All I Want for Christmas Is My College Degree

Picture of By Quynh (Stephanie) Bui

By Quynh (Stephanie) Bui

If Santa were real and not created for commercial purposes, I would tell him that the best present he could give me is my college degree. It is the thing that has fueled my relocation to Amsterdam, required so much hard work to grasp, and pushed me through an ongoing pandemic. After all that I have subjected myself to, I sometimes wonder if it is worth spending so much of my energy, thoughts, and struggles on just a piece of paper encased in a velvety folder. 

Not Just a Piece of Paper

A college degree in itself is an intriguing subject matter; it is tangible in the sense that I can physically hold it, yet it is also intangible and encapsulates so much more than just my name, the program, and the university. It’s the knowledge I have acquired, the friends and teachers I have learned from, and the places I have explored. It’s the freezing cold winds, the scorching summer heatwaves, and the sporadic rain. It’s the metro rides, the chaotic rush to the station, and the sounds of the check-in machines. It’s the late nights doing my readings, the constant clacking of my keyboard for my assignments, and the handwritten note writing for every exam. It’s the subtle, satisfied smiles, the quiet, inward tears, and the sighs I let out at the end of the day, ready to close my eyes. For me, my college degree is so much more than a titled piece of paper. It’s the story of my early twenties all condensed into one glorious A4 sheet of paper. 

A Lonesome Journey

Moving to another country is just as exciting as it is equally scary. I was fortunate enough to have been surrounded by people that lifted me through the first difficult stage. However, I quickly realized that my university journey would be quite lonesome – not because I don’t appreciate my friends and family, but because I would have to face the consequences of my choices alone. After all, that’s the rule of life; I call the shots and I live with the results. Yes, it is the most basic definition of adulthood. And it would be a lie if I said that I am not terrified of it. Decision-making has never been my forte, and yet in these past three years, I have made so many decisions that I’ve lost count. From choosing my dinner every night to applying for internships and graduate school, the decision spiral never ceases. Yet, some things are best kept, digested, and dealt with on my own terms, because sometimes only I know the answers to these enigmas. While the journey towards completing my college degree is filled with people who have given me the support, comfort, and encouragement I so needed, in the end, I need to walk the path myself, for better or worse. 

The Degree Is Important. But So Are You. 

If I were to say that I have never thought of dropping out of college, that’d be a lie. To be frank, it became part of my morning routine. And it’s not because I despised being here or that I was in deep despair and misery – I love this city, I love what I’m learning, and I love the people and experiences I have gathered along the way. But some mornings are harder than others. The days hectically pass by where sometimes I catch myself questioning what I’m even doing. I lose sense of reality and put my life on pause. I stopped taking care of myself. Every day, I grab whatever I can find in the closet, skip breakfast, stare at the screen for hours-on-end, cook dishes I don’t like out of convenience, and work until I almost pass out, only to close my eyes with more anxiety.

Sometimes, I would look into the mirror and tear up; “Why have I let myself slip away like this?” Because the person in the mirror no longer feels like me. 

The physical part was rough, but my biggest regret stemmed from how I mentally checked out and actively allowed my joy to be stripped away. As I decided to take on many challenges this year, I navigated life on an auto-pilot – solemn, quiet, and lifeless. I could not afford to stop, take a break, and truly relax (and I mean it in every sense of the word). I demanded so much from myself without giving anything back, and soon enough, the engine could not run any further without fuel. I burned out, yet I did not have the time to reflect properly. Sometimes, I would look into the mirror and tear up; “Why have I let myself slip away like this?” Because the person in the mirror no longer feels like me. 

We all head towards the same goal, and this rat race is more competitive than ever – but how can you win the race if you can’t be at the starting line?

Yes, the degree is important, and your future career and endeavors are too. But the costs one has to pay to gain it are incredibly high, and I don’t think it was 100% worth it. I did what I had to do, but in the end, the exhaustion killed the enjoyment. Thus, you are more important than anything else because, without you, the degree would be meaningless. While I certainly see the beauty of hard work and perseverance, it should not make you feel unhappy, instead, it should make you feel satisfied. And more importantly, your feelings and struggles are valid, as is acknowledging that you are no less than anyone out there. It’s okay to bawl your eyes out and to feel angry and frustrated. Take it from me, someone who regularly self-rejects and has difficulty figuring out her emotions. Everyone has their limit. And even when other people are pushing further than you are, remember that we are different individuals built in different ways. So, our job is to focus on our well-being. We all head towards the same goal, and this rat race is more competitive than ever – but how can you win the race if you can’t be at the starting line?

Standing Up (Again and Again)

The pursuit of my college degree has also given me bittersweet and unforgettable lessons. Still, one that I don’t think I could have found anywhere else is the power of standing up: standing up from my struggles and standing up for myself. It would be ridiculous to say that the past three years have been filled with only rainbows and sunshine (we also live in the Netherlands, so it is a rare occurrence). Not everything is a win, oftentimes quite the opposite – you can put tremendous effort into something and still fall far from your expectations. Sometimes, it comes in the form of temporary sadness; other times, it manifests into immense disappointment crushing one’s self-esteem and self-worth. And every time I fail or make a mistake, I torment and punish myself, indulging in endless self-doubt. And yet, college has taught me to pick myself back up in all circumstances, even when my mind collapses and crumbles. Life goes on regardless of how I am and what I do. And my only job? Stay alive and move forward. 

Living alone in Amsterdam, one needs to learn to fend for oneself in every sense of the word. Keeping myself safe and healthy is one thing, but I also needed to protect and distance myself from “noise.” My entire life has always been a big question mark – I don’t know who I am, what I’m working for, or what I am capable of. Pretty much an ever persisting existential crisis. And because of this, I have allowed other people to define me and I act according to their expectations. I have always been the quiet and shy kid; too sensitive to speak up. People predicted that my soft heart and I wouldn’t stand a chance in the harsh reality of the adult world. And I took those labels as definitive evidence of why I ‘fail’ in life. But that changed from the very moment I embarked on this journey towards my degree. Yes, the insecurities and doubts remain, but those preconceived notions that others have so unkindly attached no longer ring true or haunt me. Instead, I started to discover my potential as a reserved and introverted individual who wishes to share her thoughts, feelings, and opinions with the world. I am not scared to speak up and will hold my ground for what I stand for and believe in. While there is no question that this degree has made me feel small and inadequate at times, I also developed a new sense of independence and pride that I, like anyone else, am qualified to do life. I can take care of myself, pass my classes, participate in extracurriculars, and move towards greater opportunities in life. And I would have never realized that without this degree. 

Don’t Drop Out!

Is the college degree worth it? After all, I have moved from one country to another, survived the pandemic and online education, and spent many restless and uncertain days and nights to obtain it. It has to be worth it. We have gone through too much s**t and the full spectrum of human emotions to give up on it. This is an open letter to all university students. And while my experiences are not universal, I hope you can find some solace and consolation through my written words, for we will continue this journey as who we are, taking one step at a time. 



Edited by: Pritha Ray

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

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