the same seat. We started moving again and I watched the path fade away behind us. As I exhaled, I imagined the mirages I had created shattering into tiny pieces caught by the wind. I turned my head and smiled.

Perhaps if you look hard enough, along one of the many tracks weaving across Fraser Island, you will find shards from the memories of a girl who has just taken another step forward.