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The aftermath of crossing the stage: Don’t know what to do with your life? Me too!

By Francesca Schoettler, June 3 2023—

Does it ever feel like you’re navigating uncharted waters without a map? Perhaps if you’ve recently graduated you’ll know exactly what I mean. No one really warns you about the tidal wave of uncertainty that comes crashing down as soon as you cross the big stage, shake a few hands, and receive that daunting piece of paper that represents a culmination of years of blood, sweat and tears that you single-handedly poured into your degree.

In just one blink, the well-structured routine of assignments, exams and due dates suddenly dissipates into a void that almost makes you question whether it was ever really there in the first place. Maybe your routine wasn’t even well-structured but it was well enough to play defense against the harmless but nonetheless nagging questions of what you’re going to do next.

I’ve been grappling with the what now for weeks. The pressure to find a career, build a life and prove myself as somewhat worthy of the diploma that sits neatly framed right above my desk. It feels all too real and so sudden despite knowing at least a year in advance that I was set to graduate in May of 2023.

However — I know the feeling of being overwhelmed after graduating is not an uncommon one. It’s a shared experience, a conversation topic to draw upon when there’s no longer anything interesting about the weather to remark on. Instead, we can exchange tales of sleepless nights and countless job applications to ultimately find solace in the fact that we aren’t the only ones without a five-year plan to fall back on. Perhaps we had a five-year plan that completely imploded and now we’re left scrambling to pick up its remains. It’s a comforting and yet humbling realization that no one truly has it all together, despite the expectation that by now we should. 

I’ve been whispering the words: graduation is not a finish line but a starting point — to myself for weeks now, I think it’s okay to acknowledge the realization that graduating still represents the end of an era, one that is worth reminiscing and at times mourning, as you transition to a different stage of your life. For those of you that had reservations about your university experience, I don’t think it necessarily matters whether or not you particularly liked that era — instead, it’s the fact that you were ever in that era in the first place that matters. The fact that you experienced the vibrant (and sometimes chaotic) atmosphere of the first-year dining halls, navigated the challenges of communal living, networked for probably the first time in your life (at least professionally), pulled an all-nighter diligently working on an assignment you were certain you wouldn’t submit (but still managed to turn in) and passionately advocated for something you truly believed in (even if it was just for better lunch meat in the cafeteria, don’t worry, we all have to start somewhere.) 

There’s not a lot that I regret when I think back on my university days but if I had even a cent of advice to offer, it would be the cliche but undeniable words: enjoy it because it doesn’t last forever. It’s similar to the notion that we often fail to appreciate something when it’s right in front of us, but we deeply miss it once it’s gone. Most of the time, you don’t get a repeat so make the most of what you have while you have it, in this season of your life and in the next. So go to that party, join that club that you always wanted to be a part of but were too hesitant to pursue, fall in love, have your heart broken (it’s a canon event, I’m sorry), and then let yourself fall in love again because if I’m being honest, I think that it’s when we dare to dream that we come alive the most.

I hope that this reads as an ode to the ones that are hanging on by a thread. You’ll get there, it just might take you a little while to iron out where there is for you. I know it’s certainly taking me some time to figure it all out but that’s life, sometimes you take one step forward just to move two steps back. Maybe you’ve found yourself in a similar predicament to the one I’m in now. I moved back home to stay with my parents after four years of independence. Despite four years of paying bills and buying groceries, I’m in the same room that I decorated when I was fifteen, staring at the same dream board of all the things I’d do once I got out of my hometown. I don’t think I ever really anticipated that I’d be back. It’s in moments like this that I recognize how big the world is and how small I am in comparison. At least I’m a little taller than I was when I was fifteen — that’s got to count for something. 

The details on where I’ll go next will come, I just need to trust that I’m going somewhere, that I’m moving forward and writing my name on everything that I touch, and that one day, that’ll be enough. So, move forward and stay persistent, adapt as necessary (take down that old dream board of yours and build a new one) and never stop believing in yourself. Let that spark hiding deep within you be ignited because when something’s ignited, it’s alive, and being alive makes you a force to be reckoned with. No one ever said you wouldn’t be afraid but I don’t think you should let your fear stop you from doing something new and perhaps, bold. Maybe boldness is exactly what you need — to steer away from what you were doing and steer towards what you want to be doing. 

So what if you’re a little lost? Maybe the answer isn’t in finding your way back to the path but in forging a new one.

This article is a part of our Voices section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet editorial board.

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