About a month and a half ago, I graduated with my bachelors from New York University. It was a pretty grand affair. The Yankee Stadium was awash with a sea of purple and camera flashes, and while a sizeable portion of the student body was not impressed that their commencement speaker was David Boies, the lawyer who got Prop 8 overturned, I thought it was pretty rad.
However, I just could not muster up the enthusiasm to enjoy the ceremony. Around me, friends were congratulating each other, high-fiving, taking pictures of themselves in graduation regalia.
I just didn’t feel it. People were telling each other, “We did it!” But, what is it about “it” that we did that is so worth congratulating?
Perhaps I was reluctant to be ending a period in my life where I didn’t have to worry about finding jobs and entering the “real world?” Perhaps I was unhappy to be leaving friends I’ve made in my four years?
No, not really. University for me has always been a gateway for me to enter the world of journalism. I practically entered college with my major declared. No fudging around classes, wondering what life was going to be for me when I left college — no, I did college for what lies after. I was eager to start my foray into professional journalism. And no, while I had a handful of friends at college, my closest friends in the city were mostly outside of college (circus, online communities, etc), and the close friends I made in college are still in the city anyway. Also, it is not as if I am one to bemoan having to leave people behind; after all I am not stranger to uprooting myself. I left a lifetime of friends and family 9000 miles behind to be here.
What I was not enthused about was of the zeitgeist of “We did it!” What was particularly hard about college that surviving it made it an ordeal worth congratulating? A student who puts in conscientious and regular effort into his or her school work will find that making it to graduation is not that big a deal. Perhaps we now live in a culture where “keeping up the good work” has become a rarity and that one who displays it should be congratulated.
Or perhaps I grew up in a culture where such things are expected of you. Insert Asian stereotypes here, but verily making it to the finishing line doesn’t turn heads, doesn’t make eyelids bat. Distinctions do. I was not a spectacular student, and I even lapsed at school work at times, but I can say that I consistently put in effort in college, and I came out okay. I didn’t graduate with Latin honours, but my grades were not abysmal (3.5 out of a 4? I’ll take it.). I am sure if I put in more effort, I’d have gotten better grades and all that but that is no more than a numbers’ chase.
One’s path in college, no matter the classes taken, is predictable. One is expected to put in a certain amount of work into it, and at the end of the day, you come out unscathed and meeting expectations. Do we congratulate people for meeting expectations? Maybe we do, but people at graduation make it out to be such a big deal it is as if people enter college with the expectations that they are all going to flunk out, and that having made it to graduation actually is exceeding expectations.
Why would anyone want to enter college expecting to fail anyway?
What I would say “We did it!” to would be more of the unexpected things one does in college; things that a student endeavours at his or her own risk with no idea what the outcome would be. Things I would celebrate are:
- Having started a community of my own, the NYU Violet Circus Arts
- Making the effort to immerse myself in the local cultures, such as having performed at the Howl! Festival
- Learning to extend myself in ways I’d never have done back home, such as forming friendships online, etc
The common denominator of the above seem to be about forging and integrating into communities, and they don’t seem like much, but these are things that were quite unknown to me back home. Going to gaming meetups from Reddit groups? Would never even have touched Reddit back home. Talking to random poi spinners in the park and subsequently being introduced to the local scene of fire spinning and circus arts? People scarcely even publicly practice circus arts, and that’s not to say that there are very many.
In comparison, having done these as a student was above and beyond what I felt was expected of me as a student. The true growth came not understanding of linguistics and journalism in the classrooms, but from what I made myself do outside of them.