"So what are you doing now that university is over?"
For many new graduates, the end of April ushers in an era of anxiety. The motions of formalized education evaporate as students step into what has been dangerously referred to as "the real world." The question "what now?" underscores every 'last' moment of university; last exam, last paper, last time at the bar, last extra-large coffee.
This isn't a new development. I've been answering questions about my post-grad plans ever since choosing to pursue History and Political Studies:
"Do you think we need more Politics students?"
"What will you do with that?"
"Are you going to be a history teacher? Are you going to law school?"
But upon graduation, the metaphorical chickens come home to roost. Fervent beliefs about the existential purpose of universities as institutions of higher learning – not job training centres – are harder to justify when it's May and you're not sure what province you'll be living in next month. Graduates aren't marching forward with their diplomas raised triumphant; they're shuffling along with a longing eye turned back toward the academy. Rooted in the practical consideration of (not) having a job, renting an apartment, paying back loans, the anxiety facing new graduates manifests into a greater pessimism on the possibilities that education provided.
While in university, the playing field – although certainly not even – is at least a uniform shape. Marina Keegan's powerful 2012 essay The Opposite of Loneliness encapsulates the sense of camaraderie underscoring the university experience. Even as students struggle with their unique challenges – debt loads, family struggles, (dis)abilities, mental health – these differences are overshadowed by the common mission of academia. It's therefore tempting to view university as the last fortress of adolescence before the responsibilities of the "real world." The problem is that universities aren't snowglobes isolated from the pressures of societies. In buying into this mentality, students exacerbate the tensions that come with confronting what lies beyond the ivory tower.
By the end of undergrad, students have completed 18 years of formalized education. After graduating, students struggle with comparing themselves to the rest of their cohort. As a friend told me, "There is this great feeling of shame and failure when you haven't found a job out of school or after a postsecondary program." Rather than keeping pace with your classmates, suddenly you're falling behind. Maybe you're being lapped.
It has taken me five years to finish my undergrad; I stayed longer because I worked full-time in academic development and educational advocacy during my fourth year. But the past 12 months have also provided a profound clarity about the direction in which I want to take my life.
I decided against pursuing law school, against a career in educational policy, and against applying to schools internationally. For me, "what's next" is a summer of interning in the democracy program at the Carter Center in Atlanta before beginning my dream program in a Masters of Global Governance in September. When people ask "what now?" my answer doesn't begin with decisions I made the February before graduation, it began when I decided to major in History and Political Studies. It may be possible to land a job using the same techniques as pulling an all-nighter, but your satisfaction with the final product will probably be reduced.
When I finalized the general direction I wanted to take with my life, I listed the people I admired and the causes I found important, then Googled what organizations existed to support their work. I then wrote a list of contacts I had at my institution that could support my application, and sought out their advice on which steps I should take next. These building blocks – honing an interest, developing skills, making contacts – occurred in the first four years of my undergrad, but it took a fifth year to put everything together.
Whether you're leaving high school, college, or university, don't rush down the so-called linear path without considering the consequences. As my friend Lisa said, "Students fear going back to their parents' basements – and treat further pursuits in academia as a way to stay out of the house until something better comes along." Moving back home seems infantilizing, the loss of independence an abject personal failure. It isn't. Entering into a post-grad program, backpacking South East Asia, or participating in the infamous basement scenario can either be a retreat from the real world or an opportunity to embrace it. There is a world of difference between taking your time and wasting your time, and wasting time is much more expensive in a grad program than in a basement. Sarah told me, "I always said I wanted to go to law school, so now if I don't go... I'm some sort of failure. Taking a year off is really about vamping up the energy for another 3 years/saving money/figuring out what I like and want to do."
The anxiety surrounding entering a new life phase isn't solely a phenomenon facing university students. But social media allows new grads to wallow in the highlights of last Thursday's party, the beginning of a new Frosh week, and the excitement of being in undergrad. I joke about 'detoxing' from the issues that preoccupied my time at university, unfollowing organizations on Twitter and blocking updates from Facebook. The discomfort accompanying graduation will become increasingly familiar as the class of 2014 begins working, moving houses, tackling debt levels, and building new support networks. It's how we manage those that will determine our success.
Isabelle Duchaine is a graduate of Queen's University and a member of The Globe and Mail's Student Advisory Council.