On December 5th, 2018, I closed my laptop after hitting “submit” on my final, 50-page research paper for grad school. Since I was graduating about five months early, there was no official “fanfare”, nor were there any celebrations scheduled by the university. As we left our last-ever classes earlier that week, we were just a few exhausted women on the brink of our thirties, high-fiving each other for graduating ahead of schedule and getting the heck out of there. The day came and went without any acknowledgement from professors or the younger, full-time students, so I shrugged and posted a few Instagram stories, called my parents, and went out to dinner with Alfie and Alexa to celebrate. Commencement was scheduled for the following May, when we would walk across the stage to make our degrees in Marketing seem “official” (although mine was actually conferred on December 21st, and my diploma arrived in a stiff white envelope in January).
Twenty-three days after submitting that final paper, I got engaged. December 28th and the weeks that followed were filled with an outpouring of love from friends, family, and even distant acquaintances and friends I hadn’t talked to in years. It seemed like everywhere I went, people enthusiastically congratulated me (or us) on getting engaged, and were genuinely excited to hear if we had set a date yet. This lasted quite literally for six months, as outer-circle friends I hadn’t seen in a while would continue to pop up randomly and congratulate me without a moment’s hesitation.
The week of Commencement, we rented out the patio of a local brewery and threw ourselves a joint engagement/graduation party with fried food and an open bar to thank our friends and family for all their love and support. Although it was written on the invitation that the party was also for my graduation, the ratio of cards and small gifts that we received for our engagement versus my graduation was easily 10 to 1. A close friend of mine, who has a master’s degree in a similar field, brought two small graduation balloons to the party and gave them to me somewhat awkwardly. Over the course of the afternoon, I heard quite a few people asking “Who graduated?”, and even my friend doubted herself for a moment that she had gotten the occasion wrong.
Through all of this, there is one particular thing that I desperately want to start a conversation about. In January, I went to a happy hour with a bunch of women who are mostly in my outer-circle of friends. My friend Gina (who is also from Minnesota) ran up to me, grabbed my shoulders, and said, “Oh my gosh, congratulations! I haven’t seen you in so long!” My automatic reply at the time was something along the lines of, “Thank you! We’re very excited.” Then Gina said something that I can’t stop thinking about, even months later: “No, not that! I mean, yeah that too, congrats to you guys, but dude, you finished your master’s, and you were the valedictorian!? That’s so cool!!” I was shocked, and gave her a big hug; profusely thanking her for recognizing something so important to me when almost no one else had. But why was my mind been blown by her congratulations? I’m a very pro-education, feminist Ravenclaw, so why had even I, of all people, been “trained” to assume people were congratulating me on my engagement, and not my graduation? Is this a societal thing? Would I have had the same experience if I were a man? Was I too quiet about my graduation (out of fear that talking about it too much would sound like bragging), and too loud about my engagement? Did I create this problem? Has this happened to other women out there too?
To be honest, I worked infinitely harder on getting my master’s degree than getting engaged. I calculated it once out of curiosity, and came up with about 450 hours of class time, 300 hours commuting to and from campus by car or train, and somewhere around 1,500 hours of reading, writing papers, doing homework, and attending events. That’s around 30 hours per week of activities related to grad school for the year and a half I was there. For over half of that time, I was also working part-time at USC and freelancing for my own clients (at a total of about 30 hours per week) until I got my job at cupcakes and cashmere. I worked my @$$ off getting through grad school–I was mentally exhausted most of the time, and it pushed me to be better, smarter, and more capable than when I started.
In contrast, to get engaged, it took 17 first dates (let’s say around 25 hours) and somewhere in the ballpark of 60 hours of “app time” over four months (about half an hour per day) to meet Alfie–and the rest, I wouldn’t exactly call that “work”. At least in terms of hours spent, it’s very clear to me which event should garner more praise and congratulations. Both will theoretically last me a lifetime, so why is it that almost everyone was so quick to show their support and offer congratulations on my engagement, but somehow less enthusiastic (or perhaps apathetic is a better word) about the fact that I not only completed a master’s, but also graduated first in my class?
To be fair, maybe this is partially, or entirely, my fault. Maybe I should have been more vocal about my graduation, like I was with my engagement. After all, I only posted a few stories on Instagram about it, and otherwise didn’t really “spread the word” because I didn’t want to seem arrogant, while I wrote an entire post on my engagement. If I wanted more recognition, maybe I should have thrown myself a big graduation party in December instead of combining it with our engagement party (which I did mostly to save money, but also because it felt like I was maybe just a little too old for a “grad party” as I was knocking on the door of turning 30). And let’s be honest– I’m hardly the first person to ever earn a master’s degree. Women have earned the majority of master’s degrees since 1981, and about 13% of the U.S. population now holds an advanced degree. Getting a master’s doesn’t exactly make me unique, but then again, neither does getting engaged. So why does one feel like such an important milestone to be celebrated, and the other somehow doesn’t?
My question to all of you is: Do we put too much of an emphasis on getting engaged and married in this country, especially for women? If 50% percent of all marriages in the U.S eventually end in divorce or separation anyway, are we putting too much pressure on this particular milestone, at the expense of not focusing enough on other achievements? As our beloved Carrie Bradshaw reminded us, “The most exciting, challenging, and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself.” As a society, should we be celebrating women’s investments in themselves just as much or more than we celebrate milestones in their relationships and families? Or, should I just pack up my pity party and get back to wedding planning?