Possibilities, Not Probabilities in Life After Graduation

For graduating seniors, these last few months of college feel nothing like what it used to be. We already have one foot poking nervously out the door. It seems impossible now to nestle into the moment, to feel the same carefree adventure that had emboldened us since freshman year. One of my friends has expressed regret at not dedicating more time junior year to planning for the future, but I don’t necessarily share that sentiment—despite the fear I feel now, college is one of the few places in life where I’ve been free to explore, experiment, and expand my breadth. I’ve developed my emotional intelligence much more by engaging with other people than by living according to a regimented schedule, paralyzed and intimidated by what’s to come.

These last few months, which will soon be nothing more than a few weeks and then, before I know it, a few hours, feel like both the end of something epic and the start of something frightening and provisional—something in which there are no comforting guarantees. Not only regarding employment, but also friendships, residences, careers. What one might consider to be the most important parts of their identity are maddeningly up in the air, unresolved.

This is not a total negative, of course. There is an exciting number of possibilities—a renewing freedom, right now, to direct our lives whichever way we wish.

But when people ask me, “What are you going to do after graduation?” I’m overwhelmed by these possibilities. I’m overwhelmed by the hurdles I must eventually surpass. “Calm down,” I tell myself, but my efforts produce no results. When I try to whittle these possibilities down, to think of them as probabilities, I feel the opposite of reassurance: I feel defeated. Not much of an improvement.

That question—“What are you doing after graduation?”—is the only one I seem to get asked nowadays when I meet someone new and tell them that I’m a senior in college. It’s a question no senior (that I know of) enjoys being asked. Strangely, I sometimes notice that the people asking me this know quite well just how paralyzed, how discomfited, their question leaves me. Catching the way I clench my jaw, they grin and immediately say, “Not something you want to talk about?”

“Bingo,” I think glumly.

Lately I’ve felt a sinking dread at the prospect of graduation because I don’t have anything lined up, set in stone. I know for certain that I’ll hurl my cap high toward the sky in June, but my spirits will plummet with the weight of my anxieties.

Only recently have I felt occasionally afraid to enter what is called “the real world” by “grown-ups” who’ve long left college. “Damn—I miss college,” they say wistfully. “Best four years of my life. Wait ‘til you enter the real world.”

I can wait. But at the same time, I’m passionate about what I love—writing—and I’ve made it a goal not to retrospectively feel that college was my peak. I’ll continue to harness the confidence I’ve developed in the past four years to fuel my pursuits, to create opportunities, the same way I’ve done for myself at UCLA. To the jaded, to cynics, my visions may seem trivial or even naïve. But my attitude in life, my optimism, hasn’t yet compromised my ability to make good decisions, to be thoughtful, to try and treat others with compassion, and to become civically observant and engaged.

A lot of the writing in this piece is still half-formed—I’m writing this to better know what I think about graduation, my future, the swirling, opaque haze that I can’t discern meaning from just yet. I’ve been reminding myself that it’s okay for my thoughts to be half-formed, as long as I’m not inert. Ultimately, we’re all responsible for facilitating our own understandings of what it means to become adults, and we do this by surrounding ourselves with positive, constructive friends and figures, critically examining ourselves and our circumstances, and cultivating a mindset in which our dreams are realizable through concrete, empowering steps.

Two of the most important lessons I’ve learned in the past four years:

  1. Think in terms of possibilities, not probabilities. We limit our capacity to achieve not only our dreams, but also our micro-ambitions, just by doubting the likelihood of their coming into fruition. Work backward—where do I want to be and how will I get there?
  2. I had no clue that I’d be doing the things I’m doing now, but there’s nothing I’d change about my current situation.

In high school, I thought I’d become a doctor even though my favorite subject was English. I thought I’d study pre-med and work in labs. Now I’m an English major with a film minor. I’ve taken creative writing workshops with some of the most esteemed writers in America. I’ve found my writing voice. I’m a writing counselor at WSP. I’m in Delta Kappa Alpha, the film fraternity. And I have an amazing support system of lifelong friends and mentors that I know I’ll keep in touch with for years to come. Regardless of what other routes may have provided me, I’m more than content, thankful, and thrilled by the opportunities and experiences that have come my way. And how could James of senior year in high school have ever envisioned such a life-path? I was just as scared of the future during that summer before my freshman year at UCLA, and now, considering how far I’ve come, I think I can project the same trajectory to my life beyond graduation. At my next milestone, I expect to look back and reflect on my life’s arc and see that I’m not doing exactly what I pictured as a senior in college, frantically trying to get my life together in a clear way. But if I work hard, refine my goals, and commit to my passion, I think I’ll be just as happy—hopefully happier—than I am now, doing something I didn’t even imagine I’d end up doing.

I encourage you to think about this as well. A year ago, what did you think you’d be doing at this point in your life? Two years ago? Three? Four? Five? Are you happy with where you are? If not, how have you ended up here, and what can you do to change it? How does this process of tracing your life’s narrative make you feel about your own future?

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