I Graduated From My University After 17 Years. Here’s How I Did It.

Written by Naveen Khan. 


Last month, I finally graduated with a BA Honors in Interdisciplinary Visual Arts from the University of Washington. With support and encouragement from those who were part of this whirlwind of a journey, I am finally here closing a chapter of my life. It was a four-year degree that spanned two continents, dealt with transfers from a university to a community college back to university and withstood the birth of three kids, moves to two countries and a total of seventeen years.

When I sat down to decorate my cap, there was no doubt in my mind about what it would say. “Nevertheless, she persisted.” Thank you, Mitch McConnell, for mouthing the words that reflect the struggles of everyday women. Thank you, Elizabeth Warren, for persisting. Thank you to all the women, who are where they are for believing in themselves and paving the way for others.

My decoration on my mortarboard says what I have come to realize as my work ethic, my mantra, my strength and sadly a statement that reflects my political alignment. As much as I would like to keep it happy and dandy, this statement comes with a contextual baggage, both personally and societally. This very statement echoes my personal story and reflects my present.

Thank you to all the women, who are where they, are for believing in themselves and paving the way for others.

Unfortunately, we live in times where a person’s skin color, gender, race and ethnicity can spark a political discussion — and as a female, immigrant, person of color and as an apprehensive parent looking into the future, I am acutely aware of my place.

As an artist by profession, I continually find it upon myself to address what affects us all. I believe that art and culture surpass all boundaries between people. That’s why I love the humanities: they indulge in cross-cultural dialogue. Art only thrives with inspiration from others and inclusion of ideas.

My schooling in art taught me who I am and my role as an individual. Through the pursuance of this degree, I have become confident to reach out and to speak out. That is my voice, my strength and my pride. The idea is to persist.  The persistence in creating a dialogue, the persistence to accept diversity, persistence to make things easier for others, persistence in learning to confront ideologies without stepping on toes and persistence in not giving up for our future.

For me, this persistence was strengthened by the monumental support that I received. I am truly grateful to my friends, family and peers. I couldn’t have done it without my friends who, in times of panic as I was away or stuck in traffic, picked up my kids from school, who supported me with meals and free babysitting and listened to my endless tirades of how I was almost losing it; my parents who continuously believed in me, helped me, prayed for me, told me to slow down because it would be alright, my extended family who bore with me during exams, when I disappeared from my house from mornings to nights and they watched my kids;  my spouse who took the major brunt of it, simultaneously being the financial, emotional and physical support I needed. Many times due to these pressures my husband and I argued — about kids, about the state of the house, about how something needs to change from one thing to the other. There definitely was a strain on our marriage countless times and one of us had to stay quiet so as not to erupt and get things blown up. In such situations, often I would just ask myself if it was really worth it?

For me, this persistence was strengthened by the monumental support that I received.

Marriage itself is hard work and to throw in external unrelenting stresses just makes it more demoralizing. My degree was an art degree — not a computer science degree, not law, not medicine that was sure to monetarily compensate me in the end. I didn’t even know if I would get a job or any return for pursuing the arts. As a result, I would be lying if I didn’t say that I questioned myself countless times. I questioned the need to continue, questioned even the need for a degree, questioned its importance, questioned myself spending our savings on my assignments-needless to say I questioned myself every day. Doubt was never far away.

How could I validate the time spent away from my kids over something that had no foreseeable reward? I spent a lot of my days wallowing in guilt and spent sleepless nights worrying about this upheaval that I created within our family due to my need to finish my education. Just get through this as I would often repeat to myself.  A prayer that never left my lips. “Oh God, just make it easy for me.”

They say, “Bloom where you are planted.” It couldn’t have been truer for me. This is what gave me hope and motivation. For all those stay-at-home moms, we know we are deeply rooted where our families are. We are not going to study abroad programs to broaden our learning, we are not spending nights learning a new software just because it seems fun and intriguing (gah! we can barely stay awake past the kids’ bedtime), we are not going to have the luxury of uninterrupted, deep intellectual discussions with various speakers at after class events.

I would be lying if I didn’t say that I questioned myself countless times.

There is so much happening at the universities that if one wishes to indulge and immerse, they could spend a lifetime there. That discovery of not being able to soak up every opportunity given to other students had me feeling disappointed. I would be itching to attend events, exhibitions, talks or just work late, but I rushed home as soon as I was done in school.  I continuously had to push through to channel myself in a positive direction. I had to reevaluate myself quite often. “How do I make it work for me?” If I can’t do this particular thing then what else can I do?” I forcibly reminded myself not to fall into self-pity due to not being able to do everything, but rather make the most of my lived experience as an older student, mother and wife and be grateful for this opportunity to be here in health and in lucidity of mind. The latter, at times, was debatable.

“Look within, find your strength, find what you have to offer. Look within again. You hold many identities, you have other experiences.” That was my pep-talk in bus rides to and fro and that is how I learned to bloom.

I was one of those students who was there to learn. Of course, I wanted a degree and validation that I am “capable” and “worthy.”  Sad as it is, this is a requirement of our modern world. But at the same time, I was there because I wanted to be there. Between the last haul of 21 months, I only took one day off from class due to sickness. My time was precious and every minute counted and I took this responsibility seriously.

This degree didn’t come easy. I had naysayers, doubters and morale-killers all throughout. Sadly, I was amongst them. Thankfully I am a positive person, and optimism would usually win out. What this degree has been, if nothing more, is an unforgettable experience and inspiration for myself and my kids to never give up, to work around problems that derail us, persevere, persist, find solutions, let go and enjoy the moments. There are somethings you just have to do if you believe in them.

I was there because I wanted to be there.

It will all be over one day, things change, times change. Find your own strengths, accept your weaknesses, accept your situation if you can’t change it to make it work in your favor. Have the passion for learning and accepting new ideas and challenging yourself. I slowly found it within myself as I made the grueling journey. my way through. The only aspect that I loved was every minute of my art school learning. I loved being back in school and the exchange of ideas. I love being an artist, educator, community member and a creator.  If I had gone for any other degree, I wouldn’t have had the same passion as I had here.

I graduated with a 3.83 GPA along with nominations for awards and three scholarships and made it to the Cum Laude,  but missed its designation due to some transfer technicalities. There is comfort in knowing that I have reached this milestone no matter how long it took. I am aware that GPAs have no value in the world of employment but for me, all these accolades serve a reminder of my glory as a returning student.

They are a confidence booster and ammunition to inspire my kids and the students I taught. If I can do it as a mom with three kids, you sure can too! For two quarters in a row I had 4.0 GPA and I gloated to my kids with the tone of a drill sergeant. “People, people, people! I need straight A’s from you — I need excellent grades from you! Let’s make it work!” My 12-year-old would be proud but would groan, “Oh, we are never going to hear the end of it!”

Nope! I shall be rubbing it in for a long long time.

The juggle, as all women realize, is to find a balance between losing it and letting go. For my own piece of mind, I cooked fresh meals from scratch, four to five days a week, let the kids have cafeteria lunch twice a week and focused on their emotional/physical needs. The rest just took a backseat. The laundry could be neglected, the social relations slowed down, the grocery, errands and homework duties were handed over to my husband. My personal care could be minimized (I permanently walked around with paint stained pants and nails), but children keep growing emotionally and physically-you can’t take a backseat from parenting. At times, we would just sit and cuddle. On limited borrowed time, we would discuss school issues, problems with friends or things that stressed them out at school.

I will not hide, nor sugarcoat the fact that every mid-quarter, I found myself in tears and at a breaking point because things were just getting too much — the kids needed me, their teachers sent emails which I hadn’t read, the house was falling apart, the laundry had taken over every room, the kitchen floor crunched under my feet begging to be broomed and mopped, the grocery was out, the dinner was only ingredients in my head, the snacks, lunches, meals, toys crossed my path every minute, emotional and physical needs of family responsibilities that dragged me down, etc. Then, of course, I had these grand ideas about my art projects that just demanded time, experimentation, money and more experimentation. The sleep-deprived version of me found myself at the end of my rope and stretched thin.

I had multiple panic attacks and permanent migraines, along with a sudden onset of gray hair, exasperated by the fact that I gained 20 lbs. due to stress and unhealthy eating habits I had adopted. So not only did this degree have financial and emotional hitches, there were physical problems that started to mushroom after a while as well.

I will not hide, nor sugarcoat the fact that every mid-quarter, I found myself in tears and at a breaking point…

There were days when I had left the house early morning even before the kids awoke, after having made their breakfasts, school lunches, school snacks, after-school snacks, dinner and left by 7:30 A.M., all so I could be in class on-time by 8:30 A.M. When I would finally reach home by 4:00 or 5:00 P.M., ready to doze off after a fully engaged day in my classes, I would be greeted with backpacks, lunch boxes, left over plates and food from breakfasts and snacks, piles of shoes, jackets, tracked-in mud all littered through the front door and the little ones ready to beat each other up, screaming and crying and the older one ready, standing in his soccer uniform, so I could drive him to practice, as it would be starting in 10 minutes. Seriously?!

It was student mode off and mom mode on — just go go go! Yes, I felt like I could sit and cry right there. I felt horrible that seeing my kids after 19 hours, my first words to them were about hurrying up and “stop crying!” After dragging unwilling, whiny siblings along to practices with a car full of snacks and water bottles, we would rush back with bickering kids as I got dinner on the table. By 8:30 P.M., I would be ready to drop.

My husband would take them to bed and that’s when I worked on my assignments, barely keeping awake. Each quarter brought its own challenges with shifts in time schedules and kids’ growth-spurt mood-swings, their after-school activities, playdates and my volunteering.  And yes, I still volunteered in my kids’ school, to the best of my ability.

It was student mode off and mom mode on- just go go go!

I was told many times, that something’s gotta give and I should let go volunteering since I simply did not have the time to do art lesson planning and teaching their classes, but every time I talked about stopping my kids would just cuddle up to me and beg not to leave that. So, I kept on. To be honest, it became a welcome break from my school assignments, just to see my kids in their school, happy and learning and rushing to greet me mid-day whenever I could be there. Then there were other people’s kids who would come and hug me and ask me to keep coming as well! And that made it all worth it!

I remember breaking down once as one early morning, I was getting late to catch my bus, my daughter while getting ready for school had an issue with her clothing. Her leggings were too clingy! I was exasperated and pleaded with her to please let me go and told her to just pull ‘em up or down and fix them! As usual, she was having a mini-tantrum and wanted me to find her some other leggings that fit perfectly. The three precious minutes that I spent arguing with her found me getting more and more irritated as I told her, “You know what? I am going to miss my bus and be late for class because you feel like your leggings are not perfect! Would you like to come with me and explain to my teacher why I am late?” In tears, she let me go.

I was told many times, that something’s gotta give and I should let go. 

I was frustrated and angry. As I drove to my park & ride, I realized there was a five-car pileup that had just happened a minute ago. Had I left the house on time, I would have been a part of it. The universe works in mysterious ways. I calmed down and thanked my daughter for being herself! There were many moments like these when I learned to let go and calm down and breathe.

Now I am done and I can laugh about it. I can draw strength from moving on despite hitting obstacles. An endeavor that started way back in 2000 in Pakistan, thankfully reached its conclusion in 2017 in Seattle. The lessons are not just mine but for everyone who was with me. We each took something from it. The persistence has paid off.

Now if you’ll excuse me, since I am done with my degree, I shall go handle those abandoned piles of laundry that have permanently adorned the floors. The drudgery begins!