Thoughts on Graduation — Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

It is currently May 10th, 2017. I will be graduating from Mount Allison University in just five days. That’s really, really exciting, but it’s also kind of scary.

I want to talk candidly about graduation because I think it’s a subject of discussion that is too often deferred until after the actual event. The months of March, April, and May don’t generally leave students with a lot of time for introspection or deep conversation: we’re juggling projects, exams, applications, interviews, relocating, and so many other sources of stress, so our thoughts and feelings about graduation often get pushed to the side as something that we’ll unpack later.

I don’t think that that’s the best approach, though. I want to take a few moments and really examine what graduation means to me as an individual and as a student. I think that doing so before I actually walk across the stage is actually critically important, since it might help me feel more attuned to the experience, so that’s what I’m doing with this blog post. Before I talk about graduation, though, I have to talk about how I got here.

When I first came to Mount A back in 2013, I had just realized that I didn’t always like the person that I was in high school. I was shy, I was sarcastic, I was immature, and I was anxious. University felt like a chance for me to do something about that, so I did. I thought about the kind of person that I wanted to be – someone who tries new things, who pushes his limits, who is better each day than he was the day before – and I dedicated myself to becoming that.

I had another source of motivation as well. Every year, Mount Allison awards several Bell Scholarships to incoming students, which effectively pay for their entire tuition for four years. I had put a lot of effort into my Bell Scholarship application when I enrolled at Mount A, but I was not selected as a recipient. I don’t feel slighted by this, especially not in retrospect. The students who did receive the Bell Scholarships had certainly earned their reward. But I decided that I wanted to make Mount Allison regret not giving me a Bell Scholarship. I wanted to be the best student that they had ever seen.

These two goals took a variety of forms. I threw myself into extracurriculars as frequently and emphatically as I could. I tried different classes, found so many varied fields of interest, and strove for academic excellence in every one of them. I picked up new hobbies and made new friends.

For a long time, this felt really good. In fact, it felt like it was supposed to. Externally, I was having the essential university experience: I was “broadening my horizons,” becoming a more “well-rounded” individual, and experiencing all of those other buzzwords sprinkled throughout brochures. I was both happy with myself and proud of myself, and those are intensely addictive feelings. I never wanted to let them go.

Things started to unravel in the early days of my third year here at Mount Allison. See, the thing that no one really tells you about university is that everything has a cost, and I don’t just mean tuition and textbooks. Everything you do costs time and effort, both of which you could be spending in an immense variety of possible ways. And particularly at a small interwoven campus like Mount Allison, there are always additional ways that you can spend your time and effort. However, both time and effort are finite resources. You reach a point where you actually can’t do more, at least not without sacrificing something else.

Furthermore, neither of my goals had clearly defined endpoints: there was no point at which I could clearly say that I had become the person I wanted to be, that I improved on myself enough, or that I was the best student that Mount A had ever seen — and that’s setting aside the question of whether or not these goals, particularly the last one, were at all healthy goals to have.

I hit a point in third year where pushing myself felt like the norm, where going above and beyond was now just my expectation for myself. That made me want to push myself further and further, to the point that it was compromising my enjoyment of the university experience, my free time, and my mental health.

To take a step back, however, seemed unimaginable. Decreasing my academic standards, my extracurricular involvement, or anything like that would mean admitting defeat. It would mean that I had hit a limit of some kind, and I was terrified of that possibility. It still didn’t feel like I was good enough, and I couldn’t bear the possibility that good enough was beyond my grasp.

This might sound pretty familiar to anyone who has struggled with impostor syndrome. which (although not classified as a mental disorder in itself) I would argue is perhaps the most common cognitive symptom of anxiety or depression among post-secondary students. I don’t want to spend too much time discussing it here — there’s a full definition at the link above, and I might return to it in another post — but suffice it to say that I felt like an inevitable failure, doomed from the start. I felt like my entire career at university had been a decaying orbit around the Earth, in which I had been falling sideways just fast enough to keep from burning up. I felt like decreasing my commitments (or even just not increasing them further) would reveal me as the incompetent and incapable person that I knew I always had been.

As I said, I don’t want to spend too much time on this here, but I eventually did take a bit of a step back, almost out of necessity. I also spent some time with a psychologist to work through the above as well as some other issues that I had been having.

The most important thing that I realized in that time, though, is that my time at university is not meant for anyone but me.

I took a look back at those two goals with which I had defined myself when I first arrived at Mount Allison — becoming the person I wanted to be, and being the best student Mount A has ever seen — and I realized that I had conflated the two of them, acting as if they were one and the same. I want to be a lot of things, but the more I think about it, “the best student Mount A has ever seen” isn’t really one of them.

Why not? Well, for one thing, that label would mean absolutely nothing after I left Mount Allison. It also would mean defining myself purely in relative terms: everything would be a comparison between myself and others, a series of charts denoting accomplishments and abilities pursued for the sake of perceived superiority. I would much rather pursue things I’m passionate about for their own sake rather than for how they’ll look on a CV or LinkedIn profile.

Since the start of my fourth year, I’ve been focusing a lot more on doing the things that I actually want to do, pursuing my own passions, and being the person I want to be. I focused a lot more on creative writing and started sharing more of my writing with others. I created and presented my own literary theory to my professors and peers. I even spent a lot more time baking, a hobby I’ve started to enjoy even more than I did in the past.

I realized something in the process, something that many people before me have observed and noted: people tend to be pretty good at the things they’re passionate about, and vice versa. This just underscores how misguided I was when I set out to be the best student that Mount A has ever seen. To quote a particularly insightful xkcd comic, “You don’t become great by trying to be great. You become great by wanting to do something, and then doing it so hard that you become great in the process.”

So that brings me to where I am now, less than a week away from graduation. This is very much a transitional period: I can count my remaining days as a Mount A student on one hand, and I’ll be starting a Master’s degree in Creative Writing at the University of Toronto this fall.

As with any major transition, this one has raised (and continues to raise) some complicated questions of identity. Even beyond the basic changes of location and institution, the very process of applying to grad school was a challenge to my self-concept. I applied to five different graduate schools, all for Creative Writing: University of British Columbia, University of Victoria, University of Michigan, University of Iowa, and University of Toronto.

Time for a very candid admission. While U of T’s program is highly regarded and I was incredibly excited to receive my acceptance, those aren’t the only reasons that I’ll be going there. The University of Toronto is the only grad school to which I was accepted.

Allow me to provide some context about Master’s Creative Writing programs. In all cases, the admission guidelines are very clear: as long as you meet the minimum GPA required for acceptance (typically around 3.4, though it varied by institution), your academic record does not matter in the slightest. Your application is won or lost by your portfolio, which is typically comprised of 10-15 creative works of your choosing. Furthermore, these programs are typically quite small; at the University of Toronto, I am one of just seven students accepted this year.

I knew all of the above from the outset, right from when I was choosing the schools to which I would apply, but the reality still stung. I heard from Toronto first: an enthusiastic phone call from U of T’s department head, followed by four rejection letters. My hopes skyrocketed initially, then quickly tumbled back down to earth.

It was hard to process. I knew that I was far from the only one who was rejected from some of these schools — the University of Iowa, in particular, is regarded as perhaps the most prestigious Creative Writing program in the world — but I had defined myself as a Good Writer™ and a Good Student™, and this outcome seemed incommensurate with those identities.

In the end, I had to remind myself that I’m still going to be pursuing my passion for creative writing in a focused academic setting. For that matter, I would still be pursuing creative writing even if I wasn’t accepted to any of the schools I applied to. It can be hard to remember this in moments of difficulty or stress, but I’m not pursuing creative writing because I’m good at it. Rather, I want to pursue creative writing because I enjoy it. I love telling stories, playing with words, and sharing my work with others. None of that changes regardless of where I am or what institution I am (or am not) attending. No matter what happens in my time at the University of Toronto, I’m sure it’ll be an opportunity for me to grow both as a writer and as a person.

That’s the immediate future taken care of, but what about the future more broadly? A lot of the stress, anxiety, or at least uncertainty caused by graduation comes from thoughts about the future. After all, graduation doesn’t just imply moving on from one stage, but also moving on to another stage. The pomp and circumstance of it all can be a little diminished if you’re not sure quite what that next stage is.

I’m lucky that I know my next few steps. I have a job for the summer, an apartment for the fall, and a grad program that I’ll be starting. Still, though, I have no idea how that program will work out, and I don’t know exactly what will happen after my time at the University of Toronto comes to an end. In a sense, it feels like I’m facing the question of what to do with my life, and I’m choosing to defer my answer for a couple of years while I figure things out. Honestly, I had the same feeling back when I graduated from high school and started my undergrad.

I don’t know if I’ll eventually try to pursue creative writing as a full-time career, or if I’ll get a “day job” and write as a hobby, or if I’ll end up doing something completely different. Something else that I’ve realized in my time at university, and particularly in the past year, is that this sort of uncertainty about the non-immediate future is completely understandable, and it’s also kind of exciting.

There are so many things that I’m passionate about. I’ve mentioned a few of them above, and I’ve shared some examples thereof on this site in some previous posts. Some of these things are pretty broad, like creative writing, and others are surprisingly specific. For example, I recently discovered that I really enjoy making crepes. I don’t know what exactly it is about making crepes that is so fun for me, but I really enjoy it. Any and all of these passions could be turned into a career. Several of them probably will be — after all,  it’s becoming more and more common for people to have multiple career shifts during their lifetime.

The point is that it’s completely okay for that big, scary question — “what are you going to do with your life?” — to have multiple possible answers, or even to have no real answer at all. It can be a troubling thing to admit that I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m also so excited to find out. If my time at Mount Allison is any indication, the future will be a challenge, and it will force me to confront parts of myself that I might not like, but it will also be profoundly transformative and, crucially, a lot of fun. I feel like I’m ready to face whatever’s waiting for me out there.

So that’s what I’m thinking about as my time at Mount Allison draws to a close. I’m remembering all that I’ve been through over these past four years, and how every experience — positive and negative — has helped make me the person I am today. I’m trying to make the most of this transitional period, facing new obstacles and learning new things about myself. I’m looking toward the future, not with unbridled fear or jaded contempt, but with curiosity and excitement. Graduation is just five days away, and I can hardly wait.

Author: Mitchell

I'm 24 and currently pursuing a PhD in English at the University of Toronto.

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