The Question Every Traveler, Millennial, and Retiree Is Asking

I spent last weekend on the Jersey Shore with three wonderful people, a final trip before my European excursion. Each day was filled with good food, naps on the beach and pure relaxation. On Saturday evening, I left my clothes on the sand and waded into the ocean alone. I ventured deep into the blackness until the warm salty water covered my arms and neck. Up above, starlight shone through holes cut in the construction paper sky and covered the world in a soft glow. I looked east—I’ll be crossing you soon, dear Atlantic Ocean— and out over the incoming tide. Here, in this liquid wonderland, the future felt limitless.

Many of my peers are struggling to make sense of their seemingly limitless future, a time  I affectionately call the Two Year Itch.  It’s been two years since college graduation and the collective plunge into the outside world. The newlywed phase of increased freedom and responsibility has been replaced with a less positive feeling. These young talented minds, taught to speak in tweets and think like CEOs, are currently  treading water wondering why the perfect job, career path or soul mate hasn’t floated by. Many are quitting/changing their jobs, moving to new cities or pursuing medical, law or graduate school. Some are married, more are in relationships and most are divided as to whether “being single” is the best or worst part of their young adult lives. I watch my friends and former classmates lift their heads above the water and gaze back toward shore, internally questioning their initial sense of direction and motivation. Under the dark blue sky, we ask ourselves the same question.

Where should I go from here?Map

This is not a question unique to the Millennial generation in 2014. This is a question for all of us: for every passionate activist, retired employee, single parent and widowed spouse. This question spurs doubt in our choices and fear of the unknown. We question our decisions or refuse to make them at all. Cracking the binding of a blank passport, we have no plane ticket, no itinerary and no planned destination. Time is of the essence and we have everywhere and nowhere to go.

Let’s take one step back and focus on the why. Why are we going? Where do we hope the going is going to get us? Sara Horowitz, founder of Freelancers Union, defines the “what” as meaningful independence:

“the ability to pursue your passions and your dreams, secure in the knowledge that

you’re connected to people, groups, and institutions that have your back.”

To me, this goal rings true. I must identify my passions and dreams so I may pursue them. I must surround myself with the people who can make these ideas happen in a supportive environment. The ocean is vast and the stars are bright.

Katelyn’s Five (of many) Goals and Dreams:

  • Backpack through Europe.
  • Live in New York City.
  • Carve writing into my daily routine.
  • Visit Hawaii. 
  • Work at a company with motivated and inspirational people.

Now make your list. Are the jobs, people and activities in your life working toward meaningful independence? If not, it might be time to make a change. Until then, just keep swimming.

Finding a New Occupation

The morning after college graduation, I packed up the remaining items still lingering in my bedroom, closet, and refrigerator before hugging quick goodbyes and heading home. There had been little to no time with which to process the last 24 hours: picnics, final grades, department lunches, and graduation itself complete with unyielding summer heat and 800+ black mortar boards suspended against the clear blue sky. We listened to our president congratulate us, his words reflected in the beaming smiles of our parents sitting nearby. There was a flurry of clapping, sitting, standing and clutching our shiny new diplomas as we moved into the position of Bucknell alumni. 

We smiled for what seemed like days, posed arm in arm those who mattered most in these short four years. People who evolved from nervous freshmen strangers to close friends and devoted confidants. I glanced hesitantly from face to face, their eyes reflecting my own dazed bewilderment. Had this moment come already? We were still recovering from Senior Week, a haze of lazy beach days, strong mixed drinks and skinny-dipping escapades. The sheer weight and finality of graduation was light against the horizon that had not yet dawned. No one had mentally prepared for the last memory of college life. Not a chance.

So I sat in the waiting room on Monday morning filling out new patient forms and pretending my life was going on as usual. Just another summer break. I scribbled in health insurance information, name, and date of birth as the rain beaded along the windows outside. Suddenly I froze, unable to answer the question just after the phone number, before the contact information. The line read: Occpation ___________. 

Now in another circumstance, it would be humorous to note that the individual writing up these new patient form had an occupation that did not include spelling or spell-check. At that moment however, I could only look blankly at the paper trying desperately to think of a suitable answer. When that failed I did what any self-respecting college graduate would do. Ask Mom.

Me: “Mom, what do I put under this line?”

Mom: “Put student of course. Wait….Oh.”

And there it was. Not 24 hours after graduation and already I was confronted with the very apparent reality that I was no longer a student. I had been unfairly accosted without any defense against the form’s incorrectly spelled inquiry. What is my new identity? Where do I belong? 

Transitions are never easy and I expect questions like occpation will continue in varying degrees over the next couple months. The life of a college graduate lacks all elements of routine, tradition and certainty. After high school, I followed my four-year plan along a paved road of sophomoric confidence. But that road has ended and I am left standing at the shore, beyond which lies an endless abyss of water and waves.

I waver unsteadily, counting the days when the sunlight touches the horizon and I can call out, “Land ho!” 

Final Finals Week

The end of the semester is a whirlwind. The last day of classes, a time for celebration, is short-lived. Finals week looms overhead like a dark thundercloud that releases a torrent of battered GPAs and hastily packed belongings. Students spend time hunched over flashcards or perched for hours in the corners of the library, face illuminated by gray computer screens. Long sleepless nights are fueled by espresso shots, unplanned naps, and fierce adrenaline only the fear of a failing grade can produce. As exams finish and the days accumulate, short tearful goodbyes are heard through the halls and across the quad. A common phrase “the last” becomes attached to thoughts and actions so seemingly mundane activities hold increased importance. The last time I’ll see you before going abroad. The last time we’ll live on the same freshmen hall. The last time I’ll eat in the caf.

I almost missed the subtle difference between the end of this semester and semesters in the past. The papers, exams, and expectations were the same. The cups of coffee and time spent furiously revising the perfect conclusion paragraph reflected any other finals week. I watched my underclassmen friends pack up their SUVs and move futons from their cramped dorm rooms into storage units for the summer months. Yet whenever I attached “the last” to a completed activity, the weight of my words hung heavy  as they slipped into the air.

Approximately 43 minutes ago, I emailed my final assignment off to my professor.

“I have attached my personal reflection. Thanks for a great semester. -Katelyn”

And that was it. I would be lying if I told you a fanfare sounded or a chorus of voices floated through my open bedroom window. The only confirmation I received signifying the end of my 19 year academic career was a Gmail text box. Your message has been sent. Time to move on.

Tomorrow I will pack up and travel with four best friends to Hilton Head, South Carolina for a 7-day extravaganza affectionately known as “Senior Week.” This migration happens across the campus as people pack up and drive down south for one last hurrah. This is the time for reliving the past four years of our undergraduate experience with strong drinks and stronger friendships. It will be glorious and fleeting– a beautiful sunset that disappears as soon as the camera lens clicks into focus.

So bottoms up to the last of many things and the first of many more. Image