“So what’s the next step?”
“Do you have a job yet?”
“So what are you going to do with that degree?”
“You must be so excited!”
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve gotten one of those questions (and more) in the last two weeks, I could probably pay off my student loans right now (seriously, if anyone wants to tally them up and write me a check, let me know…). Everyone is so interested to know what happens next that I haven’t had much chance to process all the emotions I’m feeling in the present. And let me tell you, finally settling down from the “aren’t you excited”s and “what happens next”s has definitely left me feeling down.
As of now, I have no idea what my next step is. I had applied for a Fulbright to do graduate study in Helsinki, which I was not recommended as a finalist for. As part of that process, I applied for the Master’s program at the University of Helsinki, and even though I didn’t receive the Fulbright I have until the end of May to find out if I’m accepted for the graduate program.
I like to plan at least a few steps ahead (especially when it comes to major life decisions), but unfortunately the reality of waiting has prevented that from being an option. Even after Fulbright didn’t work out, I kept my application for Helsinki active because I knew I would regret never knowing if I would have been accepted to the school…but that meant waiting until the end of May to find out if graduate school was even an option to consider. So I held off applying for jobs.
As spring break came closer and people in my Professional Writing capstone class talked about interviews and job acceptances and grad school, I started to feel the stress of facing such a huge question mark post-grad.I questioned whether being abroad for two years was the best option for me right now–and if a Master’s degree would even be beneficial at my current professional stage. Naturally, that made me worry more because I was behind on job searching if I wanted to have something after graduation like so many of my classmates.
Boyfriend suggested pro/con lists for both options when my anxiety really started to take over (you know your anxiety is bad when Type-B Boyfriend needs to suggest lists to Type-A Katlyn). this helped a little, but it was still difficult to get a clear read on my feelings about Finland because I hadn’t (haven’t) been accepted yet. Part of me felt so excited about the prospect of living abroad and getting a Master’s over the next two years…but part of me (maybe an even bigger part) was ready for a break from classes and homework, and ready to apply what I’ve learned and start building my own home.
Since I didn’t want to put all my eggs in the Helsinki basket (especially being unsure about whether that was really what I want at this point), I started applying for jobs…which proved to be less than fruitful. The “brag days” in my Professional Writing capstone class became a constant source of insecurity, because I felt like I didn’t have anything to brag about except rejection emails–it seemed like everyone else had that next step all lined up (some were even able to turn down job offers because they had multiple ones to pick from), and then there was me. Confused, wayward, and absolutely panicking.
Fast forward to graduation, and, spoiler alert, I’m still trying to find the “next step” everyone is so eager to know about. The more I get asked about “what happens next,” the more frustrating it becomes to say “Well, I’m not totally sure yet. I’m still waiting to hear about Helsinki before I can decide about that, and I’m also job searching.” Not exactly what my friends and family want to hear from the recipient of the College of Arts and Letters’ undergraduate excellence award.
Being full-time-jobless and anxious feels anything but “excellent.” It feels like you’re a fraud, or like you wasted your time in college working harder than so many of your peers for absolutely nothing. It feels like maybe you peaked in college, and that your capability for success only exists in the classroom or the office of your internship. It feels like you aren’t capable of anything. Like you’re a burden to everyone around you, because you can’t feel anything but this pervasive sense of worthlessness and fear.
So yeah, the “excitement” I’m supposed to be feeling is definitely not my primary emotion. I want to feel excited, but insecurities about what happens next prevents me from enjoying the post-grad period. In a lot of ways, I don’t feel that different yet…until I start to think about how I won’t be returning for class in the fall, and wonder where I’ll be instead. After meeting with a professor to (hopefully) find a way to have more success with job applications, I ended up realizing I haven’t been applying for the kind of jobs I’m really interested in, and (worse), I haven’t been creating an effective narrative of my achievements on my resume.
Going back to the drawing board with a stronger resume and more job search resources has helped my confidence a little bit, but I still struggle with the weight of so many negative emotions. I didn’t realize how heavy the anxiety I’ve been holding onto is until I was at a bar with Boyfriend this weekend, envious of how everyone else in the group was able to enjoy themselves and find the release I so desperately needed. I felt numb and empty, like I wasn’t really existing in the same space of life as everyone else. Those feelings aren’t unique to me, and are surely in large part thanks to the combination of a major life change and the cultural narrative we have of always getting to the next step without pausing to enjoy the one you’re on.
It’s hard to know you need help getting through a rough patch, but be unable to figure out exactly what kind of help you need. Boyfriend (as usual) has been great about asking how he can support me and help me, but until I figured out what I was even so anxious about, all I could do was look even more panicked and say “I don’t even know what’s wrong!” Which, in turn, made me feel dramatic and anxious that he was going to get annoyed at how long it was taking me to get things sorted out. I want so much to be independent and feel confident in who I am and what I can do, but it’s going to be a process as I learn to accept that uncertainty is a huge part of my current reality.
In the meantime, I’ve tried to focus on the little successes I’ve found since (finally) finishing undergrad: I’m able to go to yoga almost every day of the week, and I’ve had the time to prioritize taking care of myself. That’s made me realize how much of a disservice my final semester did to my mental and physical well-being, because I was so busy that I didn’t make time to practice good self-care. I’ve also been able to take on a couple of freelance web design projects, and do some crafting for my neighbor’s wedding celebration. Boyfriend and I watched at least four (maybe five) episodes of Battlestar Galactica last night, and I didn’t feel guilty about any schoolwork I “should have” been doing instead.
My post-grad “breath” has given me the chance to seek more balance from my life, and with all the stress that comes with the unknown, there is also the joy of having time to spend doing things that are fulfilling and important to me (now if only Boyfriend could finish up vet school….haha). Graduation can be just as scary as it is exciting, and I’ve been experiencing an overload of “scary” because I’m buying into the narrative of rushing forward to seek cookie-cutter success. That’s not a narrative that will change overnight, but luckily I have a solid support system and strong enough sense of self to (eventually) see past the anxiety stories in my head that tell me I’m a failure and not living up to my potential.
Eventually I will be able to say “yes” when people ask if I’m excited about being a graduate. I will have an answer when they ask what the next step is, or what I’m going to do with that degree, or what my job is. Eventually, I will get to the next step. I will work with the stories my mind tells me and make peace with the anxiety surrounding my many unknowns. Until then, I’m trying to appreciate the space I’m in, and accept the support I need to feel joy in the successes I’ve already found.
Photo courtesy of MSU College of Arts and Letters