Note: for the sake of the interviewed individuals’ privacy, details regarding each person’s name, major, nationality, and some other distinguishing features are omitted or disguised using less specific phrases, unless said feature is vital to understanding the point. Instead of names, I will refer to them by Chinese numerical aliases one through four: Yi, Er, San, and Si.
“You don’t feel proud of not having your future figured out. It feels like that’s what’s expected of you, coming out of college.” Si blinked at me seriously, voicing a sentiment that had been a common thread through all of my interviewees for this article. Said sentiment seemed composed of any number of things: the Regrets of the Past, the Self-Doubt of the Future, the general Uncertainty of the Present. If there is ever a circumstance when those things are likely to converge at a single point, it is when an imminent college graduate still has no plan for their post-graduate future.
The students of the inaugural class of NYU Shanghai – the Class of 2017 – those fabled pioneers – are graduating in just under two weeks. With little time to catch up this busy final semester, the most common question on many seniors’ lips when we run into each other has probably been: “Do you know what you’re doing post-graduation?”
For some, it’s a casual question; for others, an anxious one. Part of the anxiety is basic self-imposed or society-imposed pressure, but the school’s own approach to my classmates’ post-graduation futures has unfortunately augmented such worries.
Near the end of April, an NYU Shanghai employee shared this video in the Alumni WeChat group, excitedly asking us all to share it on our social media pages. Cheesy dubstep pounding in the background, the video asks (in case you haven’t clicked on that link), “What do seniors do after NYU Shanghai?”
It proceeds to list out job offers. Some of the ones I recognized were Adidas, Bank of China, Deloitte, Teach for America. There are more, but the point is that the list was clearly of brands the school thought might be recognizable to donors or potential students.
Then, universities: Cambridge, Harvard, Princeton, etc., “and of course NYU…to name a few.”
The first couple of replies were celebratory, but negative response quickly took over. “This video does not represent our class in the least bit…thank you for sharing though.” “That’s the most generic video I have ever seen and doesn’t represent anything.” “That video is disgusting.” “Can we request it be removed?”
Some genuine conversation followed, discussing the merits of using such achievements as “propaganda” for new students and donors, as opposed to advertising a more romantic sensibility expressing the unusual mixture of ideas and minds and cultures resident at NYU Shanghai. The final comment on the matter, however, (paraphrased) was: “That video makes me feel like a failure.”
* * *
Our school is so new, and so precarious in its position, that it surely makes sense, on a whole host of political and administrative levels, to be advertising as strongly as possible the assured successes, graduate and professional, of the Class of 2017. But I think I speak not just for NYU Shanghai seniors but seniors everywhere when I say that if we are told (or have it heavily implied to us) that we ought to have things figured out by the end of senior year, it can be damaging to one’s self-confidence and to one’s courage to explore different avenues.
It is admittedly difficult to tell how much of that feeling is self-imposed stress versus truly school- or society-imposed. Yet another classmate remarked to me that it is easy to feel “judged for not having a job or fellowship straight out of graduation. And for wanting to focus on grades now and then use summer to get your shit together. And worrying that it’s the worst decision of your life. That…everyone’s going to get ahead of the game and you’re going to be unemployed forever.”
I wanted to give voice to some of my classmates who are a little less certain about what they are doing. I wanted those who feel uncertain to know that they are not alone, and have it explicitly stated to them that it is does not have to be a bad thing. I thus scouted out four people to interview about their very uncertain futures. As of two weeks before graduation, they have no specific plan. I include their voices below, and I want to emphasize that not everything they say is not necessarily my own viewpoint – I opted to try and tell their story rather than use their words to tell mine.
* * *
INTERVIEWEE #1: YI
My first interviewee took the GRE and started applying for jobs last fall – yet as of early May, is still looking, applying for jobs, summer vacancies, and for grad school “in the international business communications track.” As a non-American student, the biggest thing Yi bemoans is that NYU Shanghai cannot provide OPT visas – which many international students attending United States universities use to stay in the US post-graduation and work in a field relevant to their major for one year (and thereby look for more permanent work as well).
Yi strikes a cautious balance between support for the success of her classmates and a kind of disillusionment with the mission of the school. On the one hand, she states, “I’m happy for them, it’s good that [our classmates] are doing well so people will know what kind of students we are….At the same time I feel pressured….What’s worse is, I feel what they’re emphasizing right now is completely different from what they emphasized when we entered school. They wanted us to make the world our major…they wanted us to have courage to stop and think.”
But she seemed uncertain that the school would be appreciative of a will to stop and think now. Although she concluded that, objectively, rushing to make plans and hesitating to do so can both stem from anxiety about the future, she admitted that she feels like she is “not what [NYU Shanghai] wants because [I am] not achieving anything that can be printed out.”
* * *
INTERVIEWEE #2: ER
Er echoed many of these sentiments, including that the focus on job and grad school attainment is, in the end, reasonable for the school’s publicity. However, she had other frustrations to express about the school.
“There is value in going somewhere established that I didn’t see when I was a high school senior; I just wanted to see the world, wanted to be the first. But pioneership goes with not knowing, not having a very stable foundation, not having a lot of resources, not having people with prior knowledge, having no one to look up to and answer questions.” She conceded that “there are a lot of resources that we don’t refer to, [but] that’s not completely our fault; I’ve been to the CDC before asking for help and left feeling like they don’t know how to help me…the school is not equipped to help us. I don’t know if any school is equipped to help people who don’t know what to do, but maybe more regular career counseling would have helped.” We remembered that there had been one required meeting with a New York counselor our sophomore year – Er voiced that there had never been a follow-up, and wondered whether a New York counselor would be able to help a Shanghai student wanting to stay in China in any case.
Post-graduation, Er is “looking for temporary-ish jobs…near home now, and most of them are…related to classes I’ve taken, but not my major.” Later, she said, “I wish I had more clarity from the CDC on what type of jobs x type of major can go into; give me something to hang onto, something to look into, rather than asking what field I want to do.” After four years of study, Er still seems unsure of her qualifications: “I feel very unqualified for jobs that I want, and even jobs that I am qualified for on paper, we still haven’t really learned enough.”
She stated freely, however, that part of the problem was her own self-doubt; while she’s generally more open with classmates than with teachers, there is a caveat that “if there are people I know have jobs or know probably have jobs, I feel a bit more cautious in saying stuff like that.” With teachers, she abstains completely: “I don’t tell [them] I don’t have a clear plan because I don’t want to look irresponsible….I tell them I’m looking for jobs and want to go to grad school later, and they jump on the grad school part.”
Er is clearly stressed but trying to stay cool about it. “Whatever.” She rolled her eyes, shrugged her shoulders. “I’ll just marry rich.”
* * *
INTERVIEWEE #3: SAN
San went to extremes I had not seen in my first two interviewees: “I actually am a piece of garbage,” he told me earnestly, not blinking. “I’m still freaking out 24/7 because I don’t have a job.” Like Er, he is applying to anything he thinks he might get: “to sales, to marketing, to a bunch of things I don’t want.” But he said part of the problem was that he found it difficult to find time to apply for anything while also trying to get A’s in his difficult classes.
I asked whether he also felt like the school seemed a bit focused on big name companies or brand name universities, and we ended up talking about the school’s series on successful soon-to-be graduates that has been in the weekly all-school newsletter this semester (though I will allow that they did feature two students with their own startups as well). San’s perspective is, “It feels like a constant reminder that you are not as successful, and next week—by the way, you’re still not as successful—come on, can I get a break? Nope, next week, you’re still not as successful!”
Despite such an apparently extreme low, he still found a way to take a more positive angle to an equal extreme. “You’re going to send 100 applications, 20 are going to reply, you’re going to get one interview; don’t give up….I have my life and I will sleep comfortable in my decisions, and I have made the right decisions for me at my time.”
As for the immediate future: while he’s been proactive in compiling a list of potential employers, San first plans to “fly home….I graduated from college, I want one week to myself, to tell myself it’s going to be okay. I have thirty or forty years ahead of me of non-stop work…give me my ice cream, my dog, and my bed, and my TV set.” Eventually, he wants to go to grad school, but wants work experience first because he is concerned that if he goes straight back to school, he won’t have the work experience employers will want from a master’s degree. “I don’t have experience with the things I want to have experience in; now that I want to apply for jobs, I feel like I have more abstract knowledge than applied.”
* * *
INTERVIEWEE #4: SI
Si recognizes his own weaknesses in preparing a post-graduation plan. “In my case, where I struggle with time management, I didn’t have enough time, but it’s hard to put the blame on anything, because if I was responsible, I should have been on top of everything a year ahead.” I asked him whether he felt he really needed to follow a certain schedule. “There’s a lot less leniency post-graduation. There’s a lot more expectation when you’re coming out of undergrad.” And he, like others, professed an uncertainty that he’d match up to the selectivity or name-brand status the school seems to value: “They were very ambitious, they wanted their students to go out and change the world, but they realized too late that some of us kind of just want a normal life. Some of us want to go work at a medium-sized company, just contributing.”
But Si hasn’t figured out how he wants to contribute yet; he felt he chose his major more because he thought it would give him useful skills than because he felt passionate about it. As a result, “Because of lack of direction, I also didn’t know what to do. If I had a clear direction I probably would have acted on it sooner.” He acknowledged that jobs he’s applying to right now are not necessarily using the skill set he’s picked up the last four years.
He also expressed a regret that he had not taken more IMA classes, though he has taken two-credit courses here and there. “The ideas of expressing yourself through arts…I was too afraid to dip my toes in.” But Si has not given up on finding something he’s passionate about, and is not the type to shy away from responsibility. While he told me that one thing he didn’t do in the past was push himself to think about what he really wanted, today he is mainly applying to things that motivate him. Si has been looking for jobs in international companies, specifically ones that seem “like they have a supportive and exciting culture where they put a lot of responsibility on newcomers.”
I asked for final thoughts, and we were silent for about thirty seconds. Si spoke slowly one last time: “Embracing people who take different paths, I think that’s an important thing to do. A lot of people get internships in college, get a job, that’s the path most people take, but it’s not the only path. There are many paths out there, and it’s good to understand that. It’s okay to be different.”
* * *
Readers might have guessed by now that part of my drive to write this article is that I myself have no clear plan for post-graduation. Admittedly, I have not tried very hard to make one – I applied to one long-shot dream job, which I did not get, and then decided to give myself a break. I am lucky enough to have a mother supportive of the idea that, since I have been in school since I was three, maybe I can take a break for some “me time” after nineteen years in a classroom.
I’ll hang out in Shanghai until my residence permit expires at the end of June, stop in Hong Kong to get a new visa, head to a relatively cheap program at Peking University for the rest of the summer to study Chinese, then head home to relax and decide at my own pace where to go from there. I have vague ideas, nebulous and unformed, and I kind of like it that way.
Maybe I’ll get to play more music. Maybe I’ll get to study more languages. Maybe I’ll get to read more. Maybe I’ll get to think more about what I want. Maybe I’ll have to work in an ice cream shop or at a pizza place to support myself, but maybe I can do some part-time writing at night. Maybe I’ll finally learn how to drive. Maybe I’ll have time to sleep, time to catch up with friends from high school who might be trickling in, figuring out their own plans. Maybe, in my own time, at my own pace, I’ll do something the school as an entity will be proud of – but I’ll do it for myself, and not for the school.
If my life is long, then I have plenty of time to figure out career moves, to figure out what I really want to study, at my own pace rather than someone else’s – be they society or school.
If my life turns out to be short, I hope when my life flashes before my eyes that I will not mostly remember myself stressing out about my classmates’ successes as they forged ahead immediately post-grad, will not remember telling myself I need to make money or build my career now so that I can relax in forty years.
I want to say, in conclusion, that I know on an individual level, many if not all of the individuals that make up our faculty and staff would understand if I told them I needed a break, a gap year, time to rest, time to think, time to breathe. I think they would understand what my interviewees discussed, the mix of frustrations with school and hesitations as to how to move forward, and understand the difficulty of balancing finding a job and finding something you’re passionate about. Finding balance in these things is not an unusual human endeavor.
I do, however, think that it is partially the responsibility of the school as an entity to acknowledge the realistic diversity of thought and situations moving forward. I want the school, at our graduation, to say how proud they are of all of us, no matter where we are in our path. I will be very disappointed if the school focuses on listing out brand names or success stories at our commencement ceremony. That would only serve to further indicate that in the current moment, they hold in highest regard those who have followed a certain kind of path, at a certain pace, whether they wanted to or not, whether they were ready to or not; and that they value less those of us who have not had time, not been able to find something, or simply want to seek an alternative.
This article was written by Kiril Bolotnikov. Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Abiral Chitrakar Phnuyal