Senior year is, in one respect, characterized by a cognitive dissociation disorder and blurring of time. As a personal matter, there is Bongani (who laborers on a thesis project and does all that he’s been doing for the past 3 years) and then, inhabiting a superimposed space and time, there is the doppelganger (looking for jobs, networking, and crying in anticipation of all the rejection that lays ahead). The extent to which this is institutional as opposed to self-imposed remains unclear to me. What is clear is that I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the “next step” in life, so much so that I often feel only partly tuned in to all that is happening in any given moment. If it can be argued that a senior lives in the moment, it is my impression that this bearing is a desperate attempt to savor what remains of college – an experience soon to be history – and to fend off or delay a fast-approaching and uncertain future. For a large part of the year, a senior is everywhere but in the present. I would wager that to most of my classmates, the present year has ceased to be an important unit itself. It has become a transitory period engineered to refine oneself and to assure that we escape a kind of extinction when the period expires.
Beyond just the simple question of securing the next chapter, I’ve been thinking a lot about the form and content of such a chapter. Law school, graduate school, international organization, private corporation – wherever I land must be a place of quality, a place that will vindicate the work I’ve done (and the money I’ve paid) – in brief, a place worthy of an Amherst graduate. But what is this obsession with names? In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare observes through Juliet, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.” Unfortunately, Shakespeare, names are important – for the images they conjure in our minds and the impressions with which they leave our entourage and us. Names denote and connote. If arbitrary at one point, they scarcely remain that way. A Chester Dinklage, anonymous in childhood, might soon come to stand for scientific excellence. This is why I find it so fascinating that, in my culture, parents traditionally would defer naming until the child came to develop some personality. With that point made, back to Amherst.
Our aspirations are bound up in names-brands. How do we break free of a fixation? While an Amherst graduate might not think like he or she is better than anyone else, I feel the peculiar strain of learning we undergo in this specific context engenders a certain entitlement. In large part, Amherst used to be a training school for well-off WASP boys looking for entries into a comfortable life in business, finance and law. With the college’s contemporary sensibilities, we are a world’s leap from that era. And yet entitlement lingers. We expect to lead ‘lives of consequence’. This is not a contentious point, in my opinion. Contentious, are the feelings of inadequacy and disappointment which are without a doubt to plague some of us seniors upon graduation. Of course, this has been changing for a long time. People find satisfaction in a myriad métiers and the definition of success is continually evolving. My hope is that my peers don’t get too bogged down by the schizophrenia of senior year. Though are paths will vary and be limited by disparate steps, we will continue on to do meaningful things in life. And I want to extend that reassurance to the high school seniors considering Amherst.
Yes, Amherst is a brand of great value. The name signifies, among other things, world-class scholarship and teaching and the (re)production of a conscientious, critically-minded student paradigm. Do I love being here? Yes. But you know what, I probably could have been happy at other places. As one of the Admission deans always says in her information sessions, remember that at the end of the day, you are going to go to college. Do not stop working hard, but do remember as well to savor every moment because once it’s gone, you cannot revive it to its original majesty.