Student View: Graduating Senior Takes Time to ‘Bask in the Greatness of It All’

Kayla Wikaryasz is graduating from Michigan State University this month with a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Humanities, a minor in Creative Writing, and a perfect 4.0 GPA. She also is graduating from the College of Arts & Letters Citizen Scholars program. As Wikaryasz wrapped up the final days of her undergraduate education, she reflected on her nontraditional educational journey and time at MSU and wrote about these experiences in this Student View.

Photo of person standing outdoors on a bridge in front of a football stadium. The person is in a green graduation gown.
Kayla Wikaryasz

I come from a rather small, northern Michigan town. When I tell my parents, or any of the regulars I once served as a bartender at my hometown bar, that I am majoring in Interdisciplinary Humanities, their faces glaze over, their lips part, and they nod encouragingly, pretending to know what I am describing. 

When I go on to say, “I am majoring in Interdisciplinary Humanities with cognates in Professional and Public Writing, Graphic Design, and Creative Writing…oh, and I am minoring in Russian,” I can see the gears turning in their heads because they are used to hearing girls my age majoring in education or nursing since the two main employers in my hometown are the schools and the hospital. My mother often chimes in to say, “She likes to be different.” 

True. But living on a farm surrounded by acres and acres of land to roam made life a bit too small for me (ironically). It made me want to seek change and adventure, and after the first wave of COVID-19, I was bursting at the seams. 

I was tired of bartending and was terrified by the fact that I spent most of my time serving the same three 70-year-old men. I saw the same people day in and day out and watched as my high school classmates got married, had kids, and updated their Facebook accounts to reflect the new promotion they got at work. Everyone told me not to compare myself to others, but when you feel utterly and totally lost in life, it is hard not to. 

Photo of person standing with a spartan mascot in front of wall that says “Go green, go white.”
Kayla Wikaryasz with Sparty at MSU’s Study Abroad Expo.

I am also a bit of an anomaly in my family in that my parents, brother, and sister struggled in school. I did not struggle, in so much that I loved school and spent my free time learning about the Revolutionary War. Yes, I admit that is an unexpected hobby for a 14-year-old girl. Both my parents viewed my adoration for learning as some prodigy gift sent by a nondescript deity. I just saw it as part of who I was supposed to be in this life. 

Still, I had worked hard in high school, graduated with a 3.8 GPA, and curated a reputation for being artsy, quirky, a little shy, but also a bit of a bookworm. I admit that I walked around my high school with my nose pointed a little too high, thinking I would become a modern, female Tolstoy. None of my peers knew who that even was, so I took that as a sign that I was destined to be a great intellectual. Looking back, I have to laugh at how high my standards were for myself. 

I was disappointed when I enrolled in the business program at the local community college and found that my previous high school literature classes would be replaced with Business Communication 201 and Marketing 203. Business may be the right path for some people, but it surely wasn’t mine. I pursued that path solely because my grandmother told me, “You could do anything with that degree.” So I saw it as practical. 

Photo of two people standing next to each other indoors.
Kayla Wikaryasz (right) with MSU Interim President Teresa K. Woodruff during the President’s Graduation Reception.

In the meantime, outside of classes, my time spent reading, writing, and exploring every creative outlet possible was replaced with a managerial position at a bar where I technically had more authority than the other employees who were twice my age — and I could not even legally drink! I agree that it was not the best position for a 19-year-old, though I appreciated the faith my boss placed in me. 

Six years into taking classes at the local community college — never really committing to anything — and dedicating my time to running a bar, eventually started to take a toll on my happiness. The light inside me was dimming and I felt as if the knowledge and passion I had worked hard to curate in high school was slipping through my fingers. What was the point of writing an essay about The Catcher in the Rye if I have no one to talk about it with?

However, if I took one thing from those years, it was that resilience can take you far. I believe that experience of feeling out of place and ‘over my head,’ so to speak, helped lay the foundation for my success at MSU. 

I may be making my situation sound more exaggerated than it was, but the point of my story is that I was sick of small-town living. I wanted out in the most desperate way possible. I often felt as if I were clawing my way out of a deepening hole in the ground, and if I had the proper vocabulary at the time, I would have described my situation as classic college burnout. Subsequently, my mother and I both decided, when I turned 21, it was probably best for me to place my education on the backburner for a while. 

Two people standing next to each other outdoors in front of a brick building.
Kayla Wikaryasz with her friend, Christina, during a tour of MSU’s campus the summer before Wikaryasz came to MSU as an undergraduate student. Christina is the friend who helped convince Wikaryasz to pursue her true passion of writing.

After taking a prolonged two-ish-year gap year — coincidentally coinciding with the duration of the pandemic — I made an impulsive decision to take my community college credits and transfer them to Michigan State University. The summer when I was getting ready to apply, my coworker — and now best friend — told me I should scrap the business degree and pursue my true passion: writing. I was hesitant because I was not sure how I was going to justify to my parents that moving four hours away and taking out scary student loans for a writing degree would be worthwhile. Fortunately, my friend was a good influence and basically said, YOLO (you only live once). That was enough for me. 

Flash-forward a year and I saw myself dragging my parents to East Lansing for the most chaotic move-in day ever. My poor parents had never experienced anything as big as MSU, and I felt the most intense guilt as I watched them both sweat in the 90-degree heat and stand by helplessly as we huddled together in a crowded elevator to get to the fifth floor of Owen Hall. Their eyes darted from the nearly domesticated squirrels, to the towering stadium, and even to the strange move-in carts we used to haul all of my things up to my room. 

After dumping all of my stuff onto my bedroom floor, we went down and ate at Thrive, barely speaking to each other. I felt the worst fear when we finished our lunch and I realized we would be parting for the first time in my entire life. 

Selfie of someone smiling in front of a sign that says “Daugavpils Universitāte.”
Kayla Wikaryasz at Daugavpils University in Daugavpils, Latvia, where she studied abroad during Summer 2023.

It was truly like the scene in Hercules where the three fates cut the string of a soul. Or, perhaps, it was more like the doctors severing my umbilical cord for a second time. I began weeping under an overhanging tree in the parking lot across from Owen Hall, and though I knew my parents did not want to leave me on this expansive — very green — campus, my mother said, “You need to be here. You are too smart to stay at home.I do not know how true that is but my ego appreciated the remark, even though I am sure every parent thinks their kid is a genius. 

My body shook as I watched my parents get into my father’s rusted Silverado — which barely made it to campus in the first place — and drive away, hesitantly pulling out into what my mother calls, “Michigan State’s maze of roadways.I wandered back down to Thrive for more ice cream and texted, with shaky fingers, my new suitemate. I asked her: Am I allowed to take a shower? I have never had a roommate so I do not know what the rules are. 

That was the beginning of navigating two and a half years stuck between being the older adult in most situations while feeling as if I were 18 all over again. But being a non-traditional student does come with its perks. At age 23, being a non-traditional student gave me a strange sense of wisdom as I was placed in classes with students three or four years younger than me. Because I was used to working with people twice my age, it was nice to feel like a true adult for once. At age 24, being a non-traditional student gave me a new lease on life. I was a year away from being a quarter-of-a-century old but I felt as if I was re-starting my 20s. Now, at age 25, being a non-traditional student — and graduating soon — I feel like I have made my 18-year-old self’s dark academia dreams come true. 

Photo of someone sitting down in a floral dress, in a chair that is gold and large.
Kayla Wikaryasz at the Aglona Roman Catholic Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Aglona, Latvia, during her study abroad the summer of 2023.

As I look back, I realize that maintaining a 4.0 GPA was the easiest part of my academic journey, whereas the hardest parts were the social aspects of college that I had not experienced at my community college back home. 

I had to learn how to live with strangers. I had to learn how to drive on the freeway to get back home for the holidays. I had to grieve the separation from my family and my pets (though my brother was all too happy to have the house to himself on the weekends for once in his life). I had to learn how to kindly explain to my grandmother, “No, I won’t be coming home until next month.”

But I also learned that there are actually other people in the world who like to read classics, who like to write, and who are as obsessed with cartoons as I am. I learned that people actually make money from writing and that I have options of places to work rather than the bar located seven minutes from my parents’ house, or the hospital, or the high school that I spent enough time in as a teenager. 

It is hard for me to describe the impact that Michigan State University has had on my life. For the longest time, I thought that the world did not go beyond my hometown. For the longest time, I truly thought I would never leave the confines of my family farm. I thought that I was going to eventually fade away into a nondescript life of loneliness and unfulfillment. Though some people can be happy in the life that I lived prior to MSU, I knew that I could not, forever. 

Portrait of someone in a graduation gown laughing outdoors.
Kayla Wikaryasz celebrates her achievement of earning her B.A. in Interdisciplinary Humanities.

I would like to move back to Northern Michigan one day as I miss the sunsets that dip below the edges of the corn fields and the coyotes that howl after dusk in the summertime, but MSU has made it just as hard to say goodbye as it was easy to settle in those first days in the residence halls. Looking back, that first night on campus seems like a lifetime ago, though I will surely never forget it. 

These past two and a half years at MSU have brought so many lessons and emotions that I could never have imagined for myself. I came into this university as a serious student, dead set on moving to the city and making a name for myself, and found that life truly is a marathon and not a sprint. 

In my time as an MSU student, I was given the chance to travel to other countries and cities; I got to work for the Excel Network, which has been a key experience in my development as a person and a professional, and I got the chance to live beside and learn from peers who were embarking on similar journeys as I was. The College of Arts & Letters, specifically, has supported me every step of the way, whether that was prepping for international travel or providing scholarship opportunities to explore my passions and interests. 

When I look back on my academic career, I see my time at MSU as the most fulfilling and, honestly, the happiest I have ever been. If I have one regret, it would be that I wish I had slowed down a bit more to bask in the greatness of it all. But now, as I look back on photos of myself at 18 and 19 years old, taking random classes at a community college, I am able to say, “You made it, bestie. It was all worth it.”

Portrait of someone smiling outdoors.
Kayla Wikaryasz