When I was ten years old, my sister and I were poking around on my dad’s laptop one afternoon when we found a PowerPoint titled “Family Life Plan.”

We were living in Beijing at the time, the last stop on my family’s expat tour since we left the States in 2001 for my dad’s job. Each slide was a life milestone for our family members.

I basically saw my life flash before my eyes that had not yet discovered contacts, compounded by the terribleness that is Microsoft Office’s user interface circa the early 2000s.

I remember seeing words like “retirement” and “promotion” and wondering “what the hell is a 401k?” But I was more concerned with the slides concerning me. What was my life plan going to be?


Katie graduates high school, goes to college


Nicole graduates high school, goes to college

(This was 2004, so the concept of the 2010s was as futuristic and far away as Disney had imagined Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century.)


Katie graduates college, goes on with life


Nicole graduates college, goes on with life


Jiming and Li move back to the United States


Jiming retires

My family likes to joke about this PowerPoint because a 10- and 13-year old were not supposed to see their lives mapped out before them. At the same time, I feel like that’s exactly how my life has played out. Because I have had the luxury of knowing that the major milestones in my life would be marked by my education (and, tangentially, age), it’s always been a roadmap, a schedule, whatever you want to call it, just without the explicit documentation.


Become a tween.


Drop the “w” and become a teen.


“Graduate” middle school.

So on and so forth. Until college, school has provided a template for success, instructions for how to reach the next slide in the PowerPoint that is life.

As in any high school, I knew the key to getting into a good college was good grades, good SAT scores, good SAT II scores, extracurricular activities, leadership positions in those extracurricular activities, and a standout admissions essay that would somehow portray me as unique and well-rounded. Like any high school student, I knew that the defining moments of the high school experience would be things like prom and trying alcohol for the first time.

But college is a different game.

Your time is no longer accounted for block by block, class by class (though in some cases, you should maybe still go to class). Your milestones will not necessarily line up with those of your peers.

Endings feel less like endings and beginnings feel less like beginnings.

Just when you feel like you have it together...

...it’s onto the next thing.

So even though my dad summarized it well with four years condensed into three words: “Nicole graduates college,” I realize that life doesn’t always go according to plan (there is a high chance I may have read this on a box of tampons) even if you’re on schedule.

The moments in between may have not been what I imagined.

For me, college has been about finding ways to fill gaps of time in ways that are meaningful — and the scary part is realizing the things that are even meaningful to you in the first place. It’s been about balancing, trade-offs, realizing you can’t do it all and you certainly can’t do it all perfectly.

For me, my years in college were marked largely by extremes — drink heavily, live in the library, binge on Wings Over (RIP), sleep until noon, pull all-nighters, rejoice over decent grades on CAESAR, break down and cry mid-quarter over whether or not it was a mistake to switch from an English major to Computer Science.

It has been knowing that every moment, even the tough ones, is not time wasted. That I would not have learned the perils of romancing being over exhausted and overworked until it happened to me. That I would not be where I am now without the ups and downs and everything in between.

As much as we’d like to think that there is the quintessential college experience or the “Northwestern experience,” there is no wrong way to do college.

Sure, Dillo Day is great and running to the Baha’i Temple is fun and Skol is a necessary evil. But I’ve had more fun at weekly dinners with my friends where a quick dinner of burgers turns into a hot mess (literally, we set off the fire alarm for the better part of an hour), dissecting the new episode of How to Get Away with Murder with fellow frNBNds over Three Wishes, or doing karaoke with friends from my research lab.

So even while we may map out our goals and major life events, sometimes the best moments are ones that cannot be planned for.

And ultimately, it really is about the people — the people who support you, make you laugh, teach you, learn from you, encourage you to be better.

More often than not, the solitary achievements of “I survived this class” pale in comparison to the group efforts of “I helped put out an April Fool’s site for North by Northwestern on Kanye West (or Shrek).”

Now, when I think about those PowerPoint slides I discovered as a wee fifth grader, I think about the structure of those sentences: year, person, action.


Nicole graduates college

As much as each year of college has been defined by what I consider personal accomplishments, in retrospect they are more often defined by the people I’ve spent time with and what we did in our time together.

Year, person, action.

I think that those are the only blanks that need to be filled out, and that’s how I’m going to, according to my dad, “go on with life.”

So from here on out, there is no more life plan, no more set cycle of midterms, finals, and various breaks. (I think my dad tossed the PowerPoint anyways.)

There are no more slides, except this last one:


Graduate college, go on with life