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I turned in my dissertation revisions last week, and ever since, I have been on the hunt for University of Michigan regalia I can borrow for the ceremony. (Those fancy medieval robes professors wear to commencement are not cheap, as it turns out.) This pursuit took me to several back offices of the School of Education and finally a small library of extras donated by retired alums. So there I was, trying on an aged polyester choir robe with velvet accents, and the woman helping me said something about how nice it was that I was “graduating and off to start your real life!”

This was kindly meant, I know. But lady, I am almost thirty-two years old. If the last six years have not been my “real life,” what on earth have I been doing here?

In fact, I’ve made it something of a mantra over my extended education: this is my real life. This is my real life. I am not waiting for something to change or start or happen to me. Real things are already happening. The people with whom I have shared my life here are my real friends. This is my real life. 

What do we need in order to celebrate?

Sometimes I repeat that mantra to fight off the idea that what I need is a different and more ideal community to celebrate with.

Ann Arbor, Michigan, is a transient college town. A lot of friends and colleagues from my first years here have long since moved on; most people who live here are from somewhere else. We all seem to have some other “real-er” community to which we imagine we belong–hometowns or families or groups of scattered friends, our “people.”

My closest group chat buddies are two hours away. The last three people I texted live in three different time zones. My parents won’t be at my graduation; they’ll be on another continent entirely. For a long time, I didn’t think I wanted to walk. No point in making a fuss, or tracking down regalia – my people wouldn’t be there anyway.

But lady (I say to me, this time)–this is your real life. 

It is a self-evidently false distinction – the “Ann Arbor friends” v. the “real friends.” And it’s a disservice to me and to the people I know and love here – a self-fulfilling prophecy in which none of us belong, at least not to each other. And to be perfectly honest, my local friends are not even in competition with my far off pals. It’s more that every human relationship I have is failing to measure up to the perfect fictional community in my head.

In that alternate reality, the celebration is never marred by disappointment or grief or ambivalence or irritation. It is never overshadowed by absence. Everyone there is the same amount of cool and smart and fun, a little kooky but always charming. We are a well-balanced ensemble cast where everyone has a role and a bit and my graduation ceremony is the climax of a heartwarming episode that ends with a beautifully styled garden party. It is also, inevitably, 75℉ and sunny with a light breeze.

But this is real life.

And the people I will share it with are my real friends.

The only party I’m going to get is the one I have in this reality, with my crusty, borrowed regalia and my anxiety and loss and my failures to be charming. I shall not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I shall not dismiss real love where I can find it. 

It’s already here. 

Katie Van Zanen

Katie Van Zanen is a doctoral candidate in the Joint Program in English & Education at the University of Michigan, where she studies the rhetorical and ethical decision-making of raised evangelical social media writers. She has been a writer for the post calvin since 2014.


  • RZ says:

    Thanks for this Katie. It speaks to intentional non-tribalism. Ever notice how much more enjoyable a sporting event is when you sit among those who cheer for the “right” team and who judge the referees’ calls with the “right” lenses? It is very tempting to choose our friends, our neighbors, our career pathways, even our churches with our own thought-affirmation in mind. You make a strong case for serving wherever and whenever we are planted.

  • Joyce Looman Kiel says:

    “I shall not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I shall not dismiss real love where I can find it.
    It’s already here.”

    Amen sister!! I’ve copied your quote to remind me of its truth. I might just put it on the bathroom mirror!

    • Wes and Joyce Kiel says:

      Wes’ Wesism: If perfection is the enemy of the good… it is also true that “good enough” may be the enemy of of excellence

  • Jill Fenske says:

    At 66 years old I am in a DMin program. If God is good, and I am faithful to the work, I will complete my degree work in the spring of 2026. I will retire from Parish ministry in 2027. My new life will comense with a new, unfolding call to provide support to clergy through mentoring and counseling. Not unlike the Velvatine Rabbit I should, by then, be loved enough to be real.
    Real life, new life, life in Christ gives me the
    chance to live anew. Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift.

  • Tim Van Deelen says:

    Congratulations Dr. Van Zanen! I always counsel my grad students to attend the ceremony – and I am not a pomp-and-circumstance guy otherwise. When one’s real life invests so heavily in education, its meaningful (and fun) to put this capstone on it.

    Have a great day!

  • Scott VanderStoep says:

    Congratulations from another Ann Arbor interdisciplinary graduate.
    Combined Program in Education and Psychology (CPEP), 1992
    Those robes were expensive back then, too.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I finished my degree from a New Jersey school while serving a church in Canada. My advisor had died, I had few friends left at the grad schoo,l we had two small kids at home,, and my immigrant parish was more than a full time job, blah blah blah, so I got excused from walking. When I announced to my church that I’d gotten my degree in absentia, my VP said, in a heavy Dutch accent, “Why didn’t you tell us? We would have hired a bus to go down and support you!” I realize years later how I was not there.

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