The long and winding path to university graduation — visualized

It took me seven years to complete my undergraduate degree. Students each have a unique path and journey through higher education. This is a visual exploration of my story.

After finishing my last class in December, I was reflecting on my time as a student. I thought it would be interesting to visualize what my classes, grades, and number of credits that I took each semester. There are stories in the data — things that happened in my life that affected my education. The following charts visualize my (many) years as a college student.

When I first moved from Virginia Beach, VA to Provo, UT to start college, I knew what I wanted to study: graphic design. It was a closed program, so I started by taking the pre-requisite classes and applying at the end of my freshman year. I didn’t get in. Heartbroken, I went home for the summer and worked two part-time jobs, feeling like I had failed (dramatic, I know).

Returning to school Fall 2011, I briefly considered changing my major, but when I examined the list of available majors, there wasn’t anything else that interested me. So I swallowed my pride, and decided to apply again. I worked really hard to improve my portfolio. This time I was accepted into the graphic design BA program, and gleefully stayed on for Spring term 2012 to take my first design class.

Fall 2012 I enrolled in three design classes, and set my sights on applying to the graphic design BFA program — there were more design classes available for BFA students, and I wanted all the design I could get. After two semesters of hard work (and many Friday evenings spent in the library) I applied to the BFA and was accepted. Before the program started in the fall, I went on a study abroad for the summer to Stockholm, Sweden. Just before I left, I was set up on a blind date with my future husband. It went well, and he diligently wrote to me while I studied abroad (I may not have responded to his first few emails… 😬).

At the start of Fall 2013 I was feeling confident, excited, and ready to tackle the graphic design BFA program. I also started seriously dating my future husband, and things were looking up. But to every peak there is a valley — the coursework was really challenging, and I had a hard time balancing dating and doing well in school. But falling in love made the pain of a rough semester sting a little less, and we got engaged over Christmas break.

The following semester was even more stressful, with difficult courses, applying for internships in New York City, and planning a wedding. I noticed that I was losing a little weight without trying, and stopped running for a few months because I was so tired. I didn’t think much of it, and my husband and I were married in May and immediately moved to New York. The internship was a blast, and we both fell in love with the city. My health seemed to improve a little bit, but then declined again and I became very tired and constantly exhausted by the end of summer. We also found a suspicious lump in my neck.

When we returned to Provo, UT that Fall 2014, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to stay in school. I had visited the doctor as soon as I returned, and was waiting for test results to come back. After the first day of classes, I withdrew. A few weeks later, I was diagnosed with Stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It was a whirlwind of a time, and I started treatment in January 2015, attended my classmates graduation in April, successfully finished chemotherapy in June, and had a matching hairstyle with my dad for my sister’s wedding in July (seriously, it was awesome).

I was feeling relatively good by Fall 2015, so I decided to return to school part-time. I took a statistics class for fun, and fell in love with data visualization. The following summer my husband and I moved to Pullman, WA for internships at Meter Group. At the internship, they were kind enough to let me work 3/4 time, since I still needed a nap every afternoon.

Fall 2016 I returned to school full time! It was stressful, and initially overwhelming. I started working on my Honors thesis, and also enrolled in a computer science course. I exhibited and defended my Honors thesis in July 2017, and started working full-time as a UX designer for Domo. I technically wasn’t graduated yet — I had one general education class left, which I took online. I officially graduated from BYU with a BFA in Graphic Design, with Honors in December 2017.

Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic’s Storytelling with Data May challenge gave me a good excuse try using a waterfall chart

This waterfall chart (College credits accumulated over time, above) illustrates how quickly I was able to graduate — you can easily see when my graduation velocity stalled while going through chemo treatments, and my slow return to full-time coursework. You can also see that I almost always was taking a design class. It was only on my study abroad that I didn’t have any design classes; just being in Sweden was a form of design education in itself.

I took more “fun” classes than I realized (50 credits): Spanish classes, interesting Honors classes, and rec classes (like yoga and weightlifting) helped keep me sane.

I also found some interesting patterns in the grades I received (Grades received over time, by type of class). My two first semesters in the BFA — Fall 201 — I had the hardest time. Perhaps it is no coincidence that I was dating my husband and falling in love during those semesters as well.

During the last few semesters of college, I still had a few generals that I needed to complete. This chart accurately illustrated how I stopped caring about my grades for general education classes the closer I got to graduation.

Most of the classes that I took while at university were 3 credits (Grade received vs number of credits per class). Language classes were 4 credits — a huge chunk of time and work. I’m not really sure why I tended to do worse in some 2 credit classes… my best guess is that they were generals and I just didn’t really care.

Visualizing my time as a student opened my eyes to some patterns that I wasn’t aware of — and I wish that I could have noticed some of these things while I was a student. Being aware of how life events affected my education reminds me that I’m human and life isn’t perfect (and neither are grades, for that matter). My time as a student has shaped who I am, and I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to receive higher education.


Thanks for reading along!

If you’d like to see process videos of how I made these charts, I have a saved Highlight Story on my Instagram profile (mobile only, sorry!) that shows each step I took to make these charts.

Data source:
Scraped from my university transcript

Tools used:
Data cleaned in Google Sheets
Graph made with Processing
Annotations and formatting done in Adobe Illustrator