No Turning Back
The first year out of college can be a confusing passage
through choices and emotions — from loss to liberation.
Story by ANNA DETERS ’05
Illustrations by ALESIA NORLING O’DONNELL
Illinois Wesleyan’s Class of 2005, myself included, has been out in what is called
“the real world” for a year now. This inescapable fact still surprises me. I will
be grocery shopping, hassling about health insurance, washing dishes, or doing some
other chore that crowds my daily existence when suddenly I realize how how far away
my college life now seems. I have already forgotten so many of the details — what
are the names of the girls who lived three rooms down the hall from me? I’m stumped.
What I do recall sifts through my mind like random snapshots, while the fonder memories
have already begun to turn sepia with nostalgia.
It cannot be that all those years have already come and gone — the countless clinking
of cafeteria trays, wintery walks across the Quad, concerts, football games, gossip
sessions in the girls’ communal bathroom, Sunday afternoons at The Ames, pages turned
and papers written — all distilling into one bright flash of existence. But so it
And now? I look around and my friends are scattered, our paths having splintered the
moment we stepped down from the commencement platform. No more jogging down the hall
to a friend’s room in slippers and pajamas. No more camaraderie and commiseration
about this or that class. Visiting a friend has gone from walking down the hall or
across campus to a cross-country flight, a four-hour drive, or, at minimum, a substantial
urban transit. As one of my former floormates who now lives in downtown Chicago poignantly
laments, “It’s lonely living somewhere where you can count your friends on one hand.”
But it’s not only that the close friends aren’t so proximally close anymore — it’s
that making new friends will never again be so easy. As undergraduates, we lived in
a social beehive. Everyone in sight was a friend just waiting to happen. Now, well,
how do real adults meet potential friends, anyway? We really have yet to figure this
one out, and many of my peers from the Class of ’05 are expressing a regret that as
full-fledged adults, there are few places to comfortably meet new people, except for
at work, which is yet another challenge in adaptation.
Although most of us, I believe, had some sort of job during our high school or college
years, the intensified routine of a full-time, full-year employment is something new.
“I do the same exact thing every day,” grumbles a friend who also graduated last year.
“Setting the alarm for 5:30 a.m. and going to work five days a week is a different
game from getting up at 8:30 or 9:00 and following a schedule that changes day to
day, semester by semester.” But work is a semester that’s not going to be over anytime
soon — indeed, graduation does not just mark the end of four years of college; it
issues in a whole new way of life, for who can really recall a time when he or she
wasn’t a student? We may not even realize it at the time, but upon graduation most
of us say goodbye to the security of the cyclical year paced by midterms, final exams,
and long summers. Oh, those long summers.
In addition to the regimentation of regular employment is the very lack of those amenities
which helped streamline our days to maximum flexibility and efficiency. No matter
how diverse our undergraduate experiences at Illinois Wesleyan were, I think we can
all agree that life on campus was blissfully convenient. Between the dining hall that
fed us and the Shirk Center where we worked it off, the classrooms where we spent
our days and the library where we spent our nights, an abundance of resources were
undeniably at our fingertips.
And now? Well, as another ’05 grad notes, “Everything takes so long!” Not only must
we go grocery shopping, but we also have to prepare our own food and wash the dishes
(all of this more time-consuming than I, at least, ever suspected). In school everything
was so fast and convenient, and many of us first-year alumni find that we don’t have
the patience we should for doing things in daily life because we never had to do them
We quickly notice that getting to the gym requires better planning and an automobile
and that the local public library is hardly impressive after one has wallowed for
so long in the luxuries of The Ames. But something more significant, although realized
less immediately, is our removal from the “enlightened academic community.” Except
for those who enter the teaching profession or go on to graduate school, leaving college
is a trade of the gown for the town. Suddenly the intellectual mission is compromised
— without pressure, encouragement, and stimulation from the academy, we may find it
easy to neglect the life of the mind. “I miss being introduced to books and ideas
I would not venture into on my own,” remarks a former student. Not to mention all
the events, speakers, and entertainers arranged to amuse or enlighten us on nearly
a daily basis, which now in civic life we have to seek out on our own.
It would seem that at the end of formal schooling there is a rather bleak initiation
into the daily grind of full adulthood, which, paradoxically, is mysterious even in
its routine predictability. In school, “next year” was always predetermined; after
second grade came third, after sophomore year came junior. We always knew what to
expect. Beyond the campus gates we face a long expanse of life — totally uncharted
and shaped only by societal pressures telling us by what age to get married, stop
wearing short-shorts, have kids, and retire. Like being projected into space, we are
greeted by a vast unknown with no safety rope, no teacher or institution whose job
it is to light our way.
But this image is misleading. We are not suspended in a dark expanse; we are progressing
through it, into it, generating our own glow. If not, why did we go to school in the
first place? One former student, while admitting he misses many aspects of being a
college student, is confident in his ability to carry on and, in fact, promote what
he liked best about the University. “Everything I have lost is something I hope to
restore where I now reside.” Currently working to develop a drama program at an inner-city
high school, he goes on to add, “What I gained at IWU was a thorough appreciation
of a variety of arts and activities, and now I strive to recreate those opportunities
in new places.”
Certainly, joining the workforce has its constructive challenges. A friend of mine,
also a ’05 grad, revels in her professional life. “I feel that I learned about 20
percent of what I needed for my job at college and 80 percent in the workplace,” she
says. “It’s amazing what you learn every day.” Other perks include more time to spend
with family and more opportunities to pursue hobbies and other interests. “When I
leave work for the day, I’m done working for the day,” says another ’05 grad. “Since
I don’t have any homework, I’m able to get back to my interests — cooking, reading
for pleasure, and spending my weekends however I like.” And let us not forget that
a regular job has the merit of a regular income and, with it, a certain relaxation
of the proverbial “starving student” lifestyle.
But by no means are all recent graduates immersed in the workforce. There are those
who continue on with medical, law, or graduate school; those who join the Peace Corps;
those, like me, who travel or live abroad; those in the military, and so on. Indeed,
everyone with whom I spoke emphasized the uniqueness of his or her experiences and
circumstances. There is a joy and vigor in our splintered paths. As self-dependent
adults we have the responsibility, the skills, and the maturity to fully embrace our
individuality and put it to good use.
Many of us recognized this completion of a certain growth during our last year at
Illinois Wesleyan. When asked if they miss college, many reply, “I don’t miss it because
I was ready to leave,” or “I was ready to move on to the next stage of life.” Yes,
the next stage of life. As friend of mine recently succinctly put it, “There’s no
turning back.” No turning back?
As I watch my younger brother navigate through his first year of college, I feel various
shades of envy, sometimes wishing that I could turn back and start all over. But then,
right on the tail of this thought comes a wave of relief that this is impossible.
No one can take those years away from me. I’ve finished them with success and without
regret, and if I could go back, I wouldn’t want to. The next stage of life is calling.
The author, Anna Deters, spent the past year and a half in Turin, Italy, where she
completed an M.A. in American studies at the University of Turin. Various travels
took her, among other places, to Scotland and Israel, Paris and Rome, the Black Forest,
and the top of Mount Etna. She recently returned to the United States and begins her
Ph.D. studies in English and American literature at Washington University in St. Louis