When Do We Really "Graduate"? By Martina Castro
Not too long ago, I passed the one year mark of my college graduation. It sneaked up on me, as these kinds of anniversaries usually do. I don't think I would have stopped to think much about it, had it not coincided with several changes in my life that caused me to take notice of how attached I am still to being a student.
When can you say you've finally graduated? I thought it was the diploma on graduation day that sealed the deal. But even after leaving campus, saying goodbye to all my friends, moving back to my parents' house, and starting an internship at NPR, I still felt like a fish out of water. I got a frantic email from a friend about how on her plane ride home from school, the woman sitting next to her asked her where she went to college and my friend just burst into uncontrollable sobs. It was a difficult reality to come to grips with for all of us. It was an identity that lingered after the boxes were unpacked, after I started buying "work clothes" and waking up before 10 am. I confess that I even still use my old college ID to get student discounts whenever I get the chance. I suppose that eventually even doing that will feel awkward one day, and maybe that will be the day that I can say I have finally shed the "student" identity.
The real world reminders of my lost student status are scarcer these days, but still popping up. I am in the process of moving out of my mom's house, which has been my biggest step away from my old life as an undergrad. Going through 23 years of stuff to figure out what I need to take with me to the next phase has been a daunting and sobering task. I sorted through bags of old stuffed animals, tattered high school notebooks, piles of t-shirts now with meaningless logos and school books I never read. I realize that this process of shedding my student identity is about reassessing what parts of my past are going to be useful to me in my future, about what I need to take with me and what I need to leave behind.
Cutting out the extra fluff in my life when it came to physical belongings was not nearly as difficult as cutting out the people. I think many of you would agree that the harshest reminders of graduation are losing your school email address and then, sigh, having to update your cell phone area code. They are subtle, but symbolically huge changes. I resisted updating my cell phone the longest. Cutting out this lifeline to the people of my past felt like really accepting that I was going to have to start over, taking only the most essential things and essential people along with me to this next phase. But the process got me thinking about something far more important. After narrowing my old life down to what really matters in terms of things and people, I realized that I was going to be taking lessons learned with me as well. That is, what really matters in terms of what I'd be carrying with me in my head.
How does this tie in with getting a job? Well, sometimes the job seems to be the whole point. Especially for us over-achievers getting right out of really good schools with the feeling that the only logical thing to do is to transfer our obsession over getting the best grades to getting the best job. But the rules have changed. There is no grade, and more importantly it is NOT a competition. It never really was a competition in school either, but it often served the purpose of educating ourselves to act as if it was. But now there are higher stakes involved, so its important that we get a clear idea of "what really matters" from the very beginning.
This clear idea is not the same for everyone. It is a highly personal and intimate thing that gets obscured for most of us after years of hearing other people and institutions tell us what they think it is. I'm starting to think that this process of starting over, of shedding the highly dependent and highly structured life we led as students, gets us to a place where "what really matters" becomes something we just know.
Once we no longer equate success with being liked by our superiors but with being respected for our work...once we don't need an example of how to do it, and we decide to figure it out on our own...when we aren't afraid to fail in the conventional sense of the word and see opportunities to grow where we once saw failures...once we can make decisions consulting our own instincts and knowledge and no one else...when change in our lives happens because we make it happen, not because a school schedule or parent dictates it...Maybe then, we can say we have graduated and "what really matters" will naturally be what drives us. Maybe then I'll no longer feel nostalgic for what I left behind, or apprehensive about where I will go next, but actually be excited about where I am...now.
Thoughts? Write Us.
Martina Castro is native of Washington, DC, an alumnae of Amherst College and now a temporary Production Assistant with NPR's National Desk.