College Activists, Just Because You Graduate Doesn't Mean Your Work Is Done
College seniors like myself only have six to seven weeks left in their last semester of college. Depending on how intent you are on pretending this isn't happening, you can lay in your bed in the afternoon “just because it's raining” forever. I don't know if you're feeling the effects of burnout, but I definitely am.
I think you thought you were the kind of person who thought your last few weeks to be smooth sailing. At this point, you thought you'd be totally zen. You thought you'd be accepting of the oft-repeated truths that you're still at the beginning of your life and work, that you will stay connected to the people you've met and that yes, you will find time to savor an afternoon nap again.
You do know these things, but you also have feelings, like a normal human. Congratulations. Let me break it to you: it's OK to feel sad. It's OK to feel worried about what's next. It's OK to look back on your choices and wish you had made different ones. It's OK. It's all OK.
You think a lot about what it means to be coming to the end of the activist campaign you started on campus with some of your best friends four years ago. Many of those people are not even involved now. There are wonderful, younger people in their place who give you faith that the fight will continue.
Still, what does it mean to have poured your blood, sweat and tears into something for the past four years and walk away? Just like every trite piece on people below the age of 30 points out, that's almost a fifth of your life.
I just want you to keep a few things in mind, many of which can be credited to the smart people around you:
1. It's not all about you.
If you won the campaign, you wouldn't take credit for the whole thing because that would be inaccurate. If you “lose” the campaign, whatever that means, you can't take credit for that, either.
You are one small person who cares (a lot) in a big world with a lot of problems. You are not going to shut down the fossil fuel industry (stop mass incarceration, achieve wage equality, etc.) on your own. You are not going to save the world. That should be more of a relief than anything.
The best possible outcome is to position yourself to be a witness to the magic that happens when people come together to fight for each other. Hopefully, a helpful witness. Not the kind of witness who interrupts people and eats all the free pizza then leaves.
2. Manage your energy, not your time.
It's kind of a paradox. On one hand, there will never be enough time to do all that you want to do. On the other, time is flexible . You can always push a deadline or reshape your plans to fit in the time you have.
If you don't have time, you can make it. If you don't have the energy, you're stuck. If you don't take care of yourself health-wise, if you don't actively seek out the inspiration and connection that keeps you motivated, if you don't make room for joy in a line of work that is really stressful, you won't show up in a way that's useful to you or anyone else.
You won't have breakthroughs. You won't have the emotional capacity to empathize with your opposition. You won't be able to rally a crowd. Actively put effort into feeling healthy and positive whenever possible, and the time you do dedicate to your activism work will be well-spent.
3. Dwell on (and learn from) your actions rather than your outcomes.
You could run a “perfect” campaign (whatever that means to you) forgoing all other commitments, and you may still not get your demands met for a variety of reasons. Your outcomes are not completely under your control. But you make the best decisions you can with what you have, where you were. Reflect, make some adjustments and keep going.
4. You may never know what all the outcomes are.
That person who came to one meeting and never came back, whom you kick yourself for not connecting with? They weren't ready to work on the campaign this semester. In two years, they may look back to that one meeting, quit their job and become an inspiring organizer in their own right.
That administrator who blocked your demands at every path? They may go home to their spouse and say, “Damn, I know they're right, but I just can't bring myself to fight for it.”
Those thousands of weekly newsletter emails you sent out, that you thought no one reads? Some alumni may be reading them every week, thinking that our generation may not be totally apathetic and that maybe our world isn't completely screwed.
5. You are capable of more than this.
Being a student activist does not have to be the end of your engagement with the world. You have done a good job of leveraging your unique identity as a student to access the power and privilege that comes with your institution. And you have shifted it . Even if it's a slight shift, you have moved a behemoth.
When you are no longer a student at this particular institution, you will form a new identity and become part of a new community and a new fight for change , even if it looks different from handing out petitions on College Walk. That is who you are. You couldn't stop doing it if you tried.
6. You are not your campaign victories.
You simply cannot stake your self-worth on how the world reacts to you living out your values. It is not helpful, it is not true and it is not going to inspire you to continue the work. That kind of outlook will only push you to seek out easy victories.
There are a lot more questions to ask yourself than “Am I winning?” For example, "Am I learning and trying new things?" "Am I different than the person I was a few months ago?" "Am I surrounded by people I can rely on, and can they rely on me?" "Am I doing that self-care thing?" "Do I help people become who they want to be?" "Are my actions in line with my values (note: “winning” is not a value)?" "Am I having fun (*gasp*)?"
That was a lot, I know. Maybe I was hoping I could drown your anxiety in a sea of advice. But to go back to the beginning, it is OK to absorb all of these words and to still feel some type of way about endings.
It is also OK to be really excited, somewhere deep inside, at the prospect of starting something completely new and not looking back. That is not “giving up,” it's moving forward and making space.
One last thing: Activism will never get you an A+.
It will never get you a cookie or an award. It will never give you complete satisfaction. But it gives you these moments where you think, "I really, really, really did the best I could." If you've found a cause, a community or an idea that pushes you in that way, just hold on and enjoy the ride.