When I talk to my friends about graduating college, they often evoke a feeling of “loss” to describe transitioning from being a college student to being a young professional. They claim to lament the absence of responsibility for living in a sheltered space to explore their interests, but I venture to guess there’s also mourning for this period of radical change — where opportunity is infinite but capability is finite.
The unfortunate part of our limited spatial existence is that there’s no way to reclaim time once it has passed. Once you are born, once you graduate college, once you listen to Lana’s Chemtrails Over The Country Club for the first time, there is no way to go back and experience everything again (not that I actually liked the album; I just like the aesthetic of listening to Lana Del Rey). The media often portrays college as this space of novelty and liberation from living for the first time in absence of parental supervision. The media also portrays college as this space of lounging where evidently no one studies except in shared community spaces. Although I find most media portrayals of college to be annoyingly inaccurate, I think there’s some truth in a college experience defined by a couple memorable moments that fundamentally define our values for the next couple of years following college.
In many ways, college was the space to overcome the identity we were inherited by granting us the ability to choose in the absence of influence for the first time. Prior to college, we were influenced without the ability to recognize and reject influence. We aren’t entirely free from the force of influence in college, but we are able to actively choose whether we want to be influenced or not. At the very least, we are able to decide if we agree more with the culture or the counter culture of the school we attend, and we are able to choose an identity out of it.
But with choice comes opportunity cost. Sometimes, we aren’t able to realize our choices for a variety of reasons ranging from incompetence to recalcitrance. Sometimes, we aren’t able to achieve what we set out to achieve because we didn’t have the capability at the time. Other times, we are so obsessed with this image of what we thought ourselves to be that we reject the possibility of crafting another identity altogether. We all enter college with different abilities but with the same potential to become what we want to become. Our regret derives from the fact we are never able to achieve as much as we set out to achieve.
Something I’ve been curious about lately is the terminal point of identity where change comes in “tweaks” as opposed to “sweeps”. When we are born, we largely learn to adopt our parents’ system of values, which starts when identity starts to form itself around childhood and lasts until late adolescence. This is the placeholder identity until we actively choose to formulate our identity. Whenever we gain independence from our parents in one area, we shed the placeholder identity we inherited from them and continue to formulate identity by proxy of the people with whom we surround ourselves. When we go to college, the large majority of our social and political identity is formed through our education and relationships. After we graduate college, we formulate our economic identity as we become financially independent from our parents.
We change forever until the end of our lives, so there nothing necessarily “final” about identity at any point in time, but there is something predictable about how our identity changes over time after a certain point in our lives. At a certain age, we start to change less than we did previously. At a certain point, we reach an inflection point where subsequent changes in identity are reactions to environmental stimuli as opposed to some sort of elementary shift in the fundamentals.
I think identity formation follows the same S-curve as a lot of startups. Obviously, there’s no way to quantify change in identity in the same way you can quantify change in revenue. But, if there was, the S-curve would be the function to describe change in identity, normalized across a population.
For someone who believes in self-determinism, I actually have a lot of reservations on how free we actually are because there are only certain windows when identity is formed; the rest of life is justifying the actions we have performed in the name of our identity. When we are babies, we have unlimited potential ahead of us. We could become whatever we want to be. This is still largely true when we go through the schooling system. After we graduate and land our first job, however, there are some material restrictions ahead of us. Then I can only assume more and more responsibilities pile on.
My high school yearbook quote was: “Life starts at the end of your comfort zone.”
I thought it was super deep at the time because I didn’t really step outside my comfort zone until sometime at the end of high school, but later my friends told me that it was a quote every teenage girl set as their Instagram bio. Unlike many teenage girls, I don’t think I ever moved out of my teenage girl phase. I still like the look of string lights, poloroid photos, scented candles, and fake edgy jewelry, which is littered all across my bedroom.
More appropriately, what I think I was going after was this idea of that you can only perceive your life through the change you experience. For that reason, I think we as humans are a lot more “alive” than plants. Humans change; plants don’t change. Not that I’m trying to say that the only way to live is to change — because it’s not — but there’s something uniquely formative and revealing about emotional vulnerability and the identity that brews out of it.
There are a lot of people who say that your college years are the best years of your life. I don’t think I particularly had a good experience in college, so I can’t say I agree. I think college is more fun than high school, certainly, but I think adolescence in general is a pretty shitty time to be alive. Vulnerability marks a time of change. But change, for the most part, is pretty unenjoyable. No one likes feeling vulnerable, and we do a lot of things to mitigate our feelings of vulnerability. We seek change in order to escape vulnerability. By the time we are able to overcome our vulnerability, change is not really within our incentives anymore. It’s much easier to chill for the rest of your life than to decide to be vulnerable again.
College is more unqiue in the sense it takes place in your early twenties as opposed to being unqiue because it’s an educational experience. The closest thing to going to college again is getting an MBA or PhD, but that’s more of a new experience as opposed to a do-over of an existing experience. There’s not much novelty in those experiences. MBAs are more of a prolonged networking event than a genuine learning opportunity; PhDs, on the other hand, are definitely a learning opportunity and definitely not a networking event. These degrees, unlike college, are continuations of our existing identities than the radical formation of our identity itself. We already know what kinds of people we want to be when we go into MBAs and PhDs, but we don’t know what kind of person we will be when we come out of college.
In the last weeks of college, I don’t recall having feelings of sentimentality or longing, just a sense of confusion and indifference to the entire endeavor. Like… that’s it?
What struck me as particularly strange at graduation was the idea this was as much as I have changed in college. It felt as if I havent changed enough. Everyone says that you change a lot in college — and surely I have changed quite a bit — but when you’re in college you never really think about how the end of college marks the end of the time you would be able to change in college. It’s this abstract concept: the “end” of anything that doesn’t ever seem particularly real. When you are in college, you don’t think about the end of college, and when you graduate college, you also don’t think about the end of college. It’s one phase of life transitioned seemlessly into something else, and there aren’t any grand markers one identity ends and another begins.
Something that always struck me as odd being human and all is that we’re not particularly good at perceiving change in ourselves. In Chinese culture, a big thing is mentioning how someone has changed in weight since you last saw them (I am frequently reminded that I am fatter every time every time I visit my cousins), which denotes intimacy through noticing change. We have to rely on other people to tell us how we have changed because all change to us seems incremental and inperceptual but change to others seems very jump-y.
Right now, I am here. I don’t feel particularly vulnerable anymore, and that probably means I won’t be changing anytime soon, until something happens in my life that makes me vulnerable again. All that I will ever change in college has already been set, not because I’m being dramatic but because literally college has ended for me. The possibilities that we laid out when we were younger about what person would we turn out in college… it’s set. And now we have the rest of our lives to live out the identity we have formed in college.