Illustration by Jamie Morton.

This June I will walk away with a piece of paper that somehow legitimizes me and my abilities. But I’m leaving when it seems my education is barely beginning.

And when I walk, I will be the first in my family to hold a diploma from a four-year university. I will be one of the few in my family to have seemingly escaped the traps and pitfalls of poverty. My graduation is not about me but about my family, the communities I come from, and the advancement of a group of people that has struggled to rise above the positions of store clerks and office drones.

But while my graduation means so much to so many others, it means nothing to me.

As a first-generation student, I had very skewed perceptions of what university would be like — my visions were much more akin to the things I’d seen in movies than reality. I wanted to sit in musty libraries and engage in heated conversations, take that class with the professor who would change my entire way of thinking, and find a purpose and a cause. I wanted to become passionate about my education in a way I had never been before, which I hoped to gain here.

But two unimpressive years went by, and I began to believe I was a number, a tuition, a walking dollar sign, and my successes and failures were only part of statistics and schematics.

I was not growing intellectually, but completely stagnating. No one was pushing me to question and no one was asking me to think critically — I could simply regurgitate the words my professors and TAs said and I’d be golden. It felt like high school with a much bigger price tag.

It wasn’t until last year when I stumbled my way through a City on a Hill Press interview and managed to nail down a job at the Ethnic Resource Center that I found what I was looking for.

Everything I ever learned at UC Santa Cruz I didn’t learn in a classroom. I have learned from my peers, from student organizers and leaders, from people who work hard to insure we as students get the most out of our education, because — honestly — the academic system itself isn’t delivering.

I have met students who have interests completely divergent from my own — environmental justice, race and politics, feminist studies, international relations and foreign policy — and I have grown because of them. I’ve talked to them, traded reading material with them, and engaged in conversations I am not having in the classroom. And because of these students, I have unearthed interests and passions of my own that were never explored in the confines of a class.

Where the UC — and where public education overall — has failed me is in ignoring me and numerous students like me. By being a business first and an institution of higher learning second — by raising my tuition, cutting resources and limiting my access to classes that piqued my interest — the UC put the mighty green before my intellectual growth, and I was never given the opportunity to realize my abilities.

I was too consumed with finishing my major and my general education requirements that it isn’t until now that I have the time to take the classes I’ve always wanted to — I’ve never enrolled in an anthropology class, a politics or economics or art class. The closest I’ve come is sitting silently in the back of a lecture hall, absorbing information I would otherwise not have an opportunity to learn because my name isn’t on a roster. It isn’t until now, the end of my fourth and final year, that I have the ability to round out an education that would otherwise have a very narrow scope.

There’s something wrong with our educational system, something much bigger than the UC itself, when we are only churning out students and improving our graduation rates without a second thought to what it is these students are walking away with. I was lucky enough to find peers — and eventually professors and advisors — who care about my success, but how many others will graduate without that experience?

The success of one means nothing if the collective is still struggling. The reason my professors, advisors and peers are invested in my education — and I theirs — is because my success is contingent upon their success. If the majority is stuck in a system that leaves us hungry, unfulfilled and still searching, what do the achievements of a few mean?

In the end, what I’ve learned from my time at UCSC is that in order to succeed, we must make our education our own. If we never stray away from the standard, if we never look elsewhere, if we believe the classroom is the start and end of our education, we may burn out, disillusioned and dissatisfied. As students, it’s important we realize while the institution is the beginning, everything amazing, delicious, thrilling, interesting and entirely overwhelming we could learn is outside of lecture halls. It’s in experiences and conversations.

Even as students rally and demonstrate, we’re learning. We’re embracing our education in a way the classroom doesn’t allow. We’re experiencing something that can never be experienced from a textbook: activism to create create substantial change.

Even in this climate, we as students can — and still are — defining ourselves by the education we are choosing for ourselves.