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What not to say to university students at Christmas dinner

Dear aunts and uncles of the world, I have a piece of advice to offer you that you should take seriously if you don't want to send your nieces and nephews into existential meltdowns this holiday season.

My advice pertains to a pretty specific scenario that you'll inevitably run into at family gatherings where you'll see your niece and nephew for the first time in months. You won't really know what's going on with their life, but you'll want to ask about it. You'll remember that they're in university, and ask what they're studying. This is where the trouble usually begins, because the next question you'll ask them is probably, "What do you want to do with that?"

Most university students dread this question. In fact, being faced with this question can make a family gathering feel more like a job interview. We all have our own reasons for hating this question, but I'll give you a few of my own. I'm sure your niece's or nephew's reasons aren't that far off.

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First, the question is really unreasonable. There's a good chance we just learned how to do our own laundry, so don't expect us to know what we want to do for the rest of our life. I was 18 when I started university, and by the time my undergrad experience comes to a close this year I'll have just turned 22. Did you know what you wanted to do with your life when you were that young? If you thought you did, did you end up doing it? I mean yeah, I can grow facial hair now, and the voice-cracking stage is far behind me, but that doesn't mean I'm done developing as a person.

Second, the question is not small-talk material, it's quarter-life-crisis material. This is because our indecision comes with a cost. We may not be able to envision our future career, but it's not hard for us to get a crystal clear idea of all the debt the near future has in store for us. We get reminded of this with every tuition bill, every hour worked at a part-time job to finance something we're not sure about, and every course we take that may be just another step in the wrong direction. Even if we do have a rough idea of a potential career, finishing university doesn't necessarily mean we'll be able to do it; it doesn't work like that any more. University costs more than ever and the benefits it offers in terms of employment opportunities are getting narrower. Yet, at the same time, society holds us to a higher standard than ever before.

Third, when you ask us that question, it makes us feel like you think a potential career is the only valuable thing about university. We all have different reasons for wanting to learn, and getting the highest paying job may not be that reason. There are so many other benefits university offers, and we probably enjoy talking about those benefits more than what job may or may not be there for us.

I had no idea what I wanted to do for the first three years of my undergrad degree, but if you had asked what I was passionate about, I would happily talk about journalism. Lo and behold, I eventually realized that journalism is what I "want to do." Being able to respond to the "what do you want to do" question should be seen as a never-ending process, so don't ask us solely about the end goal. Instead, ask us about how the journey is going right now.

Davide Mastracci is a writer and student at McGill University where he studies political science and history.

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