Advice: "Where do I go from here?"

Letter to a first gen graduate

I am at an end of a journey and don’t know where to go next. All my life, it has been shaped with “get an education so you don’t suffer”. I am a first generation American/student. It was always go to school, go to school, go to school, and now that I’m weeks away from getting my bachelor’s degree.... I don’t know what to do. I don’t have anything lined up and I can’t get away from the imminent fear that I have failed myself, my family, and myself again. Where do I go from here? I applied for graduate school, but I have yet to see if I have been accepted. Really the only reason I applied was because this program was abroad in Tokyo & I wanted to get away. I do want to get away, but I can’t leave anything behind. I carry so much on my shoulders, in my hands, it’s all baggage. What do I do if I just want to run away? Where do I go from here?

With no preview of what lies ahead, endings by nature carry a foreboding finality. Which really detracts from the fact that they signal new beginnings. 

It’s easy for those who’ve always had their next step cleared for them to remain excited about the future. Those of us who’ve had to move with caution, looking behind and around before we can look ahead, suffer during the transitional phases of life that are typically associated with optimism and excitement. 

The conventional wisdom pushed onto graduating high schoolers and college students sets them up to suffer. There is nothing less true than the idea that your choices at that age set the course of your life. Even less true is the idea that choices related to career and educational path are the greatest determinant of your future and subsequently your identity. The reason it’s not true is because they’re never really choices. They’re the product of circumstance, as you know too well. 

I’m not a Disney Channel movie, I’m not going to tell you not to care what your family thinks. I understand why your choices and their feelings are entwined. If you want to make the right choices in life, it’s okay to bear your loved ones and your values in mind, but it is never good to do so with the fear and guilt that forments resentment. Most choices made with family in mind are unfortunately made out of the fear of being a disappointment.

It must mean a great deal to your family, and you, that you’re the first generation graduate. It means you entered school not just with your own hopes and dreams, but the weight of all the postponed and denied hopes and dreams of those before you whose choices led to your future. You’re almost done with college and soon will have a degree in your name. I’m so proud of you. It’s not easy to maintain the discipline and focus, even energy, required to reach that step. Students in America don’t have much support. Particularly when it comes to their mental and financial health. And I’m sure you’ve faced a myriad of challenges not named in your question so I really mean it when I say I’m proud of you. 

Have you taken a chance to feel good about reaching graduation? The people that insisted you go to school, don’t they have some right to feel good about it too? You’re disallowing the very moment they’ve been waiting for. What failure? You’re a success. It hurts my heart to hear you use the past tense about your future. 

It’s natural to feel depleted at this stage. The fear you describe is quite layered, and I think once you see the constituent layers you’ll be able to shed them. You’re clearly a person of great strength and integrity, otherwise you wouldn’t be where you are and you wouldn’t have the concerns you have. 

For the first time in your life there is no predetermined next step. Up til now you’ve always known what to do, school is segmented with clearly defined steps. Study hard so you get into college. Get into college and study harder so you can graduate. So much direction and instruction and obligation and pressure and then suddenly, nothing. And because of your particular stakes, you’re worried about the next steps before you’ve even crossed the one you’re on. 

Do you feel like a failure because you didn’t pave the road ahead before you reached it? I want to draw your attention to the phrase “lined up” because it contains everything that causes students to suffer - both the imposition of the narrowly sequential educational path and the implication that what comes after is simply a matter of your own initiative. Lined up sounds so neat. So clean and simple, it sounds more like a gesture than an effort. It sounds like an administrative detail you should’ve taken care of. That’s not how life works. To claim otherwise is a complete betrayal of your reality. Forgive yourself for not running your life on autocomplete, as if that was ever an option. 

I sense, also, some guilt. That the result of all your effort and determination and aspirations of those around you should have amounted to something more. Why are you already diminishing your accomplishments? If this is your attitude towards success you’ll never feel successful. 

You haven’t described the burdens you carry. But given where they come up in your question I imagine they’re related to your family and the expectations they, and you, have of yourself. You speak with the dejection of someone whose self was on lease and the lease is up. 

I know your family’s aspirations for you are braided into everything you’ve accomplished thus far, but you are you and yours first. Our bodies may be on borrowed time but the soul they carry is in our name alone. This is not a selfish orientation, it's literally the only one possible. And now at the cusp of adulthood you’re faced with so many possibilities, some of which you’re intimidated by. 

Sometimes we don’t know how to receive the things we’ve always wanted but never imagined having. Most of the time people who want advice are really looking for permission. The way you describe having applied to grad school reveals so much. On the one hand your casualness about a very significant undertaking shows you’re already prepared to discount that future accomplishment too. On the other hand, you say you only applied to get away. I sense the location isn't as relevant as the urgency of your desire to leave. 

And I think you want me to tell you how to do so without guilt. But if that’s what you need you’ll only feel guilty for taking any advice that recommends that. 

All that you carry, and do not know where to safely set down, will grow light once you grow your relationship to it. By “grow” I don’t mean “extend” I mean mature. 

These are not accumulated objects you’re trying to konmari. This is the fabric of your life. It’s your family, your history, their history, the pain and hope that history contains. The weight isn’t in your loved ones or your sense of home. It’s in the fear, guilt, and pre-emptive shame you’re attaching to it. 

I don’t want to give you advice that shrinks your ties. I want you to strengthen them so that they don’t draw energy you need to direct elsewhere. Where we come from can’t always be a place we want to be, but it should never be a place we run from. Because it is only then that you can move, in any direction, with the grace and wholeness befitting you and your ties. Running keeps you a servant of your fears, there’s no end point. 

Which brings us back to the layered fears to shed. First: Uncertainty 

No one knows their future and therefore no one is really prepared for it which means your uncertainty does not disadvantage you. If it looks that way compared to peers who may have internships or jobs “lined up” then trust me they’re just as uncertain as you, only about different things. And your future is no less bright for not yet having clearly defined lines. Don’t worry about what’s to come. Focus on what you can do right now for the person you are right now with the information you have right now. 

People handicap their decision making process by trying to anticipate exactly what they will need in the future. You don’t know future you. You don’t know what she’ll want or need. But she’ll benefit from you taking care of present you. The best way to make decisions is to make them for the person you are right now, thats the only person whose needs you can answer. And trust that doing so enables the person you will be. 

Do what you want without trying to anticipate the type of life it can lead to. Do it with integrity and good effort and it will inevitably lead to a life lived well. I’m not going to advise you on career and finances because you likely have many people in your life doing the same, and among all of us you’re best positioned to make the right choices. You’re a first gen college graduate. You have far more life skills than any peer who’s always had things “lined up.”

The next layer: Guilt and Shame

Release the fear of being a disappointment, and release the preemptive guilt you’re carrying for worrying you’ll be one. Some healthy pride in your success thus far could help.

Kids of immigrants often feel like they have to justify their parents' sacrifices. It’s why we reach our 20s feeling like we’re on lease to this life and the inevitable depression, and anxiety sets in. This is not what our families intended for us. 

The choices others made as an investment in you were not brokered by a firm expecting a return, even if it sounds that way to our young ears. That investment was what care under scarcity looks like. Limited resources are spent towards making them stretch, which from the selflessness of immigrant or lower income families often looks like putting them towards those with the most future ahead of them - the kids. Your wins are their wins. That doesn’t mean you’re a prized racehorse that’ll be put down if it doesn’t perform, and don’t you dare treat yourself that way. It means you’ll never be alone in your losses either. 

When they said “go to school so you don’t suffer” they didn’t mean you’re never allowed to feel negatively. Your stress and hopelessness now is not a betrayal of their sacrifice. They meant “so you don’t suffer the way we did.” 

The truth is, to live is to suffer. Our time on earth as humans and especially as kin is to do our best to mitigate as many types of suffering as we can. Your family just want you to have more choices than they did. The best way to honor their efforts and encouragement is to allow yourself those choices. 

Now, I’m doing a lot of translating here. I know the way our families speak to us often sounds more like a football coach than a cheerleader. Don’t shrink under the anxieties of others. Our loved ones want to see us happy. They just don’t know what choices will do that. And that scares them too. Those fears are often expressed as a pressure to do one thing over another, because they know less about the other things and therefore can’t confidently assess the obstacles you may face. Do you see how uncertainty and fear shapes them too? What they fail to realize is that in reality, they can’t effectively anticipate the obstacles or harms of what they’re recommending to you either.

Still, they insist on what they think are sure bets. Immigrant families live in a state of risk assessment. You are entering a very challenging time (eventually you’ll learn all times are challenging, all that changes is your abilities). I don’t know all that’s ahead of you, or even in front of you this moment. But I know that this is when you must begin gently distancing yourself from your family’s plans and expectations in order to more authentically realize your goals — and by default, their goals. Which again, are only that you be safe and secure even when they’re not around to ensure that. 

Parents are limited by an expertise specific to their lives. As much as they may deny that limitation, wanting what is best for us does not automatically bestow the knowledge of how we can achieve what is best for us. This is something that would be rare for them to admit, even to themselves.

It is heartbreaking to feel illegible to the people closest to us. As the choices of your life grow bigger, where to go to school, what kind of work to do, where to live, who to be with, you may struggle to have your reasoning understood — or even be seen as reasonable. You must let go of the need to be understood by your family during the next few years, it will only cause hurt and alienation.

This is the first time in your life you’re moving without a directive. Take advantage of that. Communicate with love and patience but understand their fears play a bigger part in their communication with you than their estimation of you. Any lack of confidence you may sense is their uncertainty about your circumstances, not your abilities. And they’re adjusting to your adulthood as much as you are. Don’t hold their missteps against them, that would only be more for you to hold. 

Your only obligation is to keep yourself healthy and in tune with who you are and what matters to you. A decision made with only you in mind may feel terribly unfamiliar right now and therefore inherently wrong, but it’s how your parents made their choices — with you in mind. Now show them what a confident and capable young adult you’re becoming. You are already able to relieve them of one of their biggest concerns, having to know what’s best for you. Your next steps mean you’re taking on that responsibility for yourself. And you are perfectly capable of doing so. 

What you’re carrying in your hands and in your shoulders is only weighted if you let it be, release the trappings of fear and guilt and you’ll realize what you’re left holding is love, and it’s holding you. 


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