Story by | Tamara Barsova, Guest Writer
Picture credit | Tamara Barsova
In the photograph (right), I am posing proudly, donning my shiny graduation robes—my smile stretching widely from ear to ear. Standing next to me are my two high school best friends; the three of us radiating with the kind of pride and confidence that never burns quite as brightly as when you have just turned eighteen. As the youngest of the three, in this photograph I am still seventeen, a month shy of becoming an adult. I remember feeling so grown up, yet so young—an adult, but not really an adult. The world was my oyster, and I was ready to devour it. I had just gotten accepted into college, and my future seemed already settled.
The four years ahead of me seemed full of wonder, of adventure, of possibilities. College would be the first time I had lived away from home—away from my family and childhood friends, and away from everything familiar. Most excitingly, college would be the first time I grew beyond the “me” back home, and I could not wait to meet the person I was to become. I remember posting this photograph on my Instagram account, struggling to write a caption that captured this mixture of both anticipation and nostalgia. As always, words seemed to fail me, and I only managed to stitch together a few measly sentences:
“I am blessed to have had a wonderful and unforgettable high school experience. Thinking back, there is not a single thing I would change about the last 4 years. I am happy with who I am as a person right now; all of the things that have happened in the past four years led me to this moment today. I am nostalgic that I am closing this chapter of my life, but I am excited for all of the things to come! To my future self at university: Keep taking risks and try to learn a valuable lesson from each situation!” (May 22, 2017)
How strange it feels to read this message now, almost four years later! In lots of ways, I am in exactly the same position now as I was back then: writing to close a four-year-long chapter of my life. How similarly, or how differently, do I feel now compared to then? How have I changed in the past four years? Have I followed my own advice?
One big difference, compared to back then, is that I am now graduating into a much more precarious and uncertain world. This time around, I cannot graduate in the same room with all my batchmates, for one last hurrah. I am not even certain if I will be able to take a photograph such as this one, maskless and carefree. Four years ago, I could never have predicted that a global pandemic would engulf the whole world and that I would feel its effects on a deeply personal level. When I posed with my friends for this photograph, my parents were not too far away—merely a few steps behind the corner, eagerly waiting to hug and congratulate me. Now, they are almost ten thousand kilometres away, and I do not know when I will see them again. I do not know when I will next feel my mom’s arms wrapped around mine, or hear my dad say, “Your successes are also my successes. I am so proud of you.” Realising this leaves me with an immense sense of loss. I am unable to feel truly proud and victorious about graduating when I also feel so sad and afraid.
I also did not expect that growth would be so difficult—even painful. I have learned so much over the past four years. Honestly, much more than I had asked for! At times, even more than I was able to handle. I remember coming to college feeling empowered to enact change, only to be crushed with despair soon thereafter. My college classes taught me to think about agency and disenchantment and alienation and neocolonialism and the iron cage, but no one taught me how to deal with the subsequent feelings of anger and disillusionment. Dejected, I wondered: What is the point? Everything I did seemed pointless and inconsequential. The sense of purpose, which had previously fuelled me for years, now seemed to be suddenly pulled from beneath my feet. This disorientation felt jarring, and I spent a big chunk of my first year feeling aimless. This was made worse by thinking: Everyone seems to have figured everything out already! Am I the only one who has no idea where I am headed? It’s okay, I reassured myself, you will be like that when you are a senior too.
Well, I am that senior now. I know more about myself, about the world, about my positionality vis-à-vis the world. But have I figured everything out? Not even close. In fact, sometimes I feel as lost as I did when I was a first-year student. Like a child learning to walk, I am still stumbling as I try to find my way into the world. In high school, I thought my college self would be steady and self-assured, certain about her place in the world. And, if the “me” from now met the “me” from back then, I am sure that’s how it would seem like. The truth, however, is that I am still uncertain and unsure and insecure. Even now, I feel like an adult who is not yet an adult, not really.
When I look back on college, I will remember being in my friend’s room, seated on the tiled floor with my back pressed against the wall. It is already 2 am and I am tired, but I do not want to leave, not yet, because I want to keep talking and talking all night long. We are all congregated in a semicircle—our words ebbing and flowing, interspersed with jokes and laughter—sharing our individual pains and joys, feeling held. Someone leans their head against my shoulder, another friend reaches out to clasp my hand. We name our ghosts and pleasures, collectively engaging in a quest of meaning-making. As much as I want to stay, I soon have to excuse myself; the following morning I have to wake up early to attend an art exhibition. We almost miss our bus, but then we are finally standing in the air-conditioned gallery room. As my friend and I feel our chests expanding from the beauty in front of us, I think that maybe this is what makes life meaningful.
In the past, I was always in a hurry to grow up and become an adult, and only now do I realize that my inner child might be my greatest gift. To approach life with wonder and curiosity, to be constantly amazed and pleasantly surprised, to find hope and comradeship amidst hardship—this is what joy is. And this is the kind of joy I have found in abundance, time and time again (and again!), throughout my four years at Yale-NUS.
Just this morning, I woke up to find a text from my friend, asking our group chat to organize a small informal graduation “ceremony” amongst ourselves. We will pass each other fake scrolls, take pictures, laugh, take some more pictures, drink some wine, and celebrate each other. Is this joy not enough? Admittedly, ending college was more of a worn-out crawl than the victorious final lap I imagined it would be. And yet, despite this, I still find myself revelling in the small moments of delight and gratitude.
Maybe this was my most valuable lesson, the one I would want to impart to my future self as she starts a new chapter in life. Yes, keep on taking risks and trying to learn a valuable lesson from each situation. But beyond just learning valuable lessons, remember to also find the joy in each situation.
Life is uncertain and unpredictable, but there is so much more to come. College is not a finish line—just another beginning.