Settling in: a saga

Three and a half weeks in and I would say I’m finally settled. The transition back into student life from adulting-working life has been a riot so far – everything from going back to shared living spaces to trying not to be so annoyed by the undergrads in the library – but it is a change that is beginning to feel ‘right’.

Here orientation week is called ‘fresher’s week’ and what a week it’s been. From meeting my incredible cohort of people I’ll be studying alongside for two years to enjoying the traditions of formal hall and other college events, it’s been a whirlwind of new faces, new friendships, and unforgettable (or some rather hazy, but lovely) moments.

Today I’m trying to take a step back from the rat race that’s been fresher’s week to really appreciate what a beautiful and profound opportunity this is on so many levels. I mean, I get to study here in places like this one:

rad_cam
The Radcliffe Camera – University of Oxford

Here at Regent’s Park College – my college and the social hub of my University experience – has a motto that I feel is expressly applicable for this time:  Omnia probate quod bonum tenete. In English this means “Test all things; hold on to what is true.” I intend to test it all. 

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Getting back in the swing.

It’s hard to believe that this time last week and I was finishing up packing to move my life halfway across the globe to pursue a dream. Stuffing last minute times into carry-ons, hoping that my luggage scale is right and my bag is underweight (it wasn’t), and going through the mental checklist of everything I have to accomplish to get to and through Heathrow with the least possible stress.

And now, here I am.

Oxford welcomes you back like an old friend it would seem. Industry bustles on and there’s always development or construction somewhere, but the key pieces will always be the same as they’ve been for centuries. the Martyr’s Memorial. The Radcliffe Camera. The spires of University Church. The obnoxious, homogenous crowds of tourists that seem to forget sidewalks are for walking.

I missed the hell out of it.

At least I did until the panic set in. Can you imagine a move where you literally arrive and don’t even have a towel to shower off the over 24 hours of travel sweat you’ve accumulated off your body? Not even a sheet to lay down on? Trudging through the busy streets to a department store to buy towels and bedding was the last thing I wanted to do when I arrived in a literal downpour to the City of Dreaming Spires, but I didn’t have much choice. (Though if I had a pillow to stick my head under when I first arrived, I probably would have done so.)

On top of all this, receiving missive after missive from my program, confronting the literal mountain of pre-reading I should have accomplished a month ago, all while figuring out the basics of my new life, finding a phone, getting a bank account, finding where to buy a damn pan, etc etc….

It’s overwhelming. But not unmanageable.

While taking on this degree and returning to Oxford feels a lot like coming home, this time it is different. I am older, (arguable wiser), and moving much more in a direction purposefully rather than moving with the inertia of what a moderately intelligent girl from Kentucky should do. And after a two year sabbatical from academic work, I’m chomping at the bit to get down to business.

Fragmented as my thoughts are right now, I guess you could say I’m getting back in the swing of things.

Hello ‘imposter syndrome’, my old friend.

A little over a week away from The Big Move and there are about three million things running through my head.

What clothes can I still get rid of? Have I read enough? Where’s my checklist of things left to do? Does my student bio for my cohort sound dumb?…the list goes on. Chief among these questions is one that literally seems to be keeping me up at night:  am I actually cut out for this?

The Imposter Syndrome™, ladies and gents, is rearing its ugly head again and you know what? I have no solution for it. We could debate all day about why it exists and attacks you – probably some version of the patriarchal double standard in my line of work and a good dose of self-induced gaslighting is part of my equation – but regardless I would say most 20-somethings have felt this crippling phenomenon.

One day you’re leading your team, teaching and training and researching. Everything clicks and works in precision and you are on top of the world. The next you spend your morning struggling with the coffeemaker, feeling uninspired, questioning if you’d even make is as a barista, let alone at anything else. Are you as smart as you think you are? Or is it all a myth you created in your own version of reality?

What’s worse is we all know the omnipresent toxic office “expert” type:  the self-important person who thinks they are great when really they aren’t. They are so out of touch with reality and no one really questions them, but talks behind their back (I also think this is a toxic piece of business/professional culture, but I digress.) You’re thinking ‘Is that me? Am I that one?’

Then, if it weren’t enough, we’re hurled into the cycle again because if we are asking these questions in the first place, surely we can’t possibly be that team member so out of touch with reality. If we’re questioning ourselves and our abilities, then surely we’re just being healthy and practicing good professional growth.

Well, yes and no. Reflection and adaptation are important parts of professional development, but you can go too far. Everyone makes mistakes, makes the wrong call, has failures, but not everyone learns from those failures.

To be honest, I don’t have any more answers than anyone else does on this, except that while The Imposter Syndrome™ is natural, you can’t let it control you. Fears are valid, but so is pride in your own abilities and no one is perfect. I think sometimes this is a more difficult lesson to internalize for women – again harking back to toxic masculinity and sexism in the workplace – but it’s an important one.

And on that note, I’ll return to panicking about packing.

The Devil’s in the Details

My God is there a truer phrase in the English language?

Seven weeks and counting until I pick up my life and move halfway around the world. It’s exciting, no? Except all I can think about are the applications, the car I need to sell (and have sold officially, today), the deposits, the reading list I haven’t completed enough of yet, if my bags are still good enough to make it another transatlantic go around, if I have the right kind of boots, what is my coat situation, etc….

For me, planning has always come second nature.

My mind is running in circles. For me, planning has always come second nature. I’m not an easily shaken person, but I have to have a plan in place. I don’t even mind when things deviate from the plan, but my mantra is to alleviate any potential issues before they become issues. You can’t predict for everything – and in my ripe old age of twenty-four I’ve come to realize that – but you can plan for a lot and I typically do this to a fault. I have spreadsheets for everything. I have spreadsheets for my spreadsheets.

But, it is so easy to get so caught up in the planning and panic and not enjoy the moments.

Seven weeks is not a long time, and I have a lot to plan in those seven weeks, but I also have a lot to cherish and enjoy.

Seven weeks is not a long time, and I have a lot to plan in those seven weeks, but I also have a lot to cherish and enjoy. I have built such a beautiful network of friends and supporters and I wish I had the time to spend with each and every one of them. They are what makes this leaving bittersweet. This is the opportunity of a lifetime for me, but you’ll find when you travel and live in many different places that you’ll always be missing somebody, somewhere.

Undoubtedly I will get to Oxford and will be missing something important that my mother will then have to mail to me. I will also undoubtedly be cursing myself for something that would have been easier had I planned a little better before I left. But at the end of it all, you can only plan so much. The devil is in the details because sometimes the details can steal your joy.

Don’t let the stress of planning steal from you the joy of the experience that comes with it.

Seven weeks and counting, and I commit to not allowing the planning to overtake the excitement of this wonderful time in my life. I would argue this is applicable to so many situations we find ourselves in, whether that’s planning for a wedding, a baby, a new house, etc. So I leave you with this:  If I have any decent advice to give about big life changes, don’t let the stress of planning steal from you the joy of the experience that comes with it.

Why a gap year (or two) was the best choice I ever made.

We all know the drill. You go to high school, if you’re “smart” you move on to college immediately after. You participate in four years of studying and “finding yourself” and you better have found yourself during those four short years because after they hand you that expensive piece of paper and you toss the mortar board, you’re expected to know exactly what path to take to live a fulfilled life. Now, with grad school admissions opening and closing sooner than ever, scholarship and funding dollars awarded earlier and earlier, and most deadlines hitting January 1 of your senior year or earlier, you really only get three to three-and-a-half years to figure out your life plan now.

I graduated summa cum laude and was awarded the highest honor a graduating student at my institution can be awarded, and you know what? I had no idea what I really wanted to do after graduation. 

In college, I was a model student and campus leader. I participated in the clubs you were supposed to, I was a leader in my sorority as well as the campus at-large. I rarely missed class, I completed a 70-page Honors Thesis while applying to graduate school. I graduated summa cum laude and was awarded the highest honor a graduating student at my institution can be awarded, and you know what? I had no idea what I really wanted to do after graduation.

In my experience as well as the experience of several of my close friends, you get on this higher education track and it just feels like a rat race to the end. Just like in high school where the expected outcome is to attend college, the expected outcome for many students in undergrad is graduate school in its many forms. But at the end of my undergraduate career with accolades under my belt and a funded PhD offer on the table, I was left standing in the middle of the noise, intoxicated by four long years of studying, ignoring my personal well being, and fitting into a mold defined for me by society, but with no idea of what I wanted after graduation.

I was taking a gap year. 

At that point, I took a chance – I took a job. I didn’t fall into the pre-destined equation that I’d all but bricked myself into, and I instead took a sidestep. I took it with the full intention of hanging tight for a bit while I figured myself out. I was taking a gap year.

At first, explaining myself felt like explaining a wrong decision in the eyes of many of my friends and colleagues. I was met with a lot of ‘oh’ and ‘hmm’ when I explained that I was not going directly into grad school. I was angry, frustrated, and a bit hurt at several of the reactions as well as the constant need to explain myself. I second guessed my choice, wondered if I made the right one daily, and was left spiraling in the weird world that is the life of a new graduate with the added feeling of letting myself and everyone else I knew down. I was an academic by trade and expertise, why would I want to hit the pause button on something I was just so damn good at?

One day, in the midst of the applications for grad school, [my advisor] asked “Why do you want to go to grad school?”

I didn’t have an answer.

But eventually, I realized that taking a gap between my undergraduate studies and graduate school was probably the best choice I’ve made in my 24 years of living thus far. I will say that some of the most poignant advice from my undergraduate advisor helped me through it all, though I didn’t appreciate it at the time. One day, in the midst of the applications for grad school, she asked “Why do you want to go to grad school?”

I didn’t have an answer.

Of course, stubborn as I am, I pressed on and completed the applications, but the question still lingered in my mind. Then, on top of the thread of self-doubt, I eventually began getting letters back from the institutions I applied to – and they were rejections. Constant, cold, unyielding rejections. I can’t explain how hard it is for your entire life to be centered on being “smart” and being “academic” and then to be told that you’re not good enough by an admissions board that you don’t know and will never see. (I was eventually awarded a place at my last choice of school.)

Instead, I got back to hobbies that give me joy and strengthened friendships that I’d let wane during school, and I was able to define myself in a new context and really consider what I want out of life, what I enjoy, and what I consider my calling to be.

Thus, my gap year – which turned into two – was a time of reflection and growth. I worked, I got promoted, I was able to work on some amazing teams and incredible opportunities in my home state of Kentucky. I was able to have the space to take a breath, step back, and just not think for a while. Instead, I got back to hobbies that give me joy and strengthened friendships that I’d let wane during school, and I was able to define myself in a new context and really consider what I want out of life, what I enjoy, and what I consider my calling to be. I was able to get out of my own way.

If I hadn’t taken this break – this seemingly ‘unnatural’ break in the eyes of American Society – I wouldn’t be going to Oxford this fall for my Masters.

Call it divine intervention, call it karma, call it fate or what have you, but I do believe everything happens for a reason and a purpose. I am one of the strongest advocates for gap years now and any undergrad who asks me advice on ‘what’s next’, I immediately launch into this story. Because above all else, it is okay to be undecided and to not know your next step before you graduate. I used to laugh off the question of ‘What’s your plan?’ or ‘What’s your next step?’ instead of replying with the ever dreaded ‘Well, I really don’t know’, but now I praise that answer. Coming from an obsessive planner, this was the hardest lesson to internalize, but I’m happier for it. I’m not saying give up plans in totality, but have some levity and give yourself space to live.

Plan in decades. Think in years. Work in months. Live in days. 

As my first post on this personal blog about my graduate experience and moving forward, I really wanted to tackle this issue that is so close to home for me. I’m not arrogant enough to believe that I have all the answers or that everyone’s situation is like mine, but I will say this:  there is no shame in taking the time you need to in order to make big, life-changing decisions like this. There is no imaginary timeline or ticking timer that goes out if you take a break before graduate school or your next step. Plans are wonderful but only get you so far. Living is just as important.

Above all else:  Plan in decades. Think in years. Work in months. Live in days. Be flexible, be present in your own life, and be courageous to take a chance on the path that is not so obvious. You’ll be surprised at what comes your way.