Walking through the Law Quadrangle and waiting for my photographer, I couldn’t help but notice them: the group of girls doing their graduation photoshoot at the same time, clad in white dresses, caps and gowns. I, too, had purchased a white dress and a new pair of heels for the occasion, but there was a key difference: I was alone.
I booked the session in January with a photographer I knew. We booked my session for the first week of April. Then came the question that made my stomach lurch: “How many people?”
Long before it was time to book, I knew what was coming. Girls at the University of Michigan don’t take their graduation photos alone. The more girlfriends surrounding you in pastel dresses and nude pumps, the better. And taking my photos alone felt pathetic, like I was sending a message to the world that I didn’t have any friends.
I didn’t have a choice. The friends I had made at this school had largely graduated, including my boyfriend, a member of the class of 2019 with whom I’ve been long-distance for nearly two years. Others were younger than me or doing their photos with others. The women I consider my closest friends all go to different universities.
So, that Friday afternoon in the Law Quad, I set aside my embarrassment and took the photos. A few days later, I plastered them over social media, captioning them with an ironic song lyric from Taylor Swift’s Daylight: “Maybe I’ve stormed out of every single room in this town.”
That’s the duality of being that person who’s wanted to graduate for two-and-a-half years. My grad photos embarrassed me, yes, but I still felt the need to display them and tell everyone I was graduating.
Finally, I was less than a month from getting out of here.
There are a lot of clichés I heard entering college and starting as a sports writer at The Michigan Daily: “The best four years of your life!” or, “The best job you’ll ever have!” I hadn’t liked high school much, so these phrases assured me that college would be better. Michigan is huge, I thought; here, I’d find my people.
Spoiler alert: I didn’t.
It’s been four years and while I have a few close friends, I never found a place where I felt I truly fit in. I wasn’t necessarily hated, but I wasn’t liked, either. Most times, I felt, I was just there.
During my freshman year in South Quad Residence Hall, all the girls in my hall were joining sororities and studying for organic chemistry, while I stayed far away from STEM and spent my weekends at field hockey games. Freshman year, the one year I attended football games as a fan, I went to every game alone because most of the people I knew only cared about the tailgates. Then, between sophomore and junior years, I fell out with three people I considered close friends in the span of eight months. As I posted on Instagram about all the basketball games I’d covered, I spent many late nights crying.
I was alone.
I tried to run from my status as a lonely girl. I stopped posting much on my Instagram, only showing photos of games I covered or places I visited. Deep down inside, I constantly wondered if it was too late for me, or if I’d ever find a space where I was truly wanted.
When the pandemic hit and took away the majority of things I was looking forward to in 2020 — summer in Washington D.C., my sister’s high school graduation, a football trip to Seattle — I began clinging to graduation even more than I had been before. Without anything in person, suddenly, the clock had run out on chances to join new clubs or meet new people. Following COVID-19 restrictions was easy for me because there was barely anyone in Ann Arbor I regularly saw anyway. Every new restriction was just a further reminder that nothing had changed for me and nothing would: I was still alone, and I would continue to be. This time, it was just government-mandated.
The one thing I knew I still had going for me was that with each passing day, graduation ticked closer and closer. I counted down the months until I could get out of here, get a real job, go somewhere I wasn’t constantly reminded of my loneliness.
I never had a lot of spending money in college. I turned down getting food with people because I was so budget-conscious. And yet, I went all out for graduation in a way I hadn’t for anything before. Dress. Heels. A haircut. Makeup. Regalia. Photos. I spent hundreds of dollars on the occasion. Sometimes I questioned why I was even doing it. Did I really need grad photos? Did I need a new dress when I didn’t even wear the dresses I already had because I never got invited to the right occasions?
But I decided to go forward with the purchases because, after four years of feeling like I wasn’t enough and could never be enough for anyone, I needed something to feel good about. At least I liked the way I looked. At least the photos were a tangible reminder that I was so close to getting out of here.
It was just my luck that the pandemic forced graduation online. There was nothing I wanted more than to graduate in Michigan Stadium, with my loving family and boyfriend beside me. At graduation, I would be celebrated.
It’s even more ironic that the University decided to allow graduates into Michigan Stadium to watch the virtual commencement, but just the students. No family. No friends. I knew from the moment they announced it that I wanted to go, but it wasn’t lost on me that I’d be finishing college as I spent it: alone.
Every December, The Daily lets its graduating seniors write goodbye columns. I’d read previous ones, and they made me cry. Not because they were sentimental, but because they were largely filled with seniors reminiscing on the number of friends they’d made and how they’d never have a job as good as this. Who has it better than us, after all?
For me, it seemed like the answer to that question was everyone.
The Daily sent me a lot of places and gave me a lot of opportunities. But I never found a home there in the way everyone always talked about, and if it’s the best job I’ll ever have, I’d leave the journalism industry tomorrow.
So I summed it up in 800 words: how it feels to want to leave a space where everyone is begging for extra time, how to sit there wondering if it will ever be worth it. I wrote about being alone. That was when the direct messages started to flow in.
I got multiple messages that day from people who’d graduated before me, people I looked up to, telling me that my experience wasn’t unique. They’d been in my shoes before. They were glad I’d spoken my truth.
For once, I wasn’t alone.
“We don’t say the G word here,” one of my professors said while we were discussing commencement plans last week. It was another example of the cliche that nobody graduating college wants to come to terms with leaving.
But I say it. I fixate on it. It’s the one thing in my life I can hold tight to with everything I have. And I’m not the only one — it’s just that those of us with graduation circled on our calendars for months or years tend to stay in the shadows.
I know this because I was finally willing to open up. I was willing to write about my experience, I was willing to do my grad photos alone. Only then did I realize how many shared my experience.
When I finally toss my cap up in the air, the moment I’ve anticipated for years, it’ll be dedicated to everyone who didn’t have the experience they wanted in college. For people like us, this is an accomplishment, a door opening to a fresh start and a life we get to make.
Knowing that, I don’t think taking pictures alone should be embarrassing. It should be a sign of resilience and of reclaiming the narrative.
It’s a constant reminder that while all good things come to an end, all bad things — whether that be a suboptimal college experience or a pandemic that torpedoed a senior year — do too.
In a few weeks, it will all be over, and no one can take that away from me.
Statement Contributor Aria Gerson can be reached at email@example.com.