Recently I showed up to a non-Weekly work meeting smelling like beer and cigarettes. The co-worker sitting next to me leaned in and whispered in my ear, “The York?” Whether this is a testament to the amount of time he spends at The York or the obviousness of my condition is irrelevant. What is important is that before this year, I would have never even entertained the notion of showing up to a meeting in such a state. To be fair, I had ducked into The York to avoid the rain and had one beer (stout serves as an excellent blanket on a cold day). But my relative sobriety did not preclude the fact that subconsciously, I had validated this behavior because I am a senior and therefore such irresponsibility did not matter.
Senior year, whether it be in high school or college, is widely recognized as a time when the pressure of previous years is lessened. On the cusp of a life upheaval, students are allowed one year in which the strangleholds of responsibility and decorum are relieved. This is in part due to the fact that by the time the average student reaches his or her senior year of college, they have undergone nearly two decades of education. To say that most of them are ready to check out is an understatement.
As a junior, I had a senior friend who spent his senior spring semester in the bowels of the Chemistry Department, slaving away over a reaction he prayed would work. I asked him once why he had chosen to spend his semester of freedom under more pressure than ever before in his college years.
His response (and I’m paraphrasing) was, “Everyone keeps telling me I’m supposed to have fun and enjoy this time and not care. But why would I waste this time not learning everything I can and working my hardest while I still have the freedom to do so?”
I swore then that I would take his words to heart because he was, in fact, correct. I started the first semester of senior year off strong, working diligently on my Senior Comprehensive Project (comps). I discovered magical corners of the stacks, unfouled by loud whispers or the sounds of students hooking up and hid there for hours, surrounded by dense academic texts. But it was not long before this drive to do my best began to rot. I was working three jobs and for the first time paying bills, taking care of a pet on my own and keeping up a large and ramshackle house. Suddenly, everything else in life seemed more important than my studies. The phrase heard most frequently in my home was, “I didn’t do it because it simply doesn’t matter.”
Now, as a second semester senior who has finally turned in and passed her comps, these feelings have only worsened. My comps paper is my best research, my most concise academic writing and it is all I wish to ever again say to the English and Comparative Literary Studies (ECLS) department. Now, in class, instead of focusing on a lecture I busily search for jobs or do work for the jobs I already have. These are the things that pay for my life – the things that possibly lead to career opportunities. School now feels like a tedious day of forced baby sitting, in which I am the errant child and my professors the babysitters who refuse to let me eat a popsicle. An hour-and-a-half long class is an hour and a half that could be spent doing research for an internship, sending out cover letters and resumes, updating a LinkedIn profile, divvying up the DWP bill or cleaning the dishes that have mounted in the sink.
And these feelings are not okay. Each time I ignore a professor to search for a job – a professor who has shaped my career at Occidental and in some way my life, who I once looked upon with eyes full of respect – an ugly feeling of guilt creeps into my gut. Each time I turn in a shoddy paper late, a piece of self-loathing nestles itself in my brain. When did I stop caring?
The answer: I stopped caring when I realized that on Sunday May 18, the trajectory of my life is completely dictated by my decisions and actions, and it is no longer moored by the warm safety net of education. On a sunny Los Angeles day, with grass under my feet and the sound of the fountain not far off, it is more important to cherish laughter with a friend or to find a job than to ace an exam.
Here is what no one tells you: some liberal arts students will exit college and their degrees will immediately pave the way for a career. But for most, the things we have learned will not necessarily enable careers. They will, however, enable us to think critically and analytically about all facets of our life. In doing such, our education is both our burden and our saving grace. It is that thing which has given depth and color to our world, and it is also that thing which causes us to remember all of the things that are of so much more importance than going to class.
Ari Laub is a senior English and Comparative Literary Studies major. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @WklyALaub.