What’s Past is Prologue

May 16th was commencement for Berkeley’s Linguistics Department this year. I had forgotten that at large universities, each department has a separate ceremony, and they do not all occur on the same day. I went to the Linguistics graduation ceremony to support my friends who were to receive their BAs and PhDs. As a student currently in between those two milestones, it felt, oddly, sentimental yet… anticipatory, somewhat? (Excuse my ineloquence. Why does English lack a word to describe nostalgia for the future? I want to express the feeling that comes with knowing what is to pass and deeply appreciating it.)

As each undergraduate Linguistics major walked across the stage, a professor in long robes and a funny hat read their name and a short blurb about their post-college plans. Some of them were immediately going to graduate school, others entering the workforce. A surprising number declared that they were going to look into careers in speech pathology. But it was the many variations of, “I’m not sure what I’m going to do next!” that struck me the most. Aside from the wry humor derived from such frank self-deprecation, I couldn’t imagine what would lead someone to publicly announce what amounts to their failure to have anything lined up after completing their formal education.

“Philip will go home and spend a few months figuring out what he wants to do.”

“Tracey isn’t sure what’s next, but she will hopefully find out soon.”

“Sam plans to get a job with whomever will hire him.”

I’m sorry for calling it a failure; that sounds too harsh. I’m well aware of the difficulty of gaining employment for this generation of recent graduates. And it’s not like I stack up well in comparison: rather than risk having the same nebulous itinerary, I simply left the country and landed in a field that’s always happy for more fresh recruits. But even if I had had nothing to write on that little green card before I walked, or at least nothing dignified, I don’t think I would have been able to make a joke instead. Clearly, I have too much pride. Surely a college graduate should be able to do something, anything, besides “go home and find himself”!

Well, the honest truth is that my future plans were, when I graduated three years ago, superficially well-laid but at their core just as directionless as those of, say, Diana, who “would like to stay in the Bay Area but maybe also travel.” I had vague notions of wanting to become a teacher and also of continuing my education, but neither idea was very concrete, nor did any genuine passion underscore them. A lot of it was hand-wavy equivocation meant to impress the easily-impressed and ward off further probing.

Two years later, I found myself on track to enter graduate school. And now, as I write this, I am one-fifth or one-sixth of the way toward a doctoral degree in Linguistics. Is this what I wanted? When exactly in the past three years did my future plans change, if at all? Or did the Institution simply work its subtle magic and give me its own arbitrary goal to pursue?

The sentimentality I felt when the undergraduates walked was a combination of pride in their achievements and inwardly-directed curiosity about what could have been. Because when the graduate students walked, the unidentifiable emotion I felt was distinctly grounded in the acknowledgment that the next few years of my life have been very clearly delineated. I’m finding it hard to explain, but I was thinking, “How wonderful that my friends have finished graduate school! Hm… I will be there in a few years, too.” However, it wasn’t thought with hope or excitement. Just… profoundly-rooted assurance. I know what I’m going to do, and I’m content with it; yet I still couldn’t say with unblinking conviction that it’s what I most ardently desire. And a little voice in my head is telling me that this is not quite the right feeling to feel.

Thankfully, my insecurities were addressed in a speech that my friend Emily gave about how to get through graduate school. It was full of cute and touching stories about the small things — tokens of kindness from professors, bouts of friendly commiseration with cohort members, and the like — that were integral to surviving the grueling uphill battle of academia. “It takes a village,” she quoted, to mint a PhD. It takes everyone’s support for one person’s perseverance to triumph. It takes them all being generous with help when asked, for one to learn how and why to help others.

I think that I have yet to discover the cooperative vision behind the ideal graduate school experience. To begin with, I should shed my disdain for those who have no plan, since I am admittedly no further along in life than they. And at the same time, I can allow myself to believe that maybe I’m not the only one who still has no idea what he’s doing here or why. The struggle, as they say these days, is real, to the point that I’ve been explicitly advised by my seniors to seek help, even when I don’t want to acknowledge my need for it.

Humility, generosity, perseverance, and encouragement: these are the positive qualities that the community of the ivory tower needs. I am certain that our graduates have, in one way or another, been able to develop them over the course of their educational careers at Berkeley. It is my hope that I can do the same. And when I emerge on the other side, with my diploma, my hood, and my own funny hat, I must remember to pass on the advice I am trying now to ingrain, even if, even then, I have no idea what I’ll be doing next.

My most heartfelt congratulations to the Class of 2015! (Sorry about making this post all about myself… again.)


Word of the Day: saudade, which is not an English word, always comes to mind when I’m trying to come up with synonyms for nostalgia. But nostalgia implies pleasant remembrances of the past, whereas saudade is an emotion that wraps up melancholy and joy in one and stretches from the past to present and future unknowns. To have saudade for a person is to yearn for them with the intensity of lovers who will never reunite. It is a sad and beautiful concept, but it is not one that I have ever known, which is why I am still trying to come up with synonyms for nostalgia. (Oh, and it’s Portuguese, with (questionable) etymological origins in either saudar, meaning “salute, greet”, or a Latin word meaning “solitude”.)


About Andrew C.

I'm a grad student at UC Berkeley.
This entry was posted in life, musings, school and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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