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“Aree–?” What the–? My Japanese teacher stared at me blankly. I hadn’t had enough time to formulate the correct answer.
“Jaa, tsugi wa?”
Alright, who’s next? She continued, turning to the next student.
I was crushed. For the first time, I was shown there would be no second chances. One wrong answer and you weren’t good enough.
I looked around the classroom quickly, avoiding direct eye contact. The other students were obediently facing the chalkboard, which was affixed to a wall made of broken, rust-red bricks. The University of Washington’s old Gothic style appealed to many, but I wasn’t here for the architecture. I was here to advance my studies in Japanese, and as many other languages as I could handle.
Studying Japanese was my pride. I loved it—I was initially intrigued by Japanese culture as a 9-year-old from taking lessons in karate and learning basic use of Okinawan weapons. The idea of maintaining discipline in any practice, whether in martial arts or otherwise, influences me to this day. This, along with the Japanese pop culture that has become intertwined in everyday American culture, ultimately led me to choose Japanese classes over other languages in high school.
But in university, it wasn’t about why we were interested in it, it was about cramming information into our heads, competition, and passing the class with high scores.
Initially, I felt I lost more than I gained. The trauma of leaving my family, friends, and old life behind in sunny New Mexico had enveloped me in cloudy misery.
And after graduation, the question of “what now?” finally hit me, as I hadn’t imagined what it would be like once I got this far.
I’d been here to pursue my passion, something I believed could bring me the success that everyone told me it would bring. And I was proven wrong within the first few months of attendance. My devastation took hold of me, coiling tightly around my throat.
The only success I had after university was coming out alive.
My poor mental health, which had shown up for the first time in my life, drained all of my energy. I felt like I could never follow through with my dreams at the same rate everyone else was going. I rejected all possible career paths and felt like there was no niche for me. My world started to look fuzzy, and I felt like I couldn’t truly live or breathe. I could hardly see through my coffee-steam-clouded lenses in the somber Seattle drizzle. And I know it wasn’t just me who struggled.
Anyone’s college experience, whether a liberal arts major or not, can pose challenges.
It seems to be common knowledge that those of us who pursue a liberal arts major won’t succeed in the “real world.”
We have more issues finding the right career path, likely won’t have a job right after graduation, and when we do snag something within our range of interests, it won’t be high paying. These hovering anxieties can really bring us down, and the expectations can be daunting for some newly graduated liberal arts majors.
A lot of us have no interest in what others find to be a success story. I never abandoned my dream of pursuing Japanese. However, any viable career option, from easy to challenging, didn’t seem to be what I wanted to do. Whether it was teaching English abroad, working as a localization translator for a company, or even interpreting for the United Nations, it just didn’t feel realistic, or even what I wanted to do at all.
So what does it take to recover from a painful college experience and get on with our true life path?
From research, a short survey, plus a couple of follow-up interviews I conducted with liberal arts majors, here is a list of six things I found that we can learn from college and carry with us through our lives.
1. Our persistence through failure is most essential.
For me, university wasn’t a good fit, but I followed through with my plans as best as I could. I refused to transfer to a different school or take any kind of substantial break for three torturous years. I can’t recall how many times I felt like I had failed myself, and how wrapped up in my negative mindset I had gotten.
But I did not back down.
The failure—or whatever kind of discouragement we encounter—doesn’t matter nearly as much as our will to pick ourselves up and keep going. If we have a true passion, there is nothing that can keep us from it. We can remind ourselves of this, maybe take a break if we need it, and continue on with discipline to our craft or whatever we are doing with a positive attitude.
2. Highlighting our own gifts while admiring others.
I faced problems with understanding competitive classmates, so I befriended a straight A student in my major, who was able to give me some helpful tips to carry on. This person also had a difficult, sleep deprived, and overall depressing experience, and in his interview, stated that he couldn’t even remember what had happened. That’s how quickly time went by.
In college, we face a whole lot of competition, and it isn’t easy to ignore people who we think are better than us. We may feel that nothing we do is good enough. Instead, we can admire these people for their skills, ask for their guidance, and look up to them to improve our own work.
Become friends with people who want to be successful—but who also want to help you succeed.
3. Taking care of ourselves.
When I was struggling, I went to the counseling center and attended free mindfulness meditation classes with other students who felt just as depressed as I was.
This gave me valuable skills to keep a level head and continue on. It is important to maintain this type of process to keep a balanced mind throughout our lives.
Above all else, putting in the effort to take care of yourself is going to get you the furthest. We cannot get good grades or do well at any job if we are not healthy enough to participate. The pressured environment of university can influence our state of mind in a whole array of negative ways. Seeking help, whether it’s through mindfulness, therapy, or both, and resolving any emotional pain can make a difference—during and after college.
4. College doesn’t really owe us anything.
Regardless of college expenses, not all of us are able to enjoy our experience to the fullest. For some of us, university just isn’t a good fit.
Maybe we thought having a “prestigious” education meant having a “quality” education. Maybe a community college would have been better. Whatever the reason, some of us feel disappointed with our college experiences because we just didn’t get what we expected out of it.
For those of us who were in accelerated programs—an undergraduate college degree won’t always have enough time to make you a well-rounded professional in the area of your choosing. With 10 to 11 weeks in a single session, three or four years go by before you know it. But that’s okay—plenty of people develop specific skills while on the job, and most jobs will have a training period too.
Learning is a life-long journey. Sometimes it will take a little time outside of college and on the field to develop the skill sets we desire to have.
5. We can combine our passions with our careers—or not.
Of the surveys I conducted, most individuals initially worked a job separate from their majors, but did not let go of their interests and still incorporate their passions into their lives where they can.
It can be helpful to take a step back and realize that we can do either, or both, at any point. Our lives and the opportunities that come up will change all the time. If we are persistent, we can trust that we will be doing something we want to do in our lives later, whether we take our major to work every day or not. Who knows, maybe we will encounter what we pursued in college again later when the right opportunity arises.
6. Let go of options that don’t resonate.
Some people get confused when we don’t end up using our degree right away. They will likely ask us about what we’re going to do next. We might feel ashamed when we reply “I don’t know yet.”
Next, they may offer up possible job ideas—typically ones that we have no interest in at all. If a piece of advice appeals to you, great! But if it doesn’t, no need to force it, especially if it is something someone else wants for you.
Only individually do we know how to apply our beautiful, positive, and passionate extensions of ourselves. Our intuitive voice almost never lets us down.
I had to switch my plans around a lot, particularly with choosing to double major or minor in something extra. But I kept my focus on a Japanese major. Juggling Japanese with Korean was near impossible. Taking too many credit hours wouldn’t work out, but taking too few would postpone my graduation.
Eventually, I decided to simply tack on a minor in Swedish. From this, I learned that nothing ends up being set in stone, and we can go in directions we never imagined. That carries through to life outside of college, too.
After graduating university, I took on a minimum wage job in the service industry. Since I decided to stay in the state of Washington, I am able to meet all different types of people, which is a parallel to speaking different languages. I recently quit that job and will be taking on a different one in the hospitality realm, which has similar benefits.
The rest of the story is yet to be lived.