It was past midnight. We were sitting on a bench outside of Old Campus, looking at the stars.
“There aren’t even stars,” one of us complained. “Even the sky seems to share our gloom.”
A sophomore who was passing by overheard our conversation and asked, “One of those moments of contemplating your life choices, huh? Don’t worry; I’ve had these conversations with everyone in my class.”
He was right. It was one of those moments when the only question in our minds was “What am I doing with my life?” — a realistic question that defined a shared experience but somehow also felt very personal.
As we approach the finishing line for this year, and personally, for my first year here at Yale, I have started to feel the weight of these moments more. Why? I don’t know. Perhaps it is the fatigue of this academic year as break days haven’t proven to be so refreshing. Perhaps it is the hardship of transitioning from adolescence to adulthood, having to face the consequences of our every decision. Perhaps it is the uncertainty of the future, especially exacerbated by the current pandemic.
No matter the reasons, one sentence I’ve heard and repeated so many times is “High school me had a plan.” High school us got into Yale, and for many of us, getting into Yale was the plan. Yale would be the solution to all of our problems, the place where we would find ourselves. I am not necessarily suggesting that this was a false belief. I just cannot help but wonder whether finding ourselves really means going into finance or any other career with high salaries and crazy working hours.
These moments of contemplation, however, are not just about our future career paths. They represent a bigger effort to reconcile who we used to be and who we are turning into. Yes, we can be whoever we want to be in college, but like everything else, this comes with consequences, sacrifices and compromises on our part.
A disconnect between who we used to be and who we are turning into arises, because the ideal self we constructed in high school is usually based on everything that we were not at the time. For instance, if we didn’t go out much, now we might want to have more fun. If we didn’t have a big friend group, now we might want to be included in “cliques” or Greek life. These attempts to change are very natural; in fact, they can be positive as they take us out of our comfort zones and can be the first step of finding oneself.
On the other side of the coin, however, this constructed self clashes with reality. Going out more might prove to be unsustainable with classes and extracurriculars. Big friend groups might lack intimacy that we perhaps prioritized in our past friendships. Our ideal career paths of becoming a marine biologist or human rights lawyer might be unlikely to provide the lifestyle we are accustomed to or desire.
Then the question turns into how much we are willing to compromise our values, beliefs and ideals for this constructed self. Are we willing to change our approach to grades, social life or prospective career paths? If the answer is a definite yes or a definite no, there is not much place or need for contemplation. But if the answer is “to some degree,” then finding that degree, that balance, brings about a painful process especially during our first year when the memories of our high school selves are still so fresh. This process entails making a lot of unexpected mistakes and feeling disappointed in ourselves at a place where everyone seems to know what they are doing.
This illusion, however, is also a part of the compromise. An ideal Yale student is supposed to have those long and detailed LinkedIn profiles no matter how much they are struggling in reality. That is why our school culture renders this painful process even more isolating, not allowing enough space or time to reflect. There should be a University-wide effort to help navigate these personal struggles of reconciliation and compromise. In addition to the already proposed improvements in mental health services, heads of college and deans should encourage conversations on topics deeper than our class schedules. Again, our meetings with FroCos should be more than reminders and warnings about submitting schedules. There should be an active effort to connect students, especially first years, in more personal settings. It is unrealistic to expect that these solutions will offer an answer to “What am I doing with my life?” But at least, they might help us realize how common these moments of contemplation are, mitigating the loneliness and insecurity of our isolation as we strive to deconstruct “that ideal self.”
SUDE YENILMEZ is a first year in Berkeley College. Her column, ‘Piecing Together,’ runs every other Thursday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.