Early Entrance in Hindsight

By Nate Gudvangen

I recently graduated from the University of Iowa. A week later, I turned 20.

Not surprisingly, this major life change has led to retrospection and self-evaluation. Less than a month ago, I stopped being a teenager, and already I face post-graduation adulthood (which is very different from college adulthood). I think about the responsibilities I face and am grateful for the role early college entrance has had on me.

As is the case for many, middle school and high school was a tough time for me. From the 6th grade to the 11th grade, I battled depression on a daily basis. Of course, no single factor is the cause of depression; several aspects of life come together and the world seems bleak. For me, one contributor was an overwhelming feeling of boredom in my education.

I was identified as a gifted child at the start of elementary school, and placed in a program called Mindstretchers, which involved solving a myriad of logic-based puzzles. At first, I approached this challenge with zeal, but as elementary school progressed, I realized we were just doing the same activity over and over. Maybe instead of which kid on the list must be the one to have blond hair, the puzzle would be which kid liked strawberry ice cream. The logical process never changed. My mind was only stretched in one direction. For my 6th grade Christmas present, rather than asking for a videogame like every other kid, I asked my parents to let me leave Mindstretchers. It wasn’t holding my interest, and they recognized that. After I left, I was still a gifted student. Abandoning repetition didn’t stop me from being in honors and AP classes.

However, I ran into a similar issue with my gifted coursework. In AP English, for instance, we read The Scarlet Letter, but so did the general level English classes. Perhaps our discussion was slightly more profound and our papers slightly longer. But still, few of those students were particularly interested in English, like I was. My teacher was excellent, but she was just as confined as we were to the predetermined curriculum. I wanted to read something atypical, something extraordinary. I would have sought this out myself, but I was too trapped within my own mind to reach out for inspiration.

In response to my disinterest, I analyzed my teachers, parents, and other adults, trying to please them because my education didn’t intrinsically please me. Maybe I could have tried to make the most of my gifted high school education, but I found the material too lackluster to put forth the effort. I would always do just enough to get that 90% mark for an A, and then cease trying. The rest of my efforts went to convincing people that I was indeed happy and interested in what I was doing. I needed to get out, to move on from the dull, droning beat of high school. I needed to move on to a place where I didn’t have to pretend to have motivation, where my education would give me purpose. I needed to want to succeed.

On a late October day of my junior year, my mother found a postcard in the mail from the Belin-Blank Center. It offered early college entrance. The moment she showed it to me, there was a spark of hope. My standard forced smirk broke into a grin for a second. I saw a chance to move on from a time and place full of painful memories and dark thoughts. College classes intrigued me, and I had discovered a way to end the boredom. I made the decision in an instant to go to the University of Iowa. It’s the one thing I thank old me for.

My parents fully supported the decision. They weren’t so blind as to not see my mask beginning to crack. I was filled with motivation, readily taking the ACT early and night classes so I could graduate ahead of schedule. I started dating again. I found faith, and it made me feel connected to a world so much bigger than myself. It made me aware of the weight of history behind me. I could look to the future without pressure, but drive. I was eager for something once more.

It wasn’t long after I arrived at the University of Iowa that I began taking classes on old languages like Latin and Old English. When I took Elementary Old English, we read The Wanderer, and I couldn’t help but think that the narrator sounded just like a volatile, depressed teenager. When it came time for the final paper, I compared the narration of Old English poetry to modern pop songs. Instead of trying to put me on a more conventional path, my professor laughed in agreement at how the narrator in The Wanderer says essentially the same thing as Simple Plan in their song “I’m Just a Kid.” It was a lighthearted paper, to be sure, but the very fact that I could take strides outside the conventional and still succeed had me enraptured.

In college I found lively educators who inspired me to share their excitement in a way I never had before. I became connected, both to teachers and students who cared as much as I did and to authors from across time who pushed me to write like they did. I could look at Catullus’s poems to Lesbia and the anonymous lamentations of Anglo-Saxon poets, and take comfort in the fact that my emotions of the past years were not something to be ashamed of. People had been feeling them for thousands of years.

I no longer saw the world as bleak. The first time I went home to visit my family was for my sister’s birthday in mid-September. When my grandma saw me, her face lit up. Before even saying hello, she said, “You’re smiling!” I hadn’t noticed. There was no question that leaving for college early was the right decision for me. Even after just a month’s time, people could see that I’d changed.

Now after graduating, I’m so different than I was in high school, or even than I was when I started college. For three years now, I’ve lived mask-free, letting myself and my heart be known. More importantly, I’ve allowed me to know myself. Early entrance helped me to break away from limitations I placed upon myself, and it exposed me to people who have shaped me into a better person. I’ve become a happy person, genuinely happy. I look ahead to the future, to the world, and I’m ready for it to see me as I truly am. Jovial. Passionate. Driven. No more masks.

Nate Gudvangen is a recent University of Iowa graduate at the age of 20. He majored in English and plans on studying medieval literature in grad school. He writes, reads, draws, and loves to geek out at gaming conventions.

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