It's been slightly over a year since I wrote "The Gap Year: A Post-Graduation Exploration" for The Huffington Post. I was in the middle of finishing my senior year at the University of Toronto, and had begun pondering the very scary scenario of taking a "year off" between my undergraduate and graduate degrees. This would mean that for the first time in sixteen years, I would not be returning to school come September, and would be dipping my toe into the much anticipated "real world," free from semesters, exams and being graded at every point.
My reasons for taking a year off were more than just having a little fun before completing a grueling graduate degree. I was genuinely confused about the next stage of my life, whether doing graduate school at all was indeed right for me, and whether the path and interests that I was pursuing up until this point were really what I wanted to pursue for the rest of my life, or if something better was waiting out there for me and I just needed the breathing room to find it.
Now, nearly a year later and halfway through my so-called year off and seemingly no closer to figuring out what I want to do with my life, I've learned that the real world is pretty damn scary. I always suspected as much even before I collected my diploma and was let loose last June, but the reality hit me harder than I could ever have imagined while safe and warm in the university bubble.
Some things were jarring but quick to get used to, such as losing those valuable student discounts (and in the process going through the epiphany of oh-my-god-I'm-a-real-adult-now), while others I am still struggling with: losing an immediate purpose in course work and essays, and redesigning my life to fit a reality that isn't defined by four-month time chunks like semesters and summer holidays.
To try to make sense of the smorgasbord of feelings that overcome any student when they eventually face this reality, I've tried to weave out three things that I have found the most challenging to deal with since saying goodbye to the classroom:
1) Transitioning from a 'student' to a 'fill in the bank': Losing the student discounts was one thing. But what was more traumatizing was losing the ability to call myself a "student," and being suddenly viewed the same as the 49-year-old marketing executive sitting next to me on public transit, both as adults. The fact was, being a student was so wrapped up into my identity for sixteen years that without it, I didn't really know who I was. Being a student came with clearly defined social scripts and expectations, and simply declaring, "I'm a student" brought understanding and told most of your story to the outside world. The second I received my diploma on graduation day, I had suddenly transformed from a "student" to 20-something unemployed adult in search of a new identity while mourning the loss of an old one. Which brings me to the next scary truth about the real world...
2) Finding a job is actually really hard. Big spoiler alert, right? It really should be no surprise that new graduates are facing one of the toughest job markets in recent decades, especially those with non-technical, artsy degrees like mine. But I figured that I had done well enough in university in setting the groundwork for a job, that I would send out a few emails and BAM! I was on to the career of my dreams.
Hint -- it didn't quite turn out like that.
What I originally thought would be an easy foray into the work world after taking a couple of weeks off suddenly became a bittering reality of simply just how hard it is to find a full time, paying job out there, even something to just hold me over until graduate school. Probably one of the best things that I'm learning during this grueling and sometimes depressing job search is to never take success as an easy expectation. Just like writing a paper in college required intensive research, casting a wide net for resources, and several focused hours, so does finding a job, and to be truthful, I hadn't been approaching it like that before.
So now I'm a bit wiser. I'm visiting my alma mater's career centre for advice and seminars, checking out career strategy books from the public library, and having coffee with old mentors. And even if I go back to graduate school and don't need a job for the long-term yet, I'll never underestimate the exhausting, confidence-defeating job search process again. Because with every job rejection and ever step sinking into directionless abyss, you're constantly reminded that...
3) There's no report card on life.
Perhaps the hardest and scariest part of real life is that you'll never know if you are doing the right thing. For all of your existence up until now, you were aware of the minimum passing mark to move on to the next grade, received progress reports, marks on a transcript that told you exactly how you were doing, and it felt good to meet and exceed those benchmarks.
When you're on your own, you only have your own benchmarks to pass, if that at all, and that can lead to some scary thoughts.
"Am I doing the right thing? Am I on the right path? Are my own standards too high? Too low? What is everyone else doing? What if I don't end up being successful?"
It's moments like those that make you wish you can somehow see into the future, be assured and guaranteed that everything turns out okay, and work backwards from that.
Unfortunately, life is not like that.
And that's what makes it scary, exhilarating, anxious and wonderful all at the same time.
So as I move on forward in my year off that might very well lead to me never returning to school, I'm learning to deal with these fears, insecurities, and realities of what it means to exist without school. And all I can really do is learn from my mistakes, remain optimistic, and feel comforted by the fact that I'm not alone and eventually, everyone gets through it.