This is it. The moment that the last 3 years have led up to. The last 21 years even. As I walk across the stage, I'm conscious that this is a defining moment of my life. I know my parents are in the audience and I imagine it must feel like a culmination of sorts to them. They managed to raise me all the way to my university graduation ceremony. If my life goes off the rails after this, they really can't be blamed, they did everything right.
The dean is smiling at me as he hands me my diploma. I wonder if he recognises me. It must be weird, personally congratulating people you've never met. I wonder if at any point during the ceremony, he saw someone walk onto the stage and asked himself “Who the fuck is that? Did he even attend here? He doesn't even look vaguely familiar.” If he's thinking that now, he's hiding well because his smile seems genuine as he shakes my hand.
I can't really take the moment in, there's too much going on at once and it all happens so quickly. When I walk off the stage, I estimate I must have been up there for about 20 seconds.
I go back to my seat among my classmates and look at the diploma. It's a thick sheet paper, with the name of the university embossed at the top in an important looking font. Written on it is a statement certifying that I am indeed a graduate of the University College of Utrecht and there's the dean's signature at the bottom just in case anybody thinks I might be lying.
I look back up at the stage to watch the parade of other students come and collect their diplomas and I realise that this is it. This chapter of my life has closed with a brief walk across a stage that I am already forgetting how it exactly happened. This paper in my hands is what this university has armed me with to take on the world.
I look at my diploma, desperately trying to get some kind of emotional reaction from it. I try to feel some pride as I look at the university's insignia. I try to place this moment in the larger narrative of my time at UCU. This is the end of the third act. This is the series finale of a beloved TV series that lasted 3 years. But I can't seem to get away from the fact that what I'm holding is just a piece of paper.
It's high quality paper and I'm sure the school did everything they good to find the best printer in town to make it look good. But it's a piece of paper that got ordered in bulk with all the other pieces of paper and now we're all sitting in an big auditorium and we can't believe our luck that we're all about to receive a piece of paper.
A kind of panic starts to build up inside me. I realise that I am having what is possibly the most juvenile existential breakdown ever. The kind of breakdown that only a white middle-class male could experience, the realisation that he may not be on his way to greatness, that he's now going to have to figure things out on his own.
I look at my glorious piece of paper and I feel I've been duped. I was under the impression that I would do this degree, get my diploma and get pointed to the next stage of my life just like after high school and just like after primary school. But that's not what universities provide. Sure they provide degrees and they tell you that's why you should attend them and you attend them because you think you want the degree. But that's not what happening. They are selling you a narrative. The narrative of degree equals success equals happiness.
And for three years, that's exactly what you get. You live in a bubble where no matter what you do, no matter how much time you waste, how much bumming around you do, you're always in the process of getting your degree. You're always doing the right thing because your life's narrative is on the right track. But the transaction only lasts three years, then you and the university part ways and you're on your own. It doesn't matter if the narrative the university sold you is a lie, you believed it for the three years you were there so they help up their end of the deal.
But now it's over, and the needle that popped your little bubble comes in the form of a diploma. A piece of paper. They did choose a very nice venue though.