Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Finishing Grad School By the Light of the Moon

My grad life

Like the cycles of the moon, life moves forward in a mysterious yet predictable fashion.

With the new moon you see only darkness. As it waxes, it reaches the point of a first quarter moon, half moon, last-quarter moon, and finally a full moon. Then the moon begins to wane as darkness slides over it, obscuring it, until you can see only a last-quarter moon, half moon, then a first quarter moon, and then nothing at all. The cycle begins anew as slivers of silver begin to appear in the sky.

Such as many masters programs, my time at Indiana University in the HESA program includes four semesters of work over a course of two years. The metaphor of the moon cycles appears an apt description of my time here. And of course, like any student affairs persona, what else would I do as graduation nears but reflect on my experience? ;)

Or, the first semester

Have you ever walked under the night sky during the phase of a new moon? There is only darkness. Shadows are cast from the dim light of the twinkling stars. Our eyes strain to adjust to this new, dark environment but paths are concealed. Where do we go? We cannot see. Even if we know this landscape by daylight, at night the most innocuous of objects can appear sinister in the shadows. It is a traditional human trait to be wary of the unseen, to feel trepidation to forge a new path in the darkness.

And yet.

There is beauty in darkness. It is a blank canvas awaiting a master artist. You cannot see your path? That is fine. Imagine it. What do you want to see? Possibilities await you. While you may stumble in the dark, you can create new paths and determine your future.

Or, the second semester

The cool gaze of the moon drifts over the land, illuminating bits and pieces of what lays before you. You’re no longer as lost as you once was. You’re beginning to get the hang of this thing called grad school. There’s a pattern in your life – class, work, and personal time. For once you’re starting to feel like you know what you’re doing.

But that sliver of moonlight is not quite enough. This land is still shrouded in shadow. One moment you feel like you know exactly what you are doing…and the next you’re stumbling, falling hard to the ground. Your knees bruise. While your hands reached out and prevented your face from crashing into the dirt, but they are stinging fiercely. You ache. Sometimes you wonder why you’re still here. It would be so much easier to quit.

Something catches your eye. A sliver of moonlight drifts into the path, illuminating where you’ve already journeyed from. You’ve worked hard. You’ve been tested. You are being tested.

As the moon arcs across the sky you see a glimpse of the path before you. Hope sings in your heart and you remember why you are here. And what you have to look forward to.

You keep walking.

Or, the third semester

Wide swaths of moonlight cut across the darkness.  As you journey down the path you’ve forged, you feel refreshed in the sweet, pale light. This is good. Life feels good. You can see more of the landscape around you with each passing day; and with each passing day you feel more and more confident. You are competent at your graduate assistantship – hell, sometimes you are downright fantastic at your job. There’s a new set of classes, but you’re familiar with your professors, the quality of work expected, and know your classmates well enough. Why, you even have friends at this stage.

You’re happy.

Yet while you are growing in confidence, the shadows linger. Moonlight does not touch all areas of the landscape. In the darkness lies the changes in our life that inspire fear, discomfort, worry, or any other myriad of unpleasant thoughts. Perhaps you’ve realized that your dreams are changing – instead of working in one area you recognize that you may be more passionate for another functional area. Or perhaps there’s been a tremendous change in your life – family death/illness, relationship change, assistantship change, department turnover, etc.

The shadows are diminishing but their presence can still inspire feelings like self-doubt. You question yourself. You question your life. You question your decisions. Are you on the right path?

You look around and take a deep breath. You’ve journeyed far. The tests you’ve endured have built you up. You remember your confidence. And so you deal with those unpleasant feelings and keep moving forward.

Or, the fourth semester

Pale light nearly encompasses everything. You can see most of your path. In fact, there’s not much of the path left. Graduation, that moment the full moon rises, is nearing.

You survey the land; after all this time you are still a bit surprised by how much you can see under the moon’s light. You’ve accomplished a good deal within your assistantship, practicum experiences, classes, and other personal accomplishments.

The path you are walking is mostly lit and you no longer feel as though you are walking in darkness. This semester you will have your final set of classes, begin the transition process at your assistantship, enjoy what time you have left with your friends, and initiate the job search process…

And therein the shadows persist.

You can see the path that leads to graduation, but what comes next? Will you be able to find a job? Will you be able to find the right job?

Your stomach knots. You begin to worry. There’s a hollow feeling in your chest as anxiety rises. The shadows are diminishing, yes, but you can practically hear them begin to whisper cruel things; you will never find a job, you will be the only person within your cohort to not find a job – its ramen and your parents’ basement for the future…

But you refuse to succumb to the darkness. You’ve seen the pattern. You know where your path leads. More light enters your life as time passes. Reflecting on past cohorts reminds you that each of them experienced this anxiety as well. And they all found jobs. Or, at least, that’s what Facebook says – and you can always trust things you read on the internet.

You smile.

There’s a sliver of darkness that crosses into your path but you skip over it. You know who you are. And what you’re capable of. Graduate school has illuminated that much.

It’s going to be okay.

Or, Graduation

The world is drenched in light and you can finally see everything. Shadows have abated. You’re graduating. You have a job. Your life is taking off.

And in that moment, you feel a twinge of sorrow. This part of your life is ending. It is bittersweet.

You also realize, that while you are at the apex of the cycle, enjoying the light of the full moon, darkness will soon begin to sweep over your life. The cycle is relentless.

Sorrow is replaced by a dollop of fear; you wonder what will come next. When the shadows of uncertainty and new experience slide across the landscape, will you choose the correct path?

You may not. And that’s okay. You’ve been through this. You understand the cycle. Although the new moon can bring about darkness and fear, it is a blank canvas.

And you, my friend, are a master painter.

Comments are encouraged. How does this compare to your experience? You are welcome to leave comments here or connect with me on Twitter at @NikiMessmore

Enjoy your canvas :)