What’s My Age Again?
By Karla Enriquez
When I was 23, I found myself sinking in my computer chair, sweating profusely out of embarrassment. I had raised my hand to contribute to the class discussion on poetry with a reference to ‘90s boy band *NSYNC. My classmates hissed a couple of comments like, “Who?” and “Is that Justin Timberlake’s band?” It was my first day in college after a five year break, and already the reminders that I was different than the average student were slapping me across the face. Much like everyone else around me at the time, you may be asking: What took me so long to start my college career?
Going Through Changes
At 18, my personality went through a dramatic change that I attributed to teenage hormones. I realized down the line that my constant isolation and fear of talking to literally anyone, was actually me going through depression and crippling anxiety. I would arrive at my high school and it would spit me right back out like bad food. I constantly felt like everyone’s eyes were burning right through me. I began wearing a peacoat that I tore holes into with my fists to double as pockets. The hair extensions I wore at the time were my security blanket. Shoes with even the smallest heel became replaced by flats; in my mind, the noise they made was thunderous. I missed the senior class picture because the thought of being around hundreds of students made me so physically sick, I ran out of school and went home crying. The thought of going through the life-altering process of starting college seemed catastrophic.
The Crash of ‘08
I found myself filling out financial aid applications the closer I got to graduation day. I told myself that maybe if I took small steps at a time, I’d be able to do it. Weeks later, my mother quit her job in the midst of the 2008 recession. My family’s financial situation had dramatically changed. Of course, my financial aid paperwork didn’t reflect this, so it was decided that my family made enough money to not qualify for aid. All of this information came crashing down on me like a pile of bricks. I felt defeated.
When it Rains it Pours
I had always been a promising student, so in 2009 with renewed financial hope, I signed up for art school. To make money and find my passion, I began photographing the metal and hardcore music scene in Los Angeles and Orange County. Photography became instrumental, not only in feeling better, but also in finding my way back into college. After many meetings and countless signatures, the total for my education for a year came out to $30,000. The numbers spun in my head like a terrible hangover. It felt like the thrash metal I was listening to on the car ride home from North Hollywood. I knew it wasn’t going to happen. At the end of that summer, the depression I thought I had left behind came back, decimating everything in its path. The next two years I can barely remember; it’s as though I took a 24-month nap. It was a nasty cycle where inactivity fed my depression, but the same illness sucked out my energy. One of those nights, feeling particularly okay, I got up and tried again. I signed up for college.
“Surprise, I’m Old!”
I barely slept the night before starting at Cerritos College in 2013. I was excited to feel like myself again—outgoing, with a list of goals as long as a CVS receipt. I didn’t think of myself as different until someone asked my age or a professor made the typical, “You were all probably babies during 9/11,” or my favorite, “You all most likely don’t remember *NSYNC.” These were both defining moments in my preteen life. It felt like my presence was being silenced in those moments. To feel my age again, I treated my best friend and myself to a Breeders show the night I started college. My favorite thing became people’s reactions when I told them my age. Because I always blended right in, the answer was always met with a gasp or a “You’re lying!” It also made me cower self-consciously.
The Age Gap
All of the friends I made in college were at least five years younger than me, which also made me self-conscious. What did it say about me that most of my college friends were not even allowed to drink legally? You’ll never feel more awkwardly out of place than sitting in a freshman class at age 24. Dating also became interesting. When I was 25, I began dating my current boyfriend — who had just turned 21. His mom had some concerns at first, until she met me and realized I wasn’t a complete weirdo. He was the only person whose face also brightened up when mentioning *NSYNC.
It’s not just friends and dating, or what people will say about an almost 30-year-old still in college. It’s the added pressure of starting your career as soon as you graduate—something that keeps me up at night. I have five years of catching up to do with my peers. A lot of the people I grew up with are moving into their starter homes or having their second baby. As a matter of fact, some of the people I went to high school with are professors themselves. I get to live my life constantly trying to pack those five years into one.
The Kid is Alright
Despite this, as I sit here in my last semester of college, I wouldn’t have gone through my academic journey any other way. I truly believe that we all carve our own unique paths and mine just went through a couple of detours. Starting college that late allowed me to focus and to find my passions. My journey allowed me to trust myself and to see myself as a resilient and determined woman. Doing this any other way would mean not learning from and meeting deeply impactful people along the way, and I cannot fathom a world in which that is true.