The first September after I finished my bachelor’s degree, I heard the same thing over and over again: “I miss college. It feels weird not being in school. I feel like I should be going back.”
At the time, I was starting a graduate program at Emerson College in Boston. I’d just moved into a new apartment with my girlfriend and to celebrate, we’d accidentally adopted two cats. I didn’t have to dwell on the fact that I wasn’t returning to undergrad — as much as I missed the rush of getting together with my best friends on the night after we all moved in, and the feeling of sitting in a professor’s office and telling them how my summer was — because I was still in school.
Two weeks ago, my girlfriend and I were furniture-hunting for our new apartment, and we wandered into the college section. Instantly, I was bombarded by the usual: storage ottomans, cute desk chairs, twin XL comforter sets. Her cousin is starting her freshman year of college, so we looked at what was available and she texted her cousin some ideas in case she wasn’t fully packed yet.
As we were leaving the department, it hit me: I didn’t need a new set of notebooks, or to re-evaluate my Harry Potter backpack.
September, for the first time in many years, wasn’t the start of any new beginnings. I’ve been in some form of school — general education in public schools, then an undergraduate degree, and then a graduate degree — since I was in preschool.
Post-graduation depression, while not a diagnosable condition, is a mental health issue that many recent grads face. I don’t think that’s what is happening to me right now; I’m happy with where my life currently is, but I still feel a sense of loss for what’s behind me. As a Gryffindor primary, Ravenclaw secondary (I use sortinghatchats Tumblr if you’re into that), I love learning new things and using my knowledge to put a plan into action, so I miss the excitement of being in a classroom filled with like-minded people, solving problems and generating ideas.
“I still feel a sense of newness around the beginning of September, even though there isn't really anything new for me around that time anymore,” says Sarah, 25, from Raynham, MA. “After the first year out of school, though, I've found myself getting kind of envious of those who are going back. I don't envy the workload of being a full time student, but I do miss the learning environment.”
It’s more than just a learning environment — it’s also a sense of family. Particularly for high school and college students, school can become a community. If you’re lucky enough to meet people you connect with, you have built-in friends.
In high school, I studied veterinary science at an agricultural high school, so we spent almost half our time within small classes of people also studying the same topic. The other veterinary science students were with me through everything: cleaning horse stalls at eight in the morning in February, taking care of baby rabbits, balancing the pH in the saltwater fish tanks. When a cow took a dump on one of our classmates, it was half the major’s “best memory” in our senior yearbook.
In college, I made an even closer group of friends who, while not bound by what we were studying, spent almost every day together. As a junior and senior, I even lived with several of them, and we had a motivational picture of Beyonce in one of our bathrooms.
I can’t lie and say that I don’t miss school, but I also feel ready for the change.
It’s easy to be nostalgic about something we’re no longer living, though. “I don't agree with the saying that college is the best four years of your life. I'd like to think I'm currently living a pretty great life!” says Marlena Chertock, 26, from Washington, D.C.
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There’s a lot I don’t miss about school. I don't at all miss going straight from my full-time job to graduate classes; being subject to whatever my undergrad was serving in the cafeteria, which is particularly difficult with my restricted diet due to my disability; not having my cat with me on campus. I can paint my bedroom, living room, and kitchen now, and you’d be surprised how calm I feel knowing that a building-wide fire alarm won’t happen while I’m naked in the shower or trying to enjoy my dinner.
“I was really burned out by the end and thrilled to be done,” Garnet Henderson, 26, from New York City. “The only thing I felt while watching other people go back to school was relief that it wasn't me.”
What I’m going through is probably different than it was for my friends who ended undergrad and jumped right into the workforce. For the past two years, I’ve been taking graduate classes full-time at night while working, which mainly resulted in a lot of lost sleep and events that I couldn’t go to because they were on weeknights between the hours of six and nine-forty-five. After that, it feels great to be done, and I purposefully opted out of taking summer classes or fewer courses at a time because I knew I’d need a break after two years without free time.
“Looking back, I wish I'd taken more time to just pause, and breathe, and enjoy myself,” says Rachel, 24, from North Carolina. “I wouldn't want to go back, but if I did, I'd encourage myself to indulge myself a little bit more.”
I can’t lie and say that I don’t miss school, but I also feel ready for the change. What I miss most, I think (besides no longer living with my friends, which I’m perpetually upset about), is that feeling that something is new. September signaled a change, and unlike ringing in the new calendar year, those changes were solid. We can go back on our promises to ourselves in the form of resolutions, but we can’t turn back time and go back to middle school even if we don’t like our high school classes. Going to school every year was a time for purposeful reflection and a conscious shift in pace, and even though many people didn’t embrace that, I always did. I’d make lists of the flaws and issues I wanted to work on in myself, the friendships I wanted to strengthen, the people I hoped I’d talk to (and it worked — I’m now close friends with The Nice Girl From Creative Writing, Sabrina, after a few years in college telling myself to ask her to hang out).
September is rolling in, and my girlfriend and I are settled into our new apartment, which our cats have claimed as their new home. Nothing is new. This year, September won’t change anything other than bringing me the same annual excitement about Halloween.
It’s my choice to make resolutions on my own and carry them out; just because I’m not in a classroom doesn’t mean I have to stop growing.
I’m working on applications to teach courses that I have expertise in, I’m trying to break into at least a few new outlets, I want to learn more about how to start writing for animal science verticals or publications (after all, the memories of cow dung aren’t that far behind me), and I’m making time for my friends where we can all let our guards down and just witness what each other is going through.
It gets harder when you don’t have an academic schedule keeping you and everyone you know on the same track, but my internal clock is telling me that it’s time for me to re-evaluate what’s working in my life and what needs improvement — and now it’s my turn to make that happen, even without a new spiral-bound notebook.