Last week, during my shift on the monitor desk of the Freeman Athletic Center, a parent came in looking for directions to the field hockey game that was taking place on Smith Field. I have been a student at Wesleyan for almost three years, but I will happily admit that I did not have a clear idea of where this field was nor was I in the position to provide directions—at least good ones—to it. I fumbled through my response, pointing out places or points of reference of whose location I was more or less confident, in the hope that these vague instructions would at least send her in the general direction of her daughter’s match. In the end, seeing the confusion I had caused—for both me and this poor woman—I resorted to contacting my boss. I was left feeling not only like I had failed to meet the very basic expectations of my job, but I was also reminded of how lost I often feel on campus, and not just in a geographic sense of the word.
Like many my age, my university experience has been irrevocably rocked by the pandemic; it cut my freshman year in half, handed me a frankly depressing sophomore fall as the best option I could take from a bad bunch, and it led me to study for my “American degree” from the confines of my English bedroom. In other words, I haven’t had the four-year college experience that I envisioned. As a result, I am, as a junior, still getting to know Wesleyan: its campus, its people, and all of its quirks. This University feels simultaneously familiar and foreign to me; whilst it has remained one of the few constants in my life over the past few years, it has also been a place that I have had to reacquaint myself after spending months at a time on the other side of the Atlantic.
But, for the most part, I can bridge the distance that I may feel exists between myself and Wesleyan, and actually being able to step foot in the country helps, for a start. I can explore in my own time, I can ask friends, who are willing, to join me, I can find out where Smith Field is and I can set it in memory in the strong likelihood that another Wesleyan mom is going to ask me.
What I can’t do however, at least right now, is respond to the other kind of questions. That is, the questions you tend to get asked as a junior. Working at Freeman and encountering new people all of the time means that I often get asked a pretty standard set: Where are you from (the accent means that this is almost always the first question)? What are you studying? And last but not least, what do you want to do? Though they don’t often add this to the end of the latter question, what they are really asking is “What do you want to do post-college, post Wesleyan?” After all, in a little over a year’s time, I’ll be a college graduate, set free into the “real world,” no longer shielded by the University’s bubble. To that, some people would say that I have plenty of time to figure it out, to perfect my answer to their question and to have everything just fall into place. But, with each day of this semester that passes, I no longer feel that I have time on my side. On the contrary, my capacity to meet the right people, seek out the right internships, make use of the right resources, and apply for the right things is bound to an inevitable deadline, one that I am worried I won’t meet.
Admittedly, these anxieties don’t just surface when I’m back on campus and taking classes, but there is something about finding myself surrounded by or talking to people who seem to have it all figured out that exacerbates them. I talk to friends, both in the US and at home, who are set on being lawyers, doctors, psychologists or investment bankers, which only makes me realize how little I have figured out. It’s not like I have no clue at all- I have careers in mind, industries that interest me, and for the most part options to explore. But, what I don’t have is a four year plan that should see me through life after graduation. I don’t have a course of action that I am certain about pursuing. I don’t have the answer to their questions.
Whether my friends who know what’s next for them are an exception or an anomaly is something I am unsure of. However, it would appear as if mine is a shared indecisiveness. Indeed, a study carried out by Strada-Gallup survey on career readiness found that only about a third of college students feel prepared that they’ll graduate with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in the job market and in the workplace. Moreover, new statistics released by Allaboutcareers.com revealed that 44% of undergraduates are unable to define the industry that they would like to work in once they graduate. Such findings clearly reflect a pervasive sentiment within my generation that I imagine has been heightened by a year of online learning, delayed independence, and cancelled opportunities.
In a society where, frankly, your friends feel like your competition as far as finding a way to make a living is concerned, we can’t help but be preoccupied with trying to design and engineer our futures. The problem? By nature, the future is the unknown and the uncertain. Of course, it is possible to take steps that will lead you toward a specific profession, vocation or even way of life. But, for the most part, everyone is really just figuring it out as they go, gaining skills and experiences along the way that make it that much easier. For college students also trying to navigate the highs and lows that come with adulthood, it can be a lot for them to sit down and ask themselves where they see themselves in the next few weeks, let alone in the distant future.
That being said, parents, teachers, counsellors and even the media will repeatedly reassure students that it’s fine not to have it all worked out, but will then also prompt them to come up with a plan A, B, and C. For me at least, this is incredibly confusing. I am being led to believe that the uncertainty I feel towards my future is normal, something that I shouldn’t feel bad about or scared by. However, I also can’t help but think that this uncertainty is somehow dangerous, that the longer I take to figure things out, the worse my chances at succeeding in life—whatever that means—will be. My dad, for example, still criticizes one of my older brothers, who ended up going to university at age 40 after having multiple kids, working different jobs, and essentially taking the time to figure things out.
As much as taking gap years, seeking out alternatives to university or dropping out of college altogether have become a lot less taboo in recent years (especially in the wake of COVID-19), I would argue that as a young person I am more often than not steered toward or at least inclined to follow the traditional path; that is, accumulate degrees, apply for jobs, get hired for said jobs, and spend x amount of years working in these jobs until I no longer have to. In an ideal world, it would be quite nice if things went this way, but the reality is that they often don’t, and, in fact, there is nothing wrong when this happens. Though I very much seek a plan, a course of action, a pursuit that I am passionate to embark upon over the next few years, I am also coming to accept that no plan is truly robust enough to resist the curveballs, the rejections, the wins, or the chance encounters that will come my way.
I haven’t been to Long Lane Farm yet, nor have I gone apple picking at Lyman Orchards, activities that are often depicted as rites of passage when it comes to being a true Cardinal. I also haven’t figured out what I’m going to do when the food I eat is no longer covered by imaginary points on a card, nor have I worked out what will happen when I have to actually start paying for my own laundry—thanks Reslife. But I am learning to tell myself that this is okay, because at some point, whether that’s in a few months, a few weeks or in a few years, I will figure it out. And, even if I don’t, who the hell knows what they’re doing anyway?
Tiah Shepherd can be reached email@example.com.