In a state of bittersweet: Thoughts from a graduating senior

Illustration of graduating students on Sproul
Ariel Lung/File

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If I had to pick a word to describe my current state of existence, it would be “bittersweet.” It wasn’t until recently, as exceedingly more experiences have brought me to the brink of tears while also launching an avalanche of excited butterflies in my stomach, that I realized I’m in a constant state of this oxymoronic feeling.?

As a second-semester senior, everything seems to be “the last.” The last time moving back to Berkeley after break. The last first day of school. The last Welcome Week. The last time registering an iClicker (although for many, also the first). The last college syllabus. The last semester.?

In May, I’m expected to enter completely uncharted territory. If you think about it, out of my 21 years of life, 15 of them have been spent in school — 18 if you count preschool. For the more analytical of us, I will break this down further. This is an average of about seven hours a day. Multiply this by the 180 days of school most districts require, and repeat for 18 years. This is about 22,700 hours of my life spent in school!?

I always loved school. While of course I complained alongside my classmates in high school about how much studying sucked, I never woke up actually dreading it. It wasn’t just the learning I enjoyed — it was the structure, the mandated time spent with friends, the possibility for reward if you worked hard enough and the long summers that made every stressful May worth it. In college, when it was finally cool to enjoy school, I thrived.

It wasn’t just the learning I enjoyed — it was the structure, the mandated time spent with friends, the possibility for reward if you worked hard enough and the long summers that made every stressful May worth it.

Everyone understands that going from elementary school to middle school and then again from middle school to high school is really scary. And we make a really big deal about moving to college. I’m not saying those moments weren’t scary for me — I had nightmares every night of the summer before middle school started — but thinking about it now, all of those were transitions from school to more school. And now, I am supposed to just transition from school to life??

The conversation is no longer “What classes are you taking?” — instead, it’s “Do you know what you’re doing next year? Where do you want to live? What kind of career are you going into?”?

These questions don’t have the same giddy effect they had when “what do you want to be?” was followed by a “when you grow up” and warranted a limitless array of possibilities because you had what seemed like an eternity to figure it out. Now, “what do you want to be?” refers to four months from now and is a question about your very real and (hopefully) well-calculated next step.?

My next step isn’t picked out of a course catalog, but instead from a combination of filtered searches on LinkedIn and Handshake mixed with a few handfuls of networking. The “lucky ones” are those who already have post-graduation plans, while the rest of us are competing for the handful of entry-level jobs we can find on the aforementioned platforms.

My next step isn’t picked out of a course catalog, but instead from a combination of filtered searches on LinkedIn and Handshake mixed with a few handfuls of networking.

As I sit crammed on my small balcony with my 11 housemates, some of us frantically searching for jobs while the lucky ones aimlessly scroll through TikTok, I realize that maybe I’m not the only one feeling this way. Maybe no one really knows what they’re doing. Maybe no one even really knows what they want to do.?

And even while we’re all in this limbo, partly trusting that it will work out and partly hanging onto our childhood like it’s a helium balloon in strong wind, at least we have each other. I think it’s okay for us not to know exactly what next year will hold and even to continue to hope that the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” can breed endless possibilities.?

And while it’s terrifying to think of all of it ending soon, it’s also exciting. Here we all are — eager, confused, excited and nervous — fused together by the ticking time bomb of college, using our ever-fleeting number of days to validate pretty much anything because it might be the last time. And then, after graduation, we still have our whole lives ahead of us. If that isn’t bittersweet, I don’t know what is.

Contact Frida Schaefer Bastian at [email protected].