What It's Like When You Can No Longer Identify As A Student
Emily Kubincanek is a student at Point Park University, majoring in Creative Writing and Screenwriting. After graduation, she hopes to find a job in her field (if anyone could be so lucky).
I packed my Powerpuff Girls backpack a full two nights before my first day of preschool. It sat by the front door waiting for the day to come, full of glitter pencils, colorful folders, and an eraser the size of my hand. I couldn’t contain my excitement to meet friends and learn more than just how to write my name. Even as years went by and my education became more complex, I still felt that same excitement bubble in my stomach at the start of every school year. Buying brand new school supplies, comparing class schedules with my best friends, or getting ice cream after a perfect report card all contributed to this sense of self-definition: I am a student and this is what I do.
So much of adolescence is shaped around school; it's how we structure our days and define our personalities. Our interests are molded by our favorite subjects and our best friends are the kids we sit next to in class. For most of our lives, year after year, even as we move from middle school to high school and high school to college, our lives pivot around this same abstract concept.
Being a student provides us with a ready-made identity — and one that absolves us from individuating ourselves any further than we need to. This label builds a sort of barrier between us and the real world. Living in our "college bubbles" means exactly what it implies: that we've created a safe space to try things and to fail at them. It's at once unifying and exonerating; it give us that collective feeling that we're all this together while also baking in the underlying sense that everything is trial and error. Making mistakes is a part of the game, we're still learning after all.
I never realized how comforting it is to define myself as a student... until I was on the brink of having that label taken away. Calling ourselves students means we still have room to grow, more to learn, and time to figure it all out. This excuse for our inexperience is almost universally accepted. Students can be unsure of their career path. Students can be broke. Students can be confused. It’s a label we get discounts for and one we can hide under when we don’t know what we want from life. Graduation, however, forces the whole conversation into perspective and, ultimately, begs the question that haunts me most: What will I be when I’m no longer a student?
The fact that the answer isn't immediately clear is what's so concerning. My whole life I've treated school like my future depended on it — because it did. We were students before anything else, because we were told that was what matters most, and I always took pride in my grades and performed to the best of my abilities. Studying, working hard, and acing exams have all fed into the one directive my parents made sure to instill in me over and over again: Nothing comes before school. And I've operated under that belief for so long that I never found myself asking, but what comes after it?
Do we lose that sense of shelter from culpability the moment we flip our tassels? Must we become adults immediately — find a job, move out, and create stable lives for ourselves?
I mean, that's what we've been taught to believe, right?
But just as adults have forged a singular, monolithic image of students, so have students about adults. The closer we get to graduation, and the more friends we have out in the real world, the clearer it becomes that "adult" is just another label to hide under. Where we've defined students as "in progress," we've defined adults as "already there." Anyone graduating from college, however, should have a pretty clear idea they're not "already there" no matter what situation they find themselves in.
Life isn't just a light switch that flicks from "student" to "adult" in a matter of seconds. We haven't spent the whole of our teenage years pushing ourselves just to watch it all fade to black in our early 20s. We are works in constant progress. And although the expectation that we should have it all figured out by the time we graduate pushes harder and harder on us as we get closer to the deadline, we should take a second to remember how many other people before us have made this transition and still have very little figured out.
We have friends who are still jobless or are working in careers they're not interested in; we have friends who still live with their parents and who take on part-time jobs just to pay off their student loans. Although we hope desperately that we'll be different... we just can't know. And that's perfectly OK. That's because, ultimately, we're not supposed to have all the answers when we graduate. If we did, what fun would the rest of our lives be? It's important we don't burden the concept of adulthood with all the things that boxed us in when we were defining ourselves as students.
Because once we shed these labels we wear like security blankets, we are free to pursue our careers, make our own mistakes, and own up to them. We can continue to forgive ourselves for not having it all together because we know that image of the "perfect adult" isn't real and is, frankly, boring in the eyes of an individual with struggles and the perseverance to overcome them.
Graduation provides us with the impetus to recognize these limitations we've placed on ourselves, to acknowledge that defining ourselves as students has always been too broad to encapsulate individuals at different phases in our education and lives.
Only when we realize that any collectivizing term — student or adult — doesn’t fully account for everything that we are made of, can we truly allow ourselves to be individuals. We can't look at life like there's a finish line. No matter what phase in our lives we're in, we're always going to be works in progress. No one is perfect. Remember, if someone else looks like they really have it all, they’re just really good at faking it.
That's why I’m making the promise to myself to own every success and take responsibility for every failure I encounter after graduation. This is my opportunity to figure out who I am and who I want to be — and to own it. As terrifying as it all is, it’s even more exhilarating than that first day of school. Now if I can only find a Powerpuff Girls briefcase...