This past New Year’s Eve, I was at my best friend Molly’s house sitting around eating pizza. Molly and I have been friends since third grade; we attended the same elementary school in Brooklyn. As we prepared for 2011, it was difficult to imagine that we’d be graduating from college this May. Overwhelmed by this prospect, I noted, “You know what’s crazy? I have absolutely no idea what I’ll be doing exactly a year from now.” Molly’s brother, Josh, responded right away, “Probably sitting in the exact same place saying the exact same shit.” Despite all of the stress and chaos and anxiety about the looming mystery of next year for us seniors, I realized that Josh is probably right. And it’s really not so bad.
It seems like we’ve spent each phase of our lives so far preparing for the next phase. It used to be a lot simpler. Education professionals have spent their lives developing the tests and programs that prepare elementary school children for middle school and then middle school children for high school. We spent much of our high school careers preparing ourselves for college—or, more accurately, building the image of ourselves that would serve us best in getting us accepted into our choice schools. All along the way, our preparation served to shape our expectations for our future pursuits. Now, after almost four complete years at Tufts, we may feel older, wiser, more complicated and learned, but I don’t think that we feel more skilled.
In so many ways, being at college discourages us from developing the skills and independence that would prepare us for life in the real world. By cushioning and nourishing us, Tufts lets us avoid the trickier, messier task at hand: learning how to function like an actual adult. Tufts isn’t harsh with us. We are coaxed and encouraged to flex our intellectual muscles and nurture our individuality. Our professors respect us for our intelligence and recognize our academic potential, but we aren’t really expected to act like adults. The way we act in class is not too different from how we behave when we’re just chilling with friends. The process of cultivating and expressing our distinct identities is prioritized over disciplining us and encouraging us to get serious. We’re free to behave like glorified children. And the truth is, we like it.
We’re not ready to be beaten up and have our dignity shredded by our superiors. There will be plenty of time for that once we get out of here. College is preparing us for these battles by letting us build our confidence. We’re fortifying ourselves for when our smarts and charm will no longer be enough to buoy us along. College may feel like a cozy extension of the leniency and support that we’ve experienced throughout our protracted kidhood, but as we’ll find out soon enough, it’s not going to last forever.
Last Thursday night, I had a wonderful time attending my Senior Dinner at the Gifford House with the Bacows. We discussed the elements that we felt shaped our experiences here at Tufts, and we had the opportunity to speak to alumni who sought to prepare us for the transitions we face after graduation. President Bacow addressed the ambiguity in understanding our Tufts degree’s significance to our success in the real world. He noted that the trajectory that our lives will follow reflects the fortuity of events, and both he and the alumni warned us that we are bound to feel extremely unprepared at many moments and have our share of failures and missteps. President Bacow emphasized that the most important thing that we learned at Tufts is how to learn. This is the skill that we can take with us, that we can apply to our future pursuits and endeavors. There’s no surefire way to prepare for the unknown. Tufts prepares us by making us adaptive, by teaching us to extract the best from new situations and understand how they relate to our goals and capabilities.
A year from now, a lot of us may start jobs, grad school, or whatever other bigger and better things our futures hold. Even so, most of us are still going to be sitting on the couch in some way or another. We’re still going to be learning. Tufts isn’t an assembly line that pops us out ready to take on whatever we desire to do. We need to make that happen for ourselves. We do it as we go along. We move into houses and wikiHow using a can opener. We get job interviews and frantically text our parents from the bathroom for last minute words of wisdom. We tend to screw stuff up, the learning part comes in when we manage to put the stuff we screwed up back together. While we may not be completely prepared for whatever is going to be hurled our way, we are prepared for one thing: to rebound from screwing up in the most graceful, productive way possible.