The first years: A future of achievement 13 years in the making

Brian Thornton

I’m old.

At least it feels that way sometimes when I am surrounded by students who were just entering kindergarten when I first started college.

As a 31-year-old graduate student, my first university year was 13 years ago. Since then, I’ve finished one degree and then a second, started a third degree I didn’t finish, bounced around a few different careers and ended up back in school for the fourth time.

Now, I don’t always believe that age and experience equal wisdom. But I truly believe I could have skipped much of my scattered adult life if only I could have given myself permission to be who I really was.

My first year was a waste. So was my second, my third and my fourth.

Not that I didn’t achieve something those four years. I worked my ass off, graduating with the highest GPA in my class — a 4.0 — in structural engineering.

Structural engineering? How did a talented musician, star of plays and recipient of writing awards end up in a profession of pocket protectors, column-load takedowns and Excel spreadsheets?

Because I had spent all of those years denying who I was — hiding a secret, pretending to be someone else.

I was gay.

It seems ridiculously simply to say the words now. This year, I will have been out for a decade. And the difference between old me and new me is stunning to people who knew me before and after.

Living in the closet didn’t just keep me from finding dates and boyfriends. It kept me from admitting I had interests and desires for myself. Forget suppressing my crush on my resident assistant — I was ignoring my need for a career doing something more creative than evaluating concrete strength and picking rebar.

Unfortunately, I didn’t come springing out of the closet until the end of my first degree. So I stumbled into an engineering career, progressively becoming more bored and then angry at my job.

But one day I woke up. I gave myself permission to admit I was in the wrong occupation. And within months, I abandoned all of my safety nets, quit my job and embarked on a new path of discovering just what the hell I wanted to do with my life.

I wouldn’t change who I have become nor even, necessarily, the meandering way I have gotten here. But some days I do wish I just could have slapped myself awake back when I was young and fresh at 18.

I realize most people reading this column aren’t in the closet or even gay. But so many of us come to college with expectations from parents, family and friends. You may think you need to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or a businessperson. You may be denying a secret wish.

Guess what? You don’t have to.

This is finally your time to experiment. You’re legal now — and you don’t have to do everything your parents say anymore.

Maybe you have that secret desire. Maybe you have no idea what your interests are. But surely something sounds intriguing, whether it’s architecture, fashion design, music, psychology, philosophy or journalism.

There will never be a better time. Be brave — not like the scared boy I was 13 years ago.

So what do you want to do? The choices here — or somewhere else — are endless.

Brian Thornton is a journalism graduate student and Forum editor of the Summer Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected] .