Being a student sucks sometimes. Crazy stress, daily intellectual calisthenics, and intense sleep deprivation are all part of the day-to-day routine. By now, you’re probably used to the stress – you may even enjoy it on some level. Still, many of you, like me, have likely been wishing for a lighter course load since you started learning fractions, or at least for a break from homework that didn’t coincide with getting a summer job.
Luckily, I got such a break this semester. Thanks to some transfer credits, I’ve had a light course load, which I thought would be paradise. I thought I’d have the free time to do everything I wished I had done in past school years. In some ways, the reduced course load was great. But not being a full-time student changed my life in a way I hadn’t anticipated. I lost a part of my identity and I had no idea how to fill the void.
Chances are that this will happen to you in a few months (or a few years). You’ll enter the real world where, at least for a little while, you’ll work during the day and come home at night to watch TV and make dinner. (Or, you’ll move back in with your parents and experience a weird Twilight Zone version of high school.) It’ll be disconcerting, but a bit of aimlessness and confusion is warranted after 17 years of tightly regimented time.
Even if you have great plans for post-grad, organizing your life is difficult when you can no longer claim that you’re a student. Outside of school, no one forces you to think. I underestimated the power of an intellectual environment to make me want to read and engage with ideas that were not my own. Most people’s minds are occupied with their finances, their relationships, and their health. There isn’t a lot of room for McLuhan if you’re barely making ends meet, or if you’re focussed on becoming a CEO. The masses aren’t forced to think, because it doesn’t necessarily benefit them to do so. This is probably why the Twilight movies grossed more than just the combined allowances of all 11-year-old girls.
Not having to think about complicated ideas made me question the mundane with the alarming frequency of a Jewish grandmother. Things like whether buying organic dryer sheets was necessary, and whether it reflected on my character that I part my hair on the right. These inane questions were an attempt to fill the gaps in my self-conception. I am now the kind of person who buys organic dryer sheets. This articulation of values (however small) is the valuable product of less stress and more free time. It isn’t revelatory, but it’s an easy way to start rebuilding your identity.
Many people use their jobs to fill this identity gap, and for people in careers they enjoy, this seems logical. I am a doctor or I am a welder are very similar to I am a student. By this logic, the identities of people in jobs they dislike must be incredibly volatile, abjectly negative, or defined entirely by another aspect of their personality. I only worked 20 hours a week and was surprised by how soon and how frequently all three of those descriptions applied to my perception of my identity.
Obviously, there are preexisting parts of identity that remain once studenthood is gone – your ethnicity, your religious beliefs, even your sports affiliations probably won’t change once you leave school. But your identity will be scrambled. After over a decade of rigorously scheduled time in an intensely intellectual environment, the relatively free time of the real world is dumbfounding. On the upside, though, you’ll be able to address questions you may have neglected in the past (whether you buy organic or non-organic dryer sheets, for example), and it’s my optimistic suggestion that this leads to a happier and more cogent selfhood.