Like many of my fourth-year peers, I find that I am becoming more and more preoccupied with thoughts about the future. Every graduating senior has asked questions like “What will I be doing next year?” and “What if I don’t like what I’m doing?” in the past six months, and if they say they haven’t, they’re lying. The fact is, many of these questions don’t necessarily have an answer, and that’s why they linger in our minds.
Many fourth years are fortunate enough to have already secured jobs after graduation. I’m sure you know the type: ready to begin the path that they have planned since sixth grade, finally able to break free from school after 17 years in the classroom. But, for the vast majority of soon-to-be graduates like myself, it’s quite as if we’re sleep-walking through the career fair, shoulder-to-grubby-shoulder with the Class of 2018. Stuck are we in this ivory-spun Purgatory, unsure of where we’re headed, of what lies for us ahead—or whether salvation (read: stable employment) will ever be within reach.
And, to make matters worse, there’s Facebook. Yes, even in Purgatory. With everyone is curious about each others’ future “plan,” it’s near impossible to juggle keeping both envy and pride at bay when inevitable question comes knocking: “So, do you know what you’re doing next year?”
If the answer is no, that’s OK. Students here are competitive, but the very same ambitions that push this student populous excel too often lays the brickwork for dissapointment; and it’s easy to become discouraged whenever there’s disappointment. However, not everything is black and white, and there are many more options open to us than we may think. Much of the anxiety rests on the fact that it will be the first time when we will no longer have a conventionally set path to follow. After elementary school there was middle school, then high school, and then, as evidenced by our presence here, college. Even if there was some semblance of choice between perhaps public or private high schools or which college to attend, the general guidelines were laid out in front of us, and all we had to do was jump through the hoops—it was an easy trajectory.
But as that path winds down and we approach the unknown that is the beginning of the rest of our lives, the choices we’re confronted with are much greater—and perhaps more immobilizing. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about La Nausée—the nausea that we feel when confronted with endless, and often undesirable, choices. The resulting paralysis is not because we are unable to decide, but because we are afraid it is the wrong choice to make. But this openness of choice is both the curse and the antidote to our current dilemma. Compared to literally 99 percent of the world—and I’m not deliberately making an Occupy reference—we have more opportunities in more places than almost anyone else, yet many of us still feel like our options are “limited” in the sense that there are jobs or careers we would never consider, but are open to us if we chose to pursue them. Take a second to think if you or any of your friends have considered working a trade after graduation? Carpentry? Plumbing? How about working in a kitchen? For many of us, if we don’t obtain some sort of job that requires sitting at a desk, working off a computer, and/or using analytical problem solving, we think the job is not worth pursuing. Why is that?
By June, we’ll be fortunate enough to have graduated from one of the most prestigious universities in the world; what may be truly limited is our scope of the world or the perception of the narrow goals that have been laid out in front of us. Life doesn’t automatically place you from college into another sequence of predetermined success. Everything is no longer about school or grades; rather, it is what you make of it. While expectations exist, we determine which expectations are the most important—and whether that is starting a high-paying career, taking time off before graduate school, or buying a one way plane ticket somewhere, we need to remember that we have the agency to decide. For much of our lives, we did not necessarily set our own expectations and we were not as in control of which path to take as we are about to be. But for the first time we not only have the agency, but also the capability to approach any endeavor—the only decision is whether that knowledge pushes or paralyzes us when deciding what to do.
Lear Jiang is a fourth-year in the college majoring in political science.