I know few fellow college students who claim to have never shed school-induced tears.
To cry over academics in college seems almost a right of cathartic passage. Sometimes we can anticipate these moments of release, but more often, they have a way of hitting us suddenly, so that all we can do is embrace their familiar inevitability — like the specter of a late night before a deadline or a pile of dirty dishes stacked precariously in my kitchen sink.
Such was the case for me near the end of my sophomore year. I was working on an essay on “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.” I’d written a full page analyzing the rhetorical significance of a wheelbarrow before sitting back and asking myself, pointedly, what the hell am I doing?
It didn’t take long for tears to flow, along with a cascade of anxieties over the subject to which I’ve chosen to dedicate almost one-fifth of my life.
Since deciding to major in English, I’ve harbored gnawing doubts about entering a workforce that, from what people imply through their reactions when they learn of my studies, doesn’t have a clearly defined role for me.
“Oh,” they say when I break the news to them. “That’s cool!” A slight strain in the word “cool” and a rise in the pitches of their voices betray their often much more candid opinion: Nice choice, moron.
“What’re you going to do with that?” is another common accusation I get from peers and adults alike. The best response, I’ve learned, is to deflect and philosophize: “Do any of us ever really know?”
It’s particularly ironic that this overflow of self-doubt befell me as I was writing about Franklin’s autobiography — a book that romanticizes careerism and the fantasy of job success to an almost comical extreme. (The man pushed a wheelbarrow full of paper down the main road every day for no reason other than to boost his reputation as an industrious worker.)
Dozens of books and essays later, I’ve grown more comfortable as an English student. The cacophony of voices within and outside of my own head that doubt the value of the work I do has largely subsided. They whisper now, instead of screaming bloody murder.
What terrifies me most as the reality of adulthood grows near is not the choice I made to pursue a life in writing, but rather the notion that it now may be too late to do something different.
The beginning of college is a time of endless possibility. As freshmen, we feel as though we are standing in a magical threshold before a maze of paths, tunnels and bridges, all stretching toward different, romantic visions of adulthood. Many end in successful careers — all too often taken to be markers of successful lives — and we are told by our parents and professors and friends that we can pursue any of them.
Today, these meandering paths seem to have merged into an abyss — vast, sure, but also rather singular.
As my peers and I grow within siloed college majors and sculpt our identities more or less to match our granular studies, it feels as though the maze of possibilities we gawked at in our freshman year has dissipated.
I didn’t choose to study computer science in college, and I wouldn’t say I’ve had an urge to do any such thing. But the notion that I might complete an undergraduate degree in computer science and might then pursue a career in software engineering was somehow comforting to me.
I could if I wanted to.
Three years later, I often feel I no longer can.
It’s too late, even if I did want to.
Admittedly, it seems sort of silly for a 21-year-old to feel the trajectory of his life has already been decided. Claiming it’s “too late” also feels a bit dramatic — apocalyptic, like I’m talking about saving a species from extinction or stopping climate change, not college graduation.
It’s not just me, though. Many of my friends feel a similar way. I know a computer science major who doesn’t enjoy programming but, seeing as he’s about to graduate, has resigned himself to a career in software engineering. The same goes for a friend studying biology; after thousands of dollars and hours spent on biology, medicine or a related field seems the only sensible option to her now.
Perhaps our education system is to blame — a funnel that too often forces us to contemplate next steps rather than revel in exploration. Or maybe, here at UC Berkeley at least, the desire for beelines has, in our collective psyche, outweighed the value of uncertainty. Both leave me unsure of how to navigate my own meandering path.
If only I had a rickety old wheelbarrow to lead the way.