Soon, you’ll be graduating in May. Your hard work this past year will have paid off in respect from your colleagues, your professors, and you’ll feel incredible. You also will wonder “what’s next?” and “how can I process all these feelings without reflecting on a blog?” You’ll figure that part out.
Seeing as I graduated from AC4D around this time last year, I’d like to share my story with you and some thoughts about the upcoming months. My hope is that you may use my experience as a guidance through transitioning to the next stage in your journey. Your experiences will differ from my own, but I’ve always felt like it helps to see how someone overcame a transition period.
To set the scene, here is my emotional journey map from this time in April to about mid-June. As you can see, the month of May was wrought with highs and lows and right about June is when things start to stabilize.
We’ll talk about each of these points in time and some things I learned from each event.
The Final Presentations and the AC4D Graduation Party
Two words: fucking awesome.
There is nothing more exhilarating for me than graduating from something that pushed me to grow intellectually and emotionally. There’s a period of anxiety that I experienced around my presentation skill and the fidelity of my work. But about an hour before people started coming in for the final presentations, I felt like I had been dunked in a bucket of ice water. I’d done this many times before, and learned. I had this.
Finishing the final presentation felt surreal. I almost couldn’t believe I was done.
Then came the party. Needless to say, we enjoyed ourselves. For the first time in the program, I let myself feel proud in the work that I had done, and the joy was overwhelming.
I’m very hesitant to praise myself without joking about it. My graduation from undergrad was less exuberant; I could only think about the uncertainty ahead and criticize myself for not figuring it out sooner. However, here at the graduation party I really celebrated.
I realized that if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t praise yourself, it can be overwhelmingly emotional to let yourself be vulnerable and excitable.
That’s not a bad thing. It’s a great, powerful feeling.
I left AC4D feeling empowered, like I could take on the world.
Coming Down Hard
This one is the hardest to write about. My boyfriend and I had agreed that after AC4D, once we went to Marfa, we’d be getting engaged, and after that, married. When we talked about it the weeks coming up to graduation, he wasn’t sure any more. In our 5+ years together, he hadn’t seen me this intensely passionate about something and worried that the rest of our lives would play out like AC4D.
I got that. We saw each other on Friday and Saturday nights, but mostly I came home after he went to sleep and woke up for work before he got up. It’s hard for AC4D not to permeate every aspect of your relationship. I ate, slept, and breathed it for a year, and in part it was due to the program, but the other part was due to the fact that I was very passionate about the work I was doing. We were helping the queer community, and it felt wonderful.
Marfa was supposed to be the trip where we got engaged, and we’d been planning it for months. I was crushed. I realized that I had taken a lot of relationships that were supporting me for granted, and in my passion to get the things I wanted, I had ignored the most important person to me.
I would say here that the lesson I learned was not to take others for granted, and that’s true. But also I think it’s that I expected others to come out of AC4D as self-congratulatory as I did. I planned the trip around the time when I would be the happiest, not when the both of us would be.
I understand that in the course of a long-term relationship that there will be times when one person takes care of things while the other pursues their dreams. But I took the road that because I was happy, other people around me should be happy for me without me having to give anything in return. I learned my lesson.
Going to Marfa
When we arrived at Marfa, we were both exhausted. He, exhausted from a year of supporting me without an emotional payoff. Me, exhausted from a year of personal growth with the knowledge that if I didn’t do something fast, I could screw up a relationship I really cared about.
We eyed each other from across a table in Marfa, not really knowing what to say. We had just spent a year dating for Friday and Saturday nights only, and here we were, spending a week together out in the middle of nowhere.
Marfa was a great place to be. Similar to us, it was at times a vibrant city and then others, a ghost town. It wavered between life and death that caused me to think deeply about how to use the time we spent there. We ate good food. We talked about what was going on in our lives. We reconnected and we cried.
Marfa put into perspective the time I had at AC4D. I realized that while the root of my happiness lived in me doing the work I wanted to do, the soil that held the root were my relationships. Both were equally important.
We made dinner together in the green and white trailer in the above picture. It was made of anything that we could snag from the Get Go and some orange soda.
As we were eating the food we made, we smiled at each other.
“I missed you,” I said.
“Me too,” he said. And we smiled big, genuine smiles.
The Big Takedown
I got a reminder email from Jon around the time when we were in Marfa to take down our projects for the next class so soon after leaving Marfa with my faith restored, I went back to AC4D with bags to take down the queery project.
When I opened the door to AC4D, I expected the same hustle-and-bustle I was used to. Students working, shouts of “hello!” and groans of frustration. Instead, I got silence. I peeked into everyone’s rooms—their projects still stood like a silent mausoleum to the activity that had been happening in the past year.
Looking around the room, I remembered the late nights that Alex and I had gone through to get to a working prototype that we tested with the community. It especially stung because Alex and I were no longer working on the project together, and I didn’t know what I wanted to to with queery after we had received feedback.
We had so many interviews, so many people open up their hearts to us to help us achieve something that could benefit the queer community, and as I was packing things into bags, I felt like I was letting everyone down. I didn’t know what I was going to say to folks who reached out to me for help or who asked about the status of the queery project. It was in a form where we could have piloted it, but I was unwilling to do it for the sake of my personal life and the fact that I would have been running solo.
I left AC4D with my life for the past year in bags and questioning where queery was going to end up. Would it even be an app? How was I going to face the queer community now when I felt like I had failed them?
I now can reflect on this point in my life and realize that in order to really help the queer community in the way I wanted to, I needed to be a more integrated part of it than just a passive observer. I wouldn’t say that for all design projects, but specifically for the depth of what I wanted to do I now know that supporting and generating ideas from within the community has been much more powerful. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past year, and it’s felt great. I never really abandoned queery. Myself and other members have piloted some activities and generated ideas that have been very meaningful to myself and others within the community.
At the time though, I remember feeling a lot of fear in abandoning the project and pursuing my personal interests in design. How was I personally going to help people by being a designer?
ATX Hack for Change
Things generally improved after my last walk through AC4D. I was working as a contract designer and loving my clients and gigs. I think the turning point for me in discovering the power of design was through the ATX Hack for Change.
The ATX Hack for Change is a day where tech folks get together with non-profits in Austin to provide to them a weekend of free work and ideas in exchange for being able to help non-profits, look at the inner-workings of their organization, and eat free food.
My boyfriend and I are hackathon nuts, so we thought it would be fun to work with non-profits over the weekend. I had signed up to work with the Capital Area Food Bank with some other AC4D students.
However, when I got there I saw that the Capital Area Food Bank had tons of folks signed up for their project, and the Girl Scouts of Central Texas were about to go home because no one had signed up for their project. Their project was to make a way for Girl Scouts to communicate with their advisors and track their progress to achieving their Gold Award. The Gold Award is a capstone project in the Girl Scouts, and similar to AC4D, it is done over a year, has the focus of helping others, and as an added bonus, must be sustainable without the founder’s help.
We caught them going out of the door and asked them if they needed help. They offered us cookies. A beautiful friendship was born.
The first task was to identify issues that needed to be solved in the MVP, and then outline what the MVP was actually supposed to look like. Next, we split into teams of designers and developers with some people floating between the two. My boyfriend taught the girls GitHub and Ember, and I taught them wire framing and systems thinking.
The girls were amazing. I can’t begin to describe how fast they picked up on the ideas that we were throwing at them and just took it and ran. We made icons in Illustrator on our first day and the girls were beaming. We got GitHub set up on our computers and the girls high-fived.
We reflected during periods of rest on team problems and how to better communicate between the dev and design teams. We lauded our accomplishments, and by the end of the hackathon, we had a functioning prototype of the site we wanted to create with wireframes of all the future states of tool.
The girls were disappointed that they hadn’t built the MVP in full, but we told them about how amazing the things that they did were. They not only made a thing, but mapped out future states of a thing. They essentially completed Q4 of AC4D in three days.
Watching those girls learn and grow ignited an even deeper fire in me to how I could use design to inspire others. I wanted to learn as much as I could so that I could help others. I felt like there was still so much to learn and I’d only just dipped half of myself in with AC4D.
Soon after that, my boyfriend said that he had a surprise for me.
We drove out to Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center and poked around the park, looking at the butterflies nestling onto the wildflowers. It was a calm day, and we were both feeling great.
Then, he pulled out a ring.
I can’t even begin to describe to you my emotions at that point. It was joy mixed with fear of disappointing him as I did just less than a month ago. The joy won out. I screamed yes, we held hands, and a crowd of onlookers applauded. It was perfect.
Reflecting on that point in my life, I think that I have come to realize that in seeking what I thought was an end point such as graduating AC4D or getting engaged, I was completely blind to the fact that I was simultaneously closing a door while opening a new one.
Just as the ATX Hack for Change inspired me to work harder to inspire others to do design, my engagement inspired me to realize that nothing really is an endpoint; it’s just a new door opening to another chapter of my life that has its own unique challenges.
So students, in going into the final weeks of piloting, in prepping for your presentations, in drafting your wireframes, remember to congratulate yourself. Remember to congratulate others for the support they’ve given you throughout your journey. Remember that the passion to do (or not do) design that you’ve gained from AC4D is just as important as the relationships you’ve forged during your time here. Remember that there are many paths to completing your capstone project and they don’t just involve starting a company or completely abandoning it. Remember that you have a lot to teach others and still much more to learn.
And remember that in ending your time here, you are opening up new doors. Which path you take will be entirely up to you.