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From Student to Stumped: How Graduating Made Me Question My Identity

November 14th, 2019     by Alexandra Few     Comments

Illustration by Mallory Taylor

Let’s throw it all the way back to kindergarten where my biggest accomplishment was correctly tracing the letter ‘e’ (I really celebrated that one). Fast forward to the start of primary school where from grades one to eight, I won the optimism award, the tenth-place ribbon in the hundred-meter dash (I’m not very athletic), and was involved in every school club. After graduating from public school, the next step was high school where I completed my forty-hours of volunteer service, learned the Pythagorean theorem, and connected with some really great friends and thoughtful teachers. In my last year of high school, the looming choice of going to College or University filled the hallways; you could feel the stress of decisions and deadlines in the air. For me personally, University was the logical next step, but at seventeen years old, I never truly understood what I was getting myself into - does anyone really? At such a young age, so many of us are asked to make this sizeable decision that can control the rest of our lives. Meanwhile, only a couple of years before, the biggest decision I had to make was choosing between watching Zoey 101 or That’s So Raven on TV that night.

Going to University made sense for me and my career goals, and so I did exactly that for five years; I graduated in April of this year. However, when I was almost finished my final year, I had this constant feeling of uneasiness of what I would do next, which I feel like nothing and no one really prepares you for. In public school the logical next step for most is high school, and after high school, some decide to go into the workforce or go to post-secondary. Even this stage comes with so much uncertainty due to how many choices there are. But after post-secondary, you’re thrown into the deep end and left wondering if you should continue on with school or dive into a career. I found comfort being a student, seeing as how I had been one since around five years old, and when I graduated University, I felt like that part of my identity was taken away from me. I know I’m not alone in those feelings, so I decided to ask some friends about their experience in relation to this, and here’s what they said:

“When I graduated from College, I knew I wanted to move out of my hometown, and absolutely nothing else. In the wake of not being a student for the first time since I was a kid, I felt unprepared and uncertain of what I should be doing. Everything you do suddenly feels like it could define the rest of your life, and I think that feeling is terrifying for a lot of people” – Julia, 24

“With only a couple weeks left until the end of my undergraduate degree, I am overwhelmed with anxiety and uncertainty of finding the career I have studied for. I have spent the last 6 months scrolling through job ads analyzing the requirements I would need to get a job in my chosen field. While I would love to spend the next 3 years in internships gaining experience I would need for these jobs, I am required to work my full-time job that is minimum wage, in order to live. While I am proud of earning a degree, I feel more anxious about life after graduation than I did earning the degree in the first place” – Sia, 22

“It’s wild how fast 4 years of undergrad went by. It went by so quick that I feel unprepared for life after University! I’m applying to graduate programs, but it’s still going to be scary leaving University and having to start all over again. I’m nervous, but also excited for the future” – Victoria, 21

“I have gone back to school a couple of times. First college to study journalism, but after graduating, I realized it was not something I wanted to pursue so I proceeded with University. I knew I wanted to become a psychologist, but when I completed my degree, I was lost as to how to pursue graduate school. No one really tells you how to go about pursuing your career aside from education, education, education. This was very distressing to me, which led to taking a year hiatus to sort through if I wanted to continue with the post-secondary system. I think the uncertainty of life after school has lead a lot of our generation to continuously pursue school almost like a job.” – Shanice, 26

Being in school was such a safety net. I got into the routine of going to class, writing essays, and preparing for exams. However, similar to my friends, when I was done I felt like I was dangling in thin air and was stripped of something I identified with for so long. Was I no longer a student just like that? Being wrapped up in school, I never particularly thought what life would be like afterwards. To be honest, I thought University was going to send me straight into a career, but oh was I ever wrong! I finished and realized I never really obtained the skills I would need for a career. So, there I was, stumped with all aspects of my life, all the while trying to discover who I was without being attached to everything that comes along with being a student.

I would like to tell you that I am now in a career and thriving after this loss of identity, but that’s not the case. I decided to go back to school for a post-graduate program, but at least it’s in something that I am passionate about! I know it may seem like I am staying with what’s comfortable by going back to school, and there is that possibility, but it’s different this time. By going through the uncertainty of that period of my life, it forced me to re-evaluate everything and allowed me to discover who I was and wanted to be. Now that I am a couple of months into the program, I am less terrified of what’s next because I know who I am now. In University I thought I knew who I was, but really, I was just connecting to my student identity. It took me no longer being a student, to then becoming a student again, to recognize there is so much more of myself left to discover.

Whether you’re in a similar situation as myself or are at a point in your life where you have to make heavy decisions about what comes next, I want you to know that uncertainty allows for discovery. Although I started a new program right away, there are so many folks who might take much longer before deciding what to do, whether that is school, a career, or life in general. It’s common to feel rushed to make life decisions, but by letting go of the pressure that disguises itself in many forms, it can allow you to recognize what you truly want for your life; at the end of the day, it’s up to you.

I think it can be really beneficial to look to others and see their approach when dealing with situations that we consider uncomfortable or unknown. This is why I feel it’s important to share some of the steps I took when dealing with the uncertainty I felt. They may have to be tweaked a bit depending on your situation, but these are some of the concepts and questions I asked myself when I was in that space of searching for who I was and who I wanted to become.

1. What values and core beliefs do I identify with?

It’s easy to say “I believe in this or that” but by sitting down and writing out your core beliefs and values, it can be really beneficial in uncovering what makes you, you. In a way, you’re creating your own personal philosophy! Some prompts that helped me were: _I value___, I respect___, I care about___, I aspire to be___, I always____. This quick exercise can help to organize your thoughts about who you are as a person, and it can also help to illustrate the qualities that make you who you are, which can be helpful when dealing with a loss of identity of any sort. When I graduated University, I had to realize that routine I did for five years, was no longer part of my life. I became so consumed with everything to do with that routine, that when it was over, I needed to sit down with myself and re-introduce me to me.

2. What are my goals and are they attainable?

In my case, my goals changed throughout my time at University. Near the end, I had to really stop and think about where I wanted my life to go, and if that was actually within reach. Being in a state of the unknown when I was finishing University and the feeling of loss I felt when I knew it was about to be over made every decision feel like it was going to make or break me. The most important part when thinking about where you want your life to go is to let go of the pressures and expectations that you put on yourself or that others put on you. Think about what you want to do - not necessarily right now but maybe in a couple of years. When I discovered the program I am in now, it didn’t come to me out of thin air. I had to think about what I wanted to do as a career, if it something I could enjoy long-term, and what steps I could take to get to that point. If you’re at a point where you’re unsure about something or you have several directions you think you could go in, explore each one! What goals would you have to meet in each scenario? From there, you can start to look at what’s realistic and authentic to you and you can start to build on what was lost from the feelings of uncertainty and the unknown.

3. I am afraid and that’s okay.

Fear is something I think is very important for everyone to recognize. The feelings that are associated with the unknown are so extremely valid! Those jitters we all feel when we start something new can also be felt when you complete something too. Before I decided on continuing with school, I was afraid to finish University and start this new chapter in my life. Being afraid always has such negative connotations, but I believe it is actually what drove me to discover what I wanted to do with my life. As you can see in the quotes that my friends wrote feeling scared or worried can be something that is almost expected when you start a new stage in life, but it doesn’t have to break who you are. Yes, I felt the loss of my “student identity” and it gave me all sorts of anxiety, but it was only by being at that point that I could truly think about what direction to take for my future; something I didn’t think of when I was in University.

I wish I could tell myself back when I was experiencing all of those negative feelings that come with loss, that when you lose one thing you do gain something else. Losing my identity as a student for that period of time allowed me to discover what my next chapter of life might look like. The key take-away? Don’t be afraid to question everything, even if that means questioning who you are as a person and where you want your life to go. One of the best ways to grow in my opinion, is to look introspectively and drown out the noise that comes with the uncertainty of what’s next.

About Alexandra Few: Hey, I’m Alex. I’m a twenty-something, astrology obsessed, iced coffee lover, and Netflix connoisseur. I spend my time scrolling through dog Instagram accounts and getting through my day with as little anxiety as possible.

Tags: anxiety, resources, selfcare

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