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I had just moved into a shoebox of an apartment in Manhattan, a far stretch from the suburban neighbourhood I was born and raised in. Between unpacking suitcases and encountering my first (and alas, not last) cockroach in the kitchen, I scrolled through my phone. Ping. Ping. All week, messages poured in from friends and relatives who had caught wind on social media that I was about to start my first job out of college.
Ping. “How is NY?!”
Ping. “So proud of you!”
Ping. “THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR YOU!!!”
But how the world dictated that I should feel was far from my reality. I was anxious. I was lonely. I was depressed.
I was a university graduate.
In school, I excelled in an insular world of multiple-choice exams, nights in the library and extra-curriculars that padded my social life and resume. No matter the little irregularities – an internship abroad, a failing grade in physics, a break up – the semesters were comfortably prescriptive. Under the label of “student,” my sole responsibility was to learn. I aspired to make a mark like my fellow alumni at McGill University, they represented some of the country’s brightest: the inventors of basketball and the first artificial blood cell; the most Nobel laureates, Rhodes Scholars and prime ministers. I dreamed of stepping cap-and-gown across the stage into the enigmatically illusive “real world.”
Stress and burnout were unavoidable on my ultra-competitive campus. Particularly susceptible were the tired-eyed students plowing through finals week and freshmen adjusting to a new norm. Over the past three years, demand for mental health and counselling services skyrocketed by 57 per cent. The silver lining? Contributing to this influx was a growing openness amongst students to take advantage of the counselling and an urge for more sufficient mental health resources. I leaned on the counselors and psychiatrists my health centre offered and even more on the student-run support centres and helplines.
But now, in the gridded streets along 5th Ave, I encountered chaos and uncertainty that I couldn’t find the step or rhythm to. I struggled to understand what tangible success looked like outside of a 3.9 GPA. I watched old friends on Instagram, scattered across continents living Valencia-filtered adventures without me. I tried to find affordable health care in an unaffordable city.
The irony didn’t escape me. My immigrant parents – zhiqing under Chairman Mao’s communist revolution – fought tooth and nail to provide me with the opportunities and choices that eluded them. I spent four years at a world-class university, cadenced by art classes on weekends and winter breaks in Maui, without the fret of food insecurity and massive student loan debt. I was working full time for an organization whose mandate included fighting for the rights of children who didn’t have access to schooling let alone clean water. Here I was, by definition successful, privileged and elite. Yet in the throes of a quarter-life crisis, I was ashamed.
“While you work towards graduation, we will prepare you for the next fifty years,” reads my alma mater’s admissions page. But unlike many of the curveballs life throws, students can and should be better prepared for what comes after stepping off campus grounds. Instead of wooing students with frivolous amenities such as waterparks and 30-person spas, universities should invest more in resources and tools for career planning, building skills like financial literacy and stress management, and psycho-social support to ease students into postgraduation realities. For college administrators, it’s good business, too. Bolstering life skills in students positively correlates with indicators such as student-retention rate, employment rate and career progression – key metrics to student and university success.
But first we need to acknowledge that the problem exists.
I spent my initial months as a new New Yorker grappling to suppress, then understand, and finally verbalize the mess in my head. As I opened up about the tears I had shed over long-distance friendships and the paralyzing uncertainty that confined me to my bed on weekends, I heard others identify my struggles as theirs, too. And they were eager to help. A former lab mate who lived two streets down introduced me to tight-knit community of recent grads. Steadily, I adjusted to new routines and goals. I found calm in morning runs around the reservoir and in writing, a passion and therapy, with aspirations to grace the pages of The Grey Lady one day.
I only wish that I had known – when I was on campus – what transitioning off campus would be like. Career advisers, counsellors and professors failed to warn me, maybe because they were just as clueless as I had been. Graduation is typically seen as a joyous, celebratory occasion, but it’s time to address the taboo and start talking about the flip side – from postcollege depression to fresh-out-of-college unemployment. So we can better prepare knowing that we’re not alone, and for college administrators to take action.
It’s been two years since I shed my student skin. Last week, at an alumni event held on a quintessential Midtown rooftop, a freshly minted graduate interrupted my preoccupation with the refreshments table to introduce herself. We bonded over our favourite social psychology professor and contempt for the never-ending construction that dotted lower campus. Then the conversation took a turn. “How was graduating?” she asked.
A pause. I caught myself about to recite the old rhetoric reflective of a proud-to-a-fault alumnus (which I am). Instead, I told my truth.
Betty Chang lives in Toronto.