“What are your post-grad plans?” “Are you excited to graduate?” “You’re going to be a real adult in the real world soon!” If you’re graduating soon, there’s no doubt you’re bombarded by these questions on an uncomfortably regular basis. Perhaps (like most of my STEM friends) you’ve already got a job lined up— you’re set, you’re good to go. Or maybe you’re more like me, in a state of “I’m not sure exactly what I want to do yet.” Regardless of whether or not we know what our future looks like, we will all be graduating and leaving college behind forever. To some, this might sound like a dream come true. To others, though, facing the reality of moving on from the lives we established and lived for years is crippling. I fall more into the latter group, as I’m a particularly nostalgic person who’s loved her college experience. Coupled with the fact that I’m prone to semi-frequent existential crises under normal circumstances, the idea of graduating has certainly made me spiral.
Graduation around the corner means that I’ve been doing a lot more of what I call time traveling.
Not the typical sci-fi, Back-to-the-Future sort of time traveling, of course. I’ll often find myself wandering off in thought, thinking about a specific time period so deeply that I feel as though I’m transported back into the exact moment again. It’s usually evoked by very particular things— a certain floral scent that reminds me of my days as a dog-walker, strolling through the quiet, nature-y neighborhoods of Westwood during the spring, or a certain song that reminds me of hot summer days driving along PCH to the beach with the windows down. Being presented with an event as grandiose as college graduation adds an entirely new dimension to time travel.
This recent time travel to the past has allowed me to appreciate the personal growth I’ve made over the past four years at UCLA. For instance, just the other day, I attended the first lecture of the quarter for the class that I’ve tutored for the past two years. I walked into the quiet room a few minutes early carrying my Spikeball net, as I was going to play later with friends. After a few minutes chatting with the professor and explaining the game of roundnet (he looked perplexed when I first arrived), I took a seat in the front row. When the class started, the professor introduced us tutors before continuing on with the lecture.
It sounds like a pretty ordinary moment, but four years ago I would have never predicted it. Four years ago, I entered the same lecture hall to take my very first philosophy course. Like most of us during our first classes at college, I was nervous— when I walked in, when I picked a seat, when I thought about how I compared to my peers academically. Every lecture, I frantically typed out every word the professor said because I had no idea what I was doing. I distinctly remember seeing my TAs— walking confidently into each class and taking their designated seats in the front row— and looking on with admiration at how composed and capable they seemed.
Now I’ve come to embody the sort of person I once looked up to.
I’m much more sure of myself as a person— a natural result of the passage of time. I can feel it in the way I carry myself, walking and speaking confidently. I can feel it in the way I don’t fret about how I look or act in a crowd. Most of all, I can feel it in the way I just feel calm. Although we all know that the silly things our insecure selves worry about (like the opinions of others) truly do not matter, it’s a completely different thing to feel it for yourself.
Beyond that, I’m much more confident in regard to academics. I know that philosophy is what I’m meant to be studying because I’ve found that it is my passion. I am unaffected by how I fare intelligently against my peers. I work hard at everything I do, and for that I can always be proud of myself. All that matters is that I’m learning and putting my best foot forward always.
Time travel back to the past brings a lot of positive feelings. Though it is easy to think about the past with a critical perspective and cringe at our past selves (so young, so naïve), I’ve learned that doing so does no good. For it is precisely these periods of self-development that are essential for our becoming who we are now. It’s a wonderful thing to take a step back, be proud of the growth you’ve made and appreciate all the events on the winding path that has placed you here today— on the verge of graduating college.
Besides looking back on the past and feeling nostalgic and grateful, I’ll also catch myself time traveling forwards. This is where I begin to lose it. I oftentimes feel very aware that the activities that I do now in my day-to-day life are the exact activities I will look back on one day in the future only as a distant, fond memory. The present I am living now is in some sense just a period of time I will look back on the way I currently look back on the past.
This reality is what I struggle to come to terms with.
Precisely because I enjoy my life the way it is right now and spend my time doing the things I love with the people I love, the knowledge that it’s going to be forever changed soon makes my heart sink. I’m not afraid of change— change is always inevitable. Rather, I find myself frozen by the sort of future nostalgia I feel in knowing that these are the days I will miss so dearly. The fact of the matter has always remained the same— we are going to graduate, and these lives we once knew will be a thing of the past— but my emotional stance toward this fact is what I had difficulty changing.
By simply sitting through these uncomfortable, existential feelings (rather than avoiding them), I’ve come to feel much more at peace with the notion of graduating and leaving my life at UCLA behind. The passage of time is, of course, a natural phenomenon— it moves on whether or not we want it to. All we can do is appreciate each moment for what it is and accept the bittersweet knowledge that it will pass. There’s a French word I often think about called des vú— the knowledge that this moment will become a memory. Before, I would crumble at this truth; but now, it simply allows me to feel gratitude for each moment of each day— talking with friends, going to sports games, even just walking to class.
What I’ve learned in allowing my once bleak thoughts to swirl around my mind is that existential crises about graduation don’t have to be a negative thing. Though a lot of us love our lives right now and will miss them dearly, it is a reality we must face. That doesn’t mean it has to be a reality that cripples us. Taking time to reflect on the growth we’ve made between our past and present selves should allow us to feel excited for what’s to come. We should feel only optimistic about the growth and experiences our future selves will have.