A Lot to Unpack

Overloading the final weeks of the ‘best four years of my life’ seemed like the only way to make them memorable, but I had forgotten the more important things.

Author: Julianna Conley ’22

“This was supposed to be my easy semester,” I thought as I sprawled on my living room couch at 4 a.m., racking my brain for fresh, side-splitting jokes about middle school earth science.

This particular assignment came courtesy of “Writing the Half Hour Comedy,” the latest addition to my already overloaded course schedule. What started as a light, 13-credit cool down to my college career evolved into a 19-credit sprint: a last-ditch effort to fit in every possible experience before I graduate in May.  

From the get-go, I knew I was going to be taking a philosophy class about ethics, a history course about the ’60s and a gender studies seminar about girls’ media. Surely, these three classes would be more than manageable!

So, when a friend asked me to join her in learning Irish social dance, I agreed. When else would I get to waltz and polka at a céilí? The first class was fun — so fun, in fact, that when I saw Saint Mary’s College, too, offers free dance classes, I texted another friend, begging her to take jazz dance lessons twice a week with me. What difference could two credits make in the grand scheme of a week, anyway? We registered, certain I had finalized my schedule.

Then, two weeks into the semester, Professor Terrance Brown reached out, letting me know a student had dropped his comedy writing class. My spot on the waitlist had materialized into a bona fide classroom seat if I was still interested in joining. Visions of selling my pilot to NBC danced in my head. “Absolutely,” I replied.

As someone to whom scheduling does not come naturally, I’m tempted to write off my overcommitment as a mere product of time mismanagement. I’d signed on to my first additional courses during “syllabus week,” deceived by a week without homework into thinking I had ample free time. The next week, I tested positive for COVID, triggering a weeklong isolation period. Without everyday stressors like travel time or extracurricular activities, I was seduced again into taking on even more. 

In truth, I suspect my overextension stems less from my time-management issues and more from a constant fear that I’m not getting enough out of my college experience. Having heard my parents nostalgically recall college and watching movies about “the best four years of your life,” I came to Notre Dame determined to squeeze every last drop out of my time under the dome. Wanting to ensure I did something with my four years, I felt obligated to do everything.

Debartolo Hallway
What’s the rush? Photo by Matt Cashore ’94

Released from my COVID-imposed retreat from the world, I found myself in the belly of the beast. Papers were due. My Notre Dame Magazine internship began. Impending thesis deadlines suddenly seemed much closer. Every class, every club activity, every obligation felt so vital to my postgrad satisfaction with college. I wanted to make everything work, but . . .  

Now I’m sweatily biking twice a week from my comedy class at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center to jazz dance at Saint Mary’s, researching the best deals on Irish step shoes, practicing 100 pas de bourrée a day and training for the Holy Half Marathon. I’m scheming up sitcom plotlines, Zooming my thesis advisor from the stairwell of my campus job, writing a Viewpoint column for The Observer, and writing self-pitying Notre Dame Magazine articles, all while trying to make time for casual and spontaneous hangouts with friends. 

I’d been so concerned about fitting everything in, so stressed about taking advantage of all the knowledge and every opportunity I won’t have access to after graduation, that I forgot the biggest thing I’m going to lose: just being at Notre Dame. Contrary to the panic-induced inner monologue that has become my soundtrack of the past two months, there will still be postgrad chances for dancing. My discovery as a world-class comedienne can be delayed. I can take community college classes on coding or calligraphy or the Sino-Japanese War anytime I want. What I won’t have access to is 8,000 potential friends within a 15-minute walk. I won’t be able to take a three-hour lunch break on a Tuesday. I doubt my next job will allow for hourly Scattergories games or that my next neighbors will so readily vote on whether or not they would marry the love of their life if he looked exactly like their father.

I’d been so busy worrying about making sure I do everything that I forgot to make time to enjoy anything. Running from activity to activity, multitasking as I squeezed in last-minute homework during the classes I’d so desperately wanted to sign up for, I wasn’t able to appreciate the opportunities I valued so highly that I demanded they be scheduled.

So, with a heavy heart, I dropped jazz dance and my comedy writing class. I stopped attending Design for America meetings. I decided that, as much as I wanted to use my final months as a Notre Dame student to become a jetéing, TV-writing sensation, I wanted more to be able to accept last-minute invitations from friends to go to the grocery store. To eat meals without staring at a laptop. To walk home from school lazily, enjoying the winter scenery rather than always arriving with calves cramping from power walking. 

I decided to stop stressing about choosing the option that I thought I’d look back on 50 years from now with a smile, focusing instead on which ones make me beam now. For so long, I’d been paralyzed by a fear of regret, by a pressure to “make the most” of “the best four years of my life.” But I’m starting to realize that, like Goldilocks’s misadventures with the three bears, perhaps “the most” isn’t always “the best.”

The stroke of midnight after commencement isn’t the end. My every whim need not be met by May 15.

There’s no way to know for certain, but I have a sneaking suspicion that “the best four years of your life” may be a misnomer. They’re just really fun ones.

Julianna Conley is a senior majoring in sociology and pre-health studies with a minor in journalism, ethics, and democracy. She is the magazine’s spring 2022 intern.