This weekend, while thousands of proud Fresno State Bulldogs relinquish student status in exchange for caps and gowns, diplomas and degrees, I will squirm, watching from the stands, catapulted back in time to another college graduation, my own — one I did not attend.
Kidnapped by the arms of wanderlust, I ventured off to see the world instead, hopeful to find Nirvana or that place where the grass is (always) greener. My plans included spreading wings far and wide in hopes of returning fluent in the language of life.
The world was a different color then. We were making love not war, chanting for peace to guide planets and love to steer the stars. Naively faithful to these lyrics and the Age of Aquarius, I skipped classes, protested in the free speech area, snoozed in the stacks and pulled all-nighters frantically studying for midterms and finals.
In spite of it all, the silver lining was that graduating in four years was a cinch back then — even though few of us had any clue what we wanted to be when we grew up. One class led to another, one great professor could quickly change the course of a dream and major and there was time and permission to make mistakes and still graduate on schedule, even if that meant taking 22 units one semester and camping out on campus. I know because I did — all for the purpose of redirecting my passions, finding a niche and stalling till the eleventh hour to declare a major.
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Looking back, I wouldn’t change one thing.
The times, it seems, were more lenient, the system forgiving, protocols and consequences — remarkably humane. After studying abroad for one year, Fresno State (and my parents) welcomed me home with arms wide open. Dots were starting to connect — the constellation of my life finally beginning to take shape.
Compared to today’s students, who rise more readily to the rigors of academia, service learning and community engagement, I guess you might call me a late bloomer.
Much like the 68% first-generation undergraduates currently attending Fresno State, I was always, however, college-bound and determined to get a solid education, something neither of my parents had the luxury of doing. Fresno State delivered, boy did it, granting me a liberal arts degree and set of wings that have now transported me all over the world — a flight plan I could never have imagined.
Thankfully, I’ve had numerous occasions to return to campus and make good on my year of absence. Serving on alumni boards and advisory committees, I experience this “university of opportunity” on a regular and frequent basis by attending theater productions, piano recitals, scholarship dinners and countless lectures and events as a community member. You can, too, by the way.
Last month, when my family visited the Armenian Genocide monument, the ground covered with blossoming flowers, trees tied with memorial ribbons, I found myself breathless and humbled by the university’s bold commitment to honoring the past, present and future.
Returning as often as possible is perhaps my small way of saying thank you to the institution responsible for shaping my life, helping me land more than one dream job, and at the age of 50, welcoming me back as a student desiring to change her major — one last time.
Petrified but determined to make a go of it as an author, I studied writing as part of the California State University Summer Arts Program, housed on the Fresno State campus for an unprecedented 13 years. It was during these summers my first book was born — nurtured by a cadre of exceptional professors and guest authors who pushed me to my limits and said rather emphatically, “Yes, you can.”
A few years later, as dreams for a second book surfaced, it was this university that invited me back to be published again — only this time under its own imprint, The Press at California State University, Fresno.
Last month, while guest lecturing for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) — a university program for students age 50 and better, it dawned on me that I have been returning to my alma mater and becoming more of myself for the good part of four decades.
A cherished professor once told me, “Trust me. This will take time. But there is order here. Very faint. Very human. You must meander. When you try to simplify the journey, there is no journey at all.”
Although I’ve yet to walk across the stage of Save Mart Center, I stroll quite regularly across the vast campus, eyeing with wonder a magnificent landscape of learning — where students from all walks of life converge with singular purpose and passion: to earn a world-class education and a shot at their dreams.
Just like I did.
Armen D. Bacon is a writer and co-author of “Griefland — an Intimate Portrait of Love, Loss and Unlikely Friendship” (Globe Pequot Press, 2012) and a collection of essays, “My Name is Armen — a Life in Column Inches.” Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter @ArmenBacon.