Graduating from high school was unquestionably a celebration; graduating from college seems more foreboding. Behind the formal pomp and circumstance and the accomplishment of gowns and sashes, there’s a sense of unease. The “good lucks” and “congratulations” seem more cautionary as we face an archetypal damnation of aimless lounging on a pool float with darkness as our only friend. Even though the meandering twenty-something is becoming more and more accepted in today’s society, and the term “adult” is merely a working definition, college graduation still implies the end of the most desirable kind of freedom.
The fact that we refer to post-graduate life as “the real world” must mean that college is some kind of in-between place, its own dimension – or at the very least, its own discrete capsule that is different from any other place on Earth. High school students spend their four years dreaming of graduation; in college, most students dream of staying forever.
Even though it’s often depicted or remembered as some kind of paradise, there are plenty of unpleasant aspects of the college experience. There’s confinement in administrative red tape, subpar meal plans and less than ideal living conditions. Nostalgic graduates seem to forget the extreme stress and frustration of the actual work you must do and the dehumanizing plight of being defined by a grade point average. Therefore, at least some of the glory and the romanticism for the college years is purely a heightened fantasy.
Both college and the end of it both carry a collection of cultural implications. The college years themselves are represented as a time for exploration and experimentation, and come with them that promise of “finding yourself,” and of course, the sentiment of “these are the best years of your life.” The term “college student” also garners a great deal of respect, even though that in reality, the college student in question very well may not have woken up until noon and is currently nursing a hangover.
My personal definition of a college student was founded in middle school, upon the story of my friend’s father discovering the indie band the Postal Service by approaching a few students in a park and asking them what they were listening to those days. To me, that story planted the idea that college students were the authorities on what was cool, interesting, and relevant – because those were the qualities that they themselves were made of.
As my graduation looms closer, I am consumed with job-hunting and other pragmatic concerns, but I am also haunted by the anxiety that I did not utilize these years to their full capacity. I worry that my inherent college student coolness is slipping away. I remember the summer before I entered freshman year, where I would march around and pre-emptively declare that I was a “broke college student” with glee – to me, or rather, to my perception of the rest of the world, this signified more about my relevance factor than about my financial status.
College students are like perfect 10 albums on Pitchfork; everybody loves ‘em and wants to consume and absorb them so some of their coolness rubs off on them. Now, I fear I am “Losing My Edge,” like in the song by LCD Soundsystem. “The kids are coming up from behind,” James Murphy chanted with dread in this anthem of anxiety. The song nails the feeling of losing your place to a younger generation and fading into the abyss of the obsolete.
I used to keep asking myself – did I “live” enough? Did I do enough? I never dyed my hair an unnatural color, I never pierced anything or got a tattoo – the hallmarks of experimentation. I worry I didn’t frequent enough thrift stores; didn’t wear fishnet stockings enough. And when in my life will these things ever be more acceptable? Will I still be moved by Animal Collective’s first albums or will I find them to be plain cacophony? I didn’t read enough Palahniuk and Kerouac; will I be able to truly relate later on in my life? In a few months, anything I write or create will not be heralded on the simple fact that it was produced by a college student; it’ll just be grouped among the masses. Perhaps I should have capitalized more on this cultural fetish.
However, I’ve come to terms with the broader existential questions of the college odyssey.
I used to worry, was I finding myself? Like college was a scavenger hunt where I could find my soul at some cinematic party or gallery opening. But I’ve realized that “finding yourself” is a transitory act. Living is constant revision; it’s continuous decisions on who you want to be and what you want to stand for. It isn’t simply college graduation that brings someone to stagnation, but forever settling for the self they were in their early twenties.
In anticipation of no longer being eligible for my profitable student discount – for the movies, museums etc.- I’ve prepared the response of, “but aren’t we all students of life?” As flippant – and imaginary – as this remark may be, it carries truth to it. The caseation of growth is self-imposed- the college setting makes it easier to partake in new activities and meet new people, but there is no reason that we can’t continue to learn and discover afterwards.
Perhaps most importantly, we must ditch the perception that there are any set “best years” of our life – especially some that come so soon. What a depressing proposal it is that we’ll only truly love a portion of our lives. Our happiness should be spread evenly.
All that being said, college is a special place – but perhaps what makes it special, at least partially, is that it’s fleeting and ephemeral.
In “The Graduate,” Dustin Hoffman’s character is advised to seek a future in plastics. “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. Plastics,” he is told. This was in 1967 – 2015’s word of the future may very well be “start—ups.” There’s a great future in start-ups, and they also represent the invention and reinvention we desire in our lives, in college and onwards. A start-up encompasses all things, failures and successes. It entails a process, and embeds all of its steps as part of the journey.
I think, when we think of college, we remember how it felt at first – the newness, the sense of possibility. But these are feelings that come with any new experience. And now, I’m becoming less amused by this Disneyland of late adolescence; there’s a daily grind here too. The way to regain that sense of excitement and wonder is not by reliving what was, but going on to the next steps. I want to be thrust again into a new life. I want my first real job, my first apartment, new friends, a new world; there’s plenty more firsts to be had. I want to feel what it’s like to walk down a street I’ve never been down.