Senior year came and I had to face again the question of my future.
I considered pursuing a graduate degree in English. When one of my professors bluntly expressed that writing a recommendation letter for me would reflect poorly on his reputation and then continued to wax poetic about another student who he had written a letter for who was brilliant, I quickly dropped that idea. He even pulled out the letter and began reading it aloud to me since he knew I was acquainted with that particular student. I was more relieved than annoyed. I knew the rigor of academic literary discourse was not for me.
Some of my English major friends were applying to law school and others had landed consulting jobs. I couldn’t see myself doing either those things. I went back to the career center and conducted several informational interviews but could find no clear direction.
The only idea I had was to return to Taiwan to teach English and study Chinese. As I was thinking over this possibility, my Chinese professor encouraged me to apply for a Taiwan Ministry of Education scholarship to study Chinese in Taiwan. Ten students would be selected to receive a full year’s tuition plus a generous stipend. I applied, and to my surprise, within a month of applying, I received word that I had been chosen. I could not believe my good fortune and was relieved that I had a plan for at least the next year.
About the same time (graduation was approaching) I received a message on my answering machine congratulating me for winning the English Department Poetry Prize for Best Poem by an Undergraduate. Oddly, my response was disappointment. I was convinced that few people must have entered the competition, they had no other choice than to choose me.
The year ended in a blur of activities where I found myself to be disconnected from my peers. My writing life which I had found solace in was not particularly conducive to bonding with friends. I had good friends and apartment mates, but had not found part of any particular tribe. When it came time to celebrate, the night before graduation, my friends had their family events and group activities, and I found myself alone. It was an uneasy surprise, a rude awakening. As I left campus after graduation and shut the door of the minivan which would take me home, sadness washed over me. I felt the same emptiness and angst that I had weeks after graduating from high school. I had no career plans. I was not proud of myself. I had nothing to celebrate.
Author’s Reflections: Sometimes I read about high school students who seem to have everything going for them but commit suicide. (See note below.) They were honor students, accomplished in sports or music, had the world ahead of them, yet they had lost hope. Maybe they felt disconnected or alone. Or thought they weren’t good enough. I would never take my life, but I could relate to those feelings. I went into college determined to find a career but ended still without direction. I thought I was a failure.
If I could speak to my young twenty-year-old self I’d say, you’re doing great. You haven’t figured it all out but you’ve graduated from Stanford! You’re a scholarship winner and a poetry prize winner. You don’t have to figure everything out. You have your whole life to discover your life’s purpose. There are many ways to define success and career is just one of them. You are sensitive and creative. You are spiritual and caring. You are hard-working and intelligent. I am proud of you.
Questions for Discussion: How do you define success? How broad is your definition?
Has your definition changed?
Click here for an Atlantic Monthly (December 2015) article on teen suicides: Silicon Valley Suicides: Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?