In an alternate universe, I stroll through Washington Square Park every Tuesday and Thursday morning on my way to a Contemporary Shakespeare course at New York University. I spend $8 on an overpriced — but delicious — coffee from La Colombe and brace myself against the cruel winds of the New York City winter. In yet another universe, Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York” plays out behind me as I live out my Carrie Bradshaw–inspired dream as a big-shot columnist in the only city that matters. I know these alternative, glitzy universes like the back of my hand because I fantasized about them for the past 20 or so years of my life.
But, ultimately, that’s exactly what these universes turned out to be: alternative.
College was always in the cards for me. My immigrant mother pushed it on me since before I was able to say the word “degree,” but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t want that experience just as badly. Even in my tween years, I craved the picturesque college experience valorized in TV shows and movies. I wanted the independence of pursuing my own path at an esteemed university and, more than anything, I wanted that university to be NYU.
Part of my attraction to this specific school had to do with buying into the fantasy of New York as the greatest city known to man. I truly believed that if I could make it there, I could make it anywhere. I imagined New York City as this ultimate fountain of success, forever spewing once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that would be impossible to find anywhere else. I grew up in suburban Kansas, and while my peers dreamed about futures full of white picket fences and domestic bliss in the same small town, I craved something bigger than what the Midwest could give me.
But another part of the draw was NYU’s prestige as an institution. So many creative souls have graduated from that university, and I couldn’t help but imagine myself eating pastries with the likes of Aziz Ansari, Ann Shoket, and Judy Blume at future alumni gatherings. I wanted nothing more than to follow the same paths as these artists and other impressive figures who had come before me. I decided I would graduate from the NYU creative writing program, pen the next great American novel, write pieces for The New Yorker, and meet the love of my life at a nondescript newspaper stand. Like Yale was to Blair Waldorf and Harvard was to Rory Gilmore, New York University was my great white whale.
In the spring of 2015, I counted down the days until I was expected to get the long-awaited notification about my admission status. I waited with greedy anticipation until I was a bundle of nervous energy; my entire high school career felt like it had led up to this acceptance. When the day finally came, I got my wish.
“Dear Sara,” the letter read. “On behalf of the admissions committee, it is my honor and privilege to notify you that you have been admitted to the Core Program in Liberal Studies at New York University. Congratulations! I could not be more excited to welcome you to NYU.”
My celebration, however, was bittersweet and short-lived. While the future now available to me looked like the one I always wanted, it would also include hundreds of thousands of dollars of unexpected debt. I thought that I could get by on financial aid, but the scholarship awarded to me was not nearly enough — especially considering new medical costs for my grandmother, who had been diagnosed with cancer earlier that month. I simply could not justify asking my family to pay the money I needed for tuition during an already strenuous time.
I spent months looking for some sort of financial solution, but I only turned up empty-handed and broken-hearted. I eventually made the decision to attend the University of Kansas. I was fortunate enough to receive a scholarship there that would allow me to graduate with no debt, plus I would be able to stay close to my grandma. At the end of the day, it was the only option that seemed practical.
The devastation of coming so close to fulfilling my dream only to fall just short of attaining it was crushing. The rest of my senior year and the following summer went by in a disappointing slew of self-pity and resentment. I skipped the majority of my new school’s orientation programming and tried to smile as my friends comforted me in vain. All I could think was, Why am I here?
The first semester passed by agonizingly slowly. I joined a sorority, a broadcasting crew, and a student publication, but still ended my days feeling unfulfilled. My student adviser eventually suggested that I start pursuing my passions outside the university. If I wasn’t happy here, she implied, I should find a different way to achieve happiness.
I realized she was right. Even if I wasn’t where I wanted to be, I still had ample resources at my disposal — I just had to stop wallowing long enough to recognize them. It was either that or waste four precious years mourning a path that was clearly not meant to be. So I expanded my nonprofit, Project Consent, and started writing again. I landed a small internship as a social-media curator for a lifestyle magazine. By the end of my second semester, it no longer mattered to me that I wasn’t at NYU; I was doing what I loved and building a platform for empowerment and change.
Now, two years later, I’m typing this while sitting in the Los Angeles sun and interning with an incredible director for NBC. I will soon return for my second semester of sophomore year at a school that is nowhere near New York City, with people who are more family than friends. The life I lead now is nothing like the one I dreamed about for so long, but it has taught me what I wish my 18-year-old self knew: A university can do a lot, but I don’t believe any specific institution is the be-all and end-all to accomplishing what you want. It’s not where you go, but what you do that matters.
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