Laurie Essig Ph.D.

Love, Inc

The Romance of College Graduation

Recent grads can get trapped in the quest for perfection if they're not careful.

Posted May 26, 2013

I am a professor at Middlebury College. That means that on this cold and rainy Sunday in Vermont, I sat through my tenth or so college graduation. Like all graduations, it felt both silly and weighty. All these people in ridiculous costumes (mine involves a crushed blue velvet tam) doing ridiculous things, like moving tassels and throwing mortar boards into the air, can seem like a waste of a perfectly good Sunday. But there is something weighty about the rituals too, something that helps students move from the space of college into the world as graduates. And as a ritual with a lot of symbolic weight, the graduation ceremony has much in common with the wedding.

Like the wedding, graduation is a coming of age ritual. Also like a wedding, graduation is just the liminal space we must pass through to attain a new status. For engaged couples, marriage marks coming into new roles as husbands and wives, or wives and wives, or husbands and husbands. For college seniors, graduation marks their entrance into the "real world" as graduates. Both weddings and graduations cost a lot of money, even more if we drop out of marriage or school. And yet we are convinced that they are worth it because what comes after them will be better than what came before. For both those getting married this month and those graduating, there is a dangerous romance to these rituals, a fairytale like belief that once the rituals are over, they can find perfection.  

The week before graduation, seniors show up in my office to say "I don't know what I want to do with my life" and "What if I'm making a mistake doing fill in the blank after graduation?" It is as if they believe that as soon as they pass through the liminal space of graduating into graduated, a happily ever after will begin and life will be rational and completely knowable. I try to tell them the belief that they are supposed to be doing one particular thing is akin to believing your one true love is out there if only you could find him or her. This dangerous romantic belief has Americans constantly wondering if they married the "wrong" person and imagining every failed relationship as the result of not being with our "one true love" rather than the actual reasons relationships fail in conditions of contemporary family life. Rationally, most of us understand the reasons relationships fail are generally far more structural-- like jobs that demand all our time, shaky economies, a need to constantly relocate- or psychological- like all our many neuroses. But emotionally we see love’s failure happening because fairy godmothers forget to sprinkle fairy dust over our first meeting. 

Something similar happens with life for recent graduates. Questions like "Am I really supposed to be working on Wall Street?"  "Am I meant to join the Peace Corps?" are just as caught up in the fairytale that our lives are fated, written down in some big book kept by fairies in the woods as sitting around waiting to be swept off our feet. Jobs, like relationships, are not meant to be, but meant to be explored. Some will bring you great pleasure; others will feel like a trap. Life is not about the thing we are supposed to be doing anymore than love is about finding our "one and only." It's about the process. It's as messy as a break up and as unexpected as falling in love. We can find ourselves having made really bad decisions- ten years from now some graduates might be in a horrible marriage or fired, unemployed, even homeless. And yet, even those experiences are not the end of things. They are lives, albeit far less perfect and less shiny than the ones imagined by fairytales or graduation speakers. In the end, these imperfect, messy lives full of mistakes and regrets are the lives we will have. We will enjoy them more if we don't begin them looking for the perfect job, relationship, wedding, marriage, house, child, body, or even the perfect death.

Deep down, underneath the anxiety about graduating, I’m pretty sure my students know that.