A recent college graduate looks back to classes and forward to…what?

Sarah Zhang

Sarah Zhang, a 2010-2011 Berta Greenwald Ledecky Fellow at this magazine, is no longer a student at Harvard.

It was when I found myself envying the students in organic chemistry that I realized I had yet to get over college. This summer, after graduation, I spent 10 weeks on campus as a proctor for the Program for Research in Science and Engineering (PRISE). The proctor job covered lunch, but my options were limited to campus dining locations like Greenhouse Café, where I always encountered summer students drawing arrows around carbonyls. I suddenly longed for the days when I knew exactly what to learn and received a grade that reflected exactly how much I had learned. I wouldn't say I was good at organic chemistry, but I was very good at taking it—taking notes and exams, attending office hours. Being a student was what I knew—really all I knew.

How to be a working adult was a less familiar task. Proctoring left me free during the day, when I worked on a number of amorphous projects with amorphous deadlines. This is the life of a freelancer, except I wasn't quite comfortable calling myself a writer. Most of what I wrote was e-mails inquiring about opportunities. I fretted over them at length, trying to strike the right balance between professional and enthusiastic. I couldn't call myself a student anymore, a switch made all the more disorienting because I still lived on campus and ate dining-hall food. Student, after all, is the title I had been carrying for the past 16 years.

People I met over the summer would ask, “What do you do?” My most natural response would still circle back to school, as I replied that I had just graduated. Occupation is a foundation of modern identity, and I could now sympathize with the identity crisis that comes with unemployment. Actually, I couldn't even figure out whether I was employed. I often participated in psychology studies to earn pocket money, and the hardest questions were the standard demographic ones about employment and household income.

In fact, my wallet grew heavier after graduation, though not from gainful employment. If you dug through it, you'd eventually find my expired student ID. The piece of plastic that once granted me access to everything I could need—food, living space, the library—was buried behind a stack of other cards. In its place I had four separate cards that together granted me fewer privileges than it had: a meal card, a gym card that let me into facilities but not classes, a library card that let me into reading rooms but not stacks, and a “HARVARD UNIVERSITY SPECIAL” card that identified me as a PRISE proctor. Riffling through my wallet for the right card, I was reminded that my student identity had fractured into these pieces.

In the waning days of senior year, I had found it hard to reminiscence about Harvard because I was not yet leaving. Proctoring for PRISE meant extending college for another two months, a prospect that increased in appeal as May approached. I had participated in PRISE as a student the prior summer—10 glorious weeks that I cherish in memory. Proctoring was an attempt to recapture what was the last and best summer of my life as a student.

With its emphasis on the residential community, PRISE is meant to be a collective experience. Some students are prenaturally talented or lucky in their summer’s research, but most of us accomplish far less than we planned when we started. Disappointments are less crippling when not suffered alone: we traded the most spectacular ways our experiments had failed. (The winner, in my opinion, was a field trip to the Dominican Republic that went awry when officials demanded research funds and equipment as bribes.)

The many comforts of college that we don’t appreciate until it’s over include the simultaneity of it all: college is the ultimate collective experience. We were, more or less, in the same place in our lives, and our lives had a shared rhythm set by exam schedules and extracurricular activities. Organic chemistry was to be endured as a class. All-nighters, the stress of comping yet another club, even that seemingly terrible anxiety when an unrequited crush stopped replying to texts—all found easy commiseration on campus.

Then, dressed identically in black caps and gowns, we had our last hurrah together. The next milestones of our lives—promotion, marriage, moving halfway around the world—will catch each of us at different times. So we veer off into our separate lives with our separate wardrobes: business casual for the 9-to-5 set, business suits for those working 7 to 1 on Wall Street (that’s a.m. to a.m.), T-shirts for the travelers with fellowships or a summer to kill before graduate school.

During the summer, I dutifully traded e-mails and chatted with friends who had diverged into those separate spheres. They confessed the things they missed about college: friends in the dining hall, sleeping in until 11 a.m., the thinking demanded by schoolwork compared to endless spreadsheets. I didn't miss any of those things: I still had them all. Yet things had changed.

The dinner-table conversations were different because I wasn't doing research anymore. My life and the PRISE students’ lives were now asynchronous. And the six other proctors were all either going to med school or working on their applications to med school. In our conversations together, "secondary" was always used as a noun rather than adjective, referring to the second-round applications to individual schools. I had no interest in actually being a doctor, but I began finding the idea of medical school perversely appealing. However difficult, at least I’d be surrounded by people going through the same thing.

For my medical school-bound friends, the summer was an interlude before the next phase of their lives. My own disorientation came from being unable to figure out whether I was at an end (college), a beginning (life), or an intermission between the two. Should I be frantically working, or should I allow myself to relax on summer vacation? Ultimately, too on edge to relax but not focused enough to get much done, I did neither.

The fear that we may not yet be suited for adult life after all is, I think, one of those experiences we recent graduates do still share. In fact, I’ve been exceedingly self-conscious of falling into this postgraduate cliché.

Benjamin Kunkel writes in his novel Indecision, "To know the clichés are clichés doesn’t help you to escape them. You still have to go on experiencing your experience as if no one else has ever done it." But perhaps there is no need to escape clichés—knowing what you're experiencing has been experienced and endured by others means it’s not so terrible after all.

Read more articles by: Sarah Zhang

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