Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Evolution of the Unwinding

I'm sitting in the airport on my way home from Las Vegas. Yes, Vegas, home of everything ridiculous and unnecessary. Here, it is just too flashy and noisy and expensive, and the people are all drunk and annoying and badly dressed. The streets would feel huge except for the fact that the buildings are even huger. I was here for a conference, though I didn't go to many sessions because I've been in the process of unwinding. On Monday, I finished and submitted the very last paper of my graduate school career, and then I promptly sat by the pool and drank an overpriced beer from a plastic bottle and foolishly minorly sunburned my skin. Yesterday I hiked through Sloan Canyon, which was fantastic until the tour guide tried to blame climate change solely on the sun. It took a while to let that one slide. This was definitely a different world, which made me laugh and groan at the same time.

Before this Vegas trip, I was in Washington DC with the black-suited graduate student cohorts who are all applying for the same jobs with the federal government. I ate Thai food with some new people, relearned the Metro system, and daydreamed about my new professional endeavors.

So among all this jet-setting, it still hasn't hit me that I'm done with school. Maybe some time in the woods will help me get it all into perspective. That's next week. My cat will surely be sore at me for leaving her all alone for days at a time, except for the very kind folks who agreed to look after her. Fear not, dear kitty. In a couple of weeks, all we will do is sit on the couch and watch The West Wing reruns and try to put some space between what was and what will be.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

It's over already?

Suddenly, the end of grad school is nigh. Last weekend, we celebrated the completion of our masters project presentations, the one thing many of us had been dreading for two years. When I watched those presentations from my admitted-student seat two years ago, I found it hard to believe that I would ever know enough about anything to stand up and talk for 15 minutes about it. And now I've done it and it's over - I knew enough to pick a project that was challenging but still within my capabilities. I may never read it again, knowing that it could have been so much more, but that's the beauty of it. Seeing what things could be is much better than knowing you've done absolutely everything possible.

So we've been celebrating for a week now, while still working toward the final draft due date and wrapping up group projects and starting 15-page papers that are due in two weeks. The thing about grad school is that if you can't wildly procrastinate, then pull something of quality together quickly, you'll never make it. If you can't complain for hours on end about how much work you have to do, then stay out way too late on a Saturday night to be productive the next morning, you're not really living the grad student life.

It took me a while, but now that I'm ready to graduate, I think I've fully gotten the hang of this grad student life. Friday afternoon kegs, with 3 or 5 or 8 dogs darting between legs. Walking into the computer lab at any hour of the day and seeing the same friendly faces frowning at maps or 20-page PDFs for class. Parties that feel alternately like prom and freshman year frat parties. Bluegrass music, caber tossing, tug-of-war, and the pig that's been roasting in the ground since the night before. Bocce ball and barbecue in the apartment complex yard. And now it's almost over. In the real world, you don't often have Halloween parties in the forest, beer at your computer on a Friday afternoon, or hour-long breaks in the courtyard at 3pm. In the real world, there aren't many opportunities to spend a day on the farm, unless you own that farm.

Grad school isn't all parties, although that's what we'll remember. We'll probably all soon forget the econ problem set that we just couldn't figure out without conferring with classmates. We'll forget the policy memos and statistical models based on our professor's made-up data. The reading reviews will be out of our minds the moment we submit them through Blackboard. That stuff is all practice for the real world. But one thing is for sure - no matter now silly we see each other act on the weekends, no matter how studious our cohorts may be on a Wednesday before a big project is due, there is no doubt in my mind that this group of people will go out and change the world. We've joked that we'll just blow off the real world and live in a commune together, but the truth is that we'd all be miserable with that life. We're not here to while away the hours at some cubicle in some office building, filing TPS reports. Our goals are much bigger, our hopes are endless. We see the myriad social, environmental, and economic challenges that are just beginning to impact our lives. On New Years Eve, a friend gave a short but inspiring toast: here's to a really great year, not just for us, but for the world. Coming into a presidential election with a chance for real change, the spring green to the past eight years of frigid winter, there couldn't be a better time to unleash this flock of great minds and greater energy on the world.

I feel so lucky to be here among them. I made the right choice to come here, to take on big debt in exchange for the chance to take on something much bigger and better than what I could have imagined. I learned from some amazing people, professors and friends alike, and I wouldn't have done anything different. Now, many of us will descend on Washington, DC, or Boston, or San Francisco, or even somewhere in North Carolina. I hope that even with our families and jobs and new opportunities, we'll still keep our little community alive - our nation-wide commune full of organic gardens, musical compositions, and the variety of talents we'll have time to pursue again.

For the first time in my life, I'm not ready to leave this all behind. I'm not tired of the people, disenchanted with my work, or bored with my setting. I'm happy here with my crew and my task. Indeed, seeing what things could be is much better than knowing you've done absolutely everything possible. I know I'm going forth into something new that draws on what I've had here, and that is really much better.