What I’m learning about being engaged as a fourth-year

Holding our rigid life stages with a looser grip


Sarah Ashman is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily.

Chandler Collins | Cavalier Daily

When I was 5 years old, I started kindergarten at Mary Munford Elementary School in a babydoll dress patterned with brown and black horses, white frilly socks that peaked over my new sneakers, a pink L.L. Bean backpack longer than my torso and the dream of being a professional ballerina.

Though we missed out on sharing the classic Instagram posts holding up the letter-board signs with our name, age and “First day of kindergarten!” written on them because neither had been invented yet — I bet if you’re reading this, your educational journey began similarly.

Here’s what’s funny — have you ever spent time in a kindergarten classroom? Those kids are all over the place. First — yes, physically they can’t sit still yet, but also developmentally, they fall on such a large spectrum. Besides being potty-trained, there aren’t many maturity prerequisites for kindergarten. What you end up with is a mix of kids — some of which are mini-high school students ready for complex ideas and relationships who have already mastered the art of maturity, and some of which cry out for their parents to hold them for a month.

How did we decide age five was perfect for every child to begin school?

Or 18 for college? When I was a junior and senior in high school, the conversation I had with my parents — and the conversations my friends were having with theirs — centered around which schools I would be applying for come October 2014, not whether or not I felt ready to go to college. While I can remember a few brave souls we all commended for taking a gap year, it didn’t seem like a realistic option for most of us.

What is it about being 18 years old that prepares you to leave your family, the home you’ve grown up in and every other facet of your support system to relocate you in a 8 feet by 10 feet dorm room with a complete stranger you met over social media? And then two years later, for you to know what you’re going to do with your life and to declare your path of study to pursue that?

For most of us, there is a pretty rigid social and cultural construct determining when we are ready to do what in this society.

I don’t think we realize timing is a social construct rather than our individual choice until we find ourselves swimming against the current in an attempt to time our stages differently than how they’ve been inflexibly designed. Or at least, I didn’t.

On May 24, 2018, I made the best decision of my life. I said yes to marrying my best friend and the man of my dreams — my now fiancé. He got down on one knee in front of Drummond Castle after surprising me while I was in Scotland with my family, having taken off work to travel all day to time it perfectly with my arrival. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that I wanted to partner in life with Andrew, growing together with the privilege of supporting one another as we chased our many dreams, went on adventures and inevitably changed over time. I could not have been more ready to say yes to marrying the most incredible teammate I could have ever dreamed of having.

However, our social construct of when I should enter into what stage of my life wasn’t as convinced I was making the right choice. And it let me know — as all cultural rules do — through the concerns and critical questions of its lawful abiders.

“Don’t you feel like you may be missing out on your fourth year if you spend it engaged?” or “Don’t you think you’re cutting your college experience short?” are just a few questions that came from worried bystanders witnessing my breech of the system.

While I have no problem explaining that no, I don’t feel like I’m missing out. I feel like I’m adding a spectacular experience to my fourth year, these questions began to spike my curiosity about why everyone was so nervous about my “college experience” — as if there was one right way to do it.

I think society has been telling us there is one right way to do it — especially at the University, where we just have to fill our college experience with late-night Trin, all the right internships, collecting Sabre points for basketball and an all-out devotion to Bodo’s Bagels. And here’s the thing — I love some of those things. But as a community, I want to invite us to think critically about the college experience — and even more broadly, the life stages — we are upholding as “right” and “wrong,” as if they are anywhere near black and white.

I hope that we are a university that is constantly striving to empower its individual students to make the professional, emotional, relational and broader developmental life choices that are right for them. I hope that we break down the cookie-cutter stages to free students up to the endless possibilities of healthy choices they could be making about their next step in life. I hope that we support that student who’s taking a gap year before law school, who’s going abroad rather than accepting the consulting job in D.C. or — like me — who chose with whom they want to take on life first. 

Here’s why — the more tightly we hold onto what we think we should be doing or accomplishing by our age — letting the unforgiving life stages dominate our mentalities and choices — the more our unpredictable and scary and wonderful lives will tell us we’re failing by one standard or another. We are not all going to enter our dream career at 22, get married between 25 and 30 and have two or three kids. Why not prepare ourselves to accept the messy, conflated, flexible life stages we are bound to enter right now?

I want to be part of a community where we accept more personally healthy and happy life choices as right than the amount we would ever consider labeling wrong. Here’s to 21,000 students figuring out what timing is right for them.

Sarah Ashman is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at life@cavalierdaily.com. 

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