No matter how lost and confused I was during my undergraduate years, I always thought that I would be ready to seize control of my independence when the final hour came, that I would, somehow, “figure it out.” But as my graduation neared, I wasn’t and hadn’t. I was a final paper painfully past its deadline.
By the second semester of senior year, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to grad school, let alone what I would go to grad school for. I was tired of my education being a financial burden to my parents, so I decided to find a job. By graduation in May, I still hadn’t secured a real job or even a paid internship. I was determined not to accept defeat and go back home to my parents’ house in California.
In lieu of options, I decided to take a gig as a tour guide at a brewery located in Bar Harbor, Maine. I would work from June to September and be paid minimum wage, which was $7 per hour plus tips. I figured it would be an adventure (like New York had been during college), a beautiful backdrop for fiction writing where I could finish the novella that I had started as part of my senior thesis for Barnard’s creative writing program. I wasn’t ready to acknowledge a major confrontation with reality. I wanted to believe that I still had time for adventures, that lack of money and experience would not deter me from doing exactly what I wanted with my life.
I picked Maine because of something that one of my favorite former high school English teachers had told me during a coffee catch-up the year before. He said that Maine had the same untouched, rural beauty of Northern California before it was hit with a tourism boom, when it was still just trees, farmland, hidden coves, and sequestered beaches. That the strawberries that grew there would be the best I would ever have.
In preparation for Maine, I packed four boxes of my belongings—my angular Japanese bowl with black lacquer, my dark blue lamp with gold flowers painted on the base—and moved them to WKCR’s radio station, where I had programmed and acted as a department head in my final semester. The boxes were meant to be stored there until I arrived at my Maine digs and had an address to which they could be shipped.
A friend of mine who graduated in 2017, a year before me, told me that after commencement he sat on the steps of Barnard Hall, smoked a cigarette, and then went to visit Malcolm X’s grave. The grave is located in Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York, which is over an hour and a half away from Columbia by public transit. Unlike the tomb of Ulysses S. Grant, which overlooks Riverside Park, Malcolm X’s resting place has no statue, no special monument erected in his honor, but simply a stone bearing his name next to another stone with his wife’s name.
For years, I had sensed that the traditional markers of success were dishonest. From seventh to 12th grade, I went to a prep school in Southern California where I read Ray Bradbury, Edith Wharton, Richard Yates, Leo Tolstoy, and Jack Kerouac. Kerouac, in particular, was responsible for many of my misguided ideas. His writing encouraged me to live life on my own terms, follow my passions, and disassociate from institutions I deemed problematic. At 18, I was incredibly attracted to the idea that adulthood meant choice.
Thinking back on this time in my life now, I can’t believe how naive I was. During the majority of my college career, my life’s lack of certainty wasn’t freeing at all.
On commencement morning, the sky was an indiscernible grey. At Radio City Music Hall, Barnard President Sian Beilock shook my hand as I crossed the stage and congratulated me on this accomplishment. It was the second time we had spoken. The first was when I asked for her name to check off her ticket on the guest list for a Theatre Department show that I was being paid to work, to which I remember her replying, “I’m Sian Beilock. I’m the president of the college.”
I received my diploma, returned to my seat, did the obligatory grad cap toss, and filed quickly out of the theater into the Grand Foyer. Bodies moved in every direction around me, a sea of blue robes in total chaos. My blue gown was oppressively warm; it was a polyblend so synthetic that our class had been instructed not to iron it lest it catch fire.
A group of friends and I moved toward the stairs to take pictures. My cousin came up to me to say congratulations, and all I could think about was the gap between how I should have felt versus how I did feel. That was when I began to sob uncontrollably.
A security guard found me by the doorway of the women’s bathroom desperately trying to slow my rapid breaths. As he led me to the paramedic’s office, he asked me what happened. I replied, between gasps, “I just graduated.”
My mother arrived at the office, her eyebrows raised in both worry and confusion. For her, the day was a culmination of 22 years of countless school drop-offs, late-night tutoring, and conversations where she assured me that I was far better than I believed myself to be.
My mother had lived in Puerto Rico until she was 19 when she moved to the States to attend the University of Kansas. She muscled through college, strapped with student loans, insurmountably homesick for her warm island, and barely able to understand her professors’ fast-talking English. My grandmother had a third-grade education and no way of preparing her daughter for the challenges that she would face at university.
As I sat on the stiff, plastic wheelchair, I remembered the day before, at a ceremony for Latinx students, where I could hear my mother cheering from the back row. I knew that she would never understand why graduation day was far from one of the happiest of my life.
The paramedic told me that there was nothing more he could do, and I rose, leaving my gown draped thoughtlessly on the wheelchair. My mother grabbed it before we stepped out of the office. On the New York City sidewalk outside of the auditorium, she carefully folded the synthetic fabric into a neat square.
The boxes I packed would never make it to Maine, and neither did I. I had gone home to Los Angeles with the intention of regrouping and heading out again. But a week before my flight to Maine, I canceled the adventure. The boxes stayed at WKCR until December, when a faculty member found them and nearly had them thrown out.
In the interim, I worked in Glendale, California as a temp in a law firm and dove into the often perilous and always unstable world of freelancing. I convinced myself that, by the end of the year, I would finish my novella, but I only wrote pages for a few weeks after I got home, and I never finished.
I missed the obligations of school: to have an opinion on everything I read, to speak in explicit terms, and to think as rigorously as possible. I felt completely powerless and muted. All the work, time, and energy I had put into college seemed like a waste and had no real bearing on my immediate reality. Many of my postgrad friends have often told me how much they also miss being in school and how their current day jobs hardly call for the self-reflection they had as students.
For my mom and many others, graduation was a time to celebrate achievements. For me, it was a time of loss, a time to grieve the world that I had so fully and lovingly inhabited for the past four years.
I did recently reach my supposed end goal. A few weeks ago, I got a full-time job. Lately, I'm starting to remember what it feels like to have dreams again.
While I’m grateful to no longer be at a professional and existential impasse, in many ways, my job is just a job. It is not fulfilling, illuminating, or even all that taxing. My occupation no longer has anything to do with writing novels or distilling nuanced ideas.
Passion and self-awareness can dim in the 9 to 5, or technically 9 to 6, grind. I can feel my facility with words growing weaker, my ability to assess and synthesize complex issues diminishing, and my overall precision in addressing what I choose to talk about becoming increasingly more vague.
My real end goal is a fulfilling life. It will be my true labor. But this goal has no definitive point where I reach a final evolution. And in the meantime, I’m trying not to forget that Wallace Stevens spent his early life working at an advertising firm while staying up every night to write poetry.
Enjoy leafing through our seventh issue!