A graduate in a cap and gown sitting on their dorm bed. The scenery is gray.
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Saturday, Sept. 4 marked a monumental moment in Ann Arbor. For the first time in nearly two years, Michigan Stadium welcomed in students at full capacity for the first game of the Wolverines’ 2021 season. And though this wasn’t a homecoming game, the event centered largely on the idea of coming — or, more accurately, returning — home. A tumultuous virtual year left students scattered across the world in their childhood bedrooms. Tens of thousands of them reuniting in one cherished location at the same time was cause for celebration, even if dampened by lingering COVID-19 concerns.

Returning as a recent graduate, however, added another layer of hesitation for me. It was, of course, incredible to be back in the Big House. It was like returning to my family home after my first semester of college and finding my bedroom intact. After feeling alienated from everything for a year, it reminded me how secure and certain I had felt in my place at the University of Michigan. But, like returning to a childhood bedroom, the experience was bittersweet. Everything may look the same, but some part of you knows this is not truly your home anymore, at least not in the same way it was before. It will naturally be taken over by others and used for something new.

Given the circumstances of the past year, however, the return was not merely bittersweet, but in some ways painful. Nostalgia for my college experience prior to the pandemic was partially replaced by heartbreak for the experiences I had lost to the pandemic. Game day in Ann Arbor was a reminder of everything that never was due to the pandemic; acquaintances that never became friends and memories that were never made.

Wrapped up in all of those conflicting feelings, game day above all reaffirmed to me that there is something about being in Ann Arbor — about being a U-M student — that can’t be replicated anywhere else. Being back at the Big House was the first time in a long time that I’d felt like a part of something bigger than myself. And it wasn’t just being in a crowd of 109,000 people. It was blending into a sea of maize and blue and chanting the same chants I had two years ago as if nothing had changed. It was almost a blessing of anonymity; in the crowd, I couldn’t be singled out as a recent graduate or a job-seeker or a young adult in the transition from college to the real world. I could just be a Michigan Wolverine for a moment. And in that moment, I wanted to just be a Michigan Wolverine forever.

I’m certain I’m not alone in this feeling. Between 2008 and 2018, more than 96% of freshmen completed their first year successfully and returned to the University the following year. This makes Michigan tied for the 11th highest first-year retention rate nationally, which is well above the average of 91.3% for all public schools in the Association of American Universities. Similarly, the University’s yield — the number of students enrolling compared to the number admitted — increased over 5% between 2014 and 2019. Clearly, there’s something about Michigan that motivates people to come here and stay here, more so than many other schools.

However, the desire to make the Michigan experience last forever conflicts with the constant pressure to get it done as quickly as possible. Eighty percent of the University’s 2012 first-year cohort graduated within four years, almost 20% greater than the average four-year graduation rate of AAU public universities. This is often touted as a good thing, and in many ways, it is. College is expensive and getting it done faster can save you a significant amount of money. And some students may desire an efficient college experience for social or personal reasons.

But financial and social pressures to finish as quickly as possible and get to the next step can detract from the experience of the four — or five or six — years spent on campus. It seems antithetical to how hard many of us worked and how excited many of us were to get here only to treat it as a stepping stone to what’s meant to come next. Perhaps this is becoming more noticeable due to the prominence of hustle culture among Gen Z at large; the desire to not only climb the career ladder but to exploit every possible ounce of our productive capability begins with our first steps on campus. But I think this culture goes back far beyond Gen Z. It’s somewhat unique to Michigan, an internalization of “the Michigan Difference” and “Leaders and the Best” and every other expectation foisted upon us by our attendance of this prestigious university — prestige we are frequently reminded of.

One especially oppressive part of this culture is the expectation that you should have everything figured out, a culture perpetuated by everyone around you seemingly having everything figured out. As early as August, LinkedIn connections are “thrilled to share” their internship plans for next summer or, even more daunting to those of us who feel behind, their return offers upon graduation. As a junior transfer, the gravity and immediacy of finding a junior year internship were impressed upon me before I even attended a class at Michigan. 

As difficult as these pressures can be, they do seem to be at least a common malaise, and in light of the pandemic, some students at Michigan are questioning the overemphasis on the junior year internship altogether. As much as it seems everyone else seems to have the future figured out, there are also reassurances that most people don’t and that everything will work out eventually. But getting to the end of my degree and feeling like everything expected of me hasn’t materialized can be a very lonely experience.

Upon commencement, I lost the camaraderie of collective struggle. I lost access to the social groups that carried me through college. In the days following graduation, I was removed from several group chats and listservs that had brought me together with others before the pandemic and kept me sane during it. Though I had been anticipating this separation, it still felt sudden. A few months later, as others celebrated a triumphant return to campus on the first day of classes, I spent that day in the same way I had spent the past year: working alone in my room. As much as I was thrilled for others to get back to campus, every joyful Instagram post and Snapchat story I saw made me long for a chance to return, to be invited back to the party.

Graduation was also the moment that “real world” expectations came on in full force. I can no longer just say “I’m a student” when asked what I do. I had felt the pressure of knowing my future before graduation, but it became so much more visceral after losing the buffer of being in college. Whether it’s a doctor’s appointment or dinner with relatives, the question of “what’s next?” is asked less out of curiosity and more out of urgency. I’m no longer afforded understanding for my uncertainty; I’m presumed lost and directionless. Perhaps this is tied to the pressure to always think way ahead and to know exactly what’s coming next. After years of this culture, being uncertain after graduation and not quite sure of the next step is indicative of personal shortcomings and maybe even unworthiness of the Michigan pedigree.

The most interesting part of this internalized guilt is that I don’t believe my present state is the result of failure, but actually of choice. Truthfully: I need a minute. Maybe I’m just not ready to move on. I need a minute to linger in the space that was once mine before it becomes something else, just as my room at home was quickly converted into storage space. I need something between a victory lap and goodbye tour, or just a chance to finish writing this chapter in a way I’m at least somewhat satisfied with rather than having the page forcefully turned over. As much as I feel strange and even a bit unwelcome sticking around, I do believe there is value in lingering.

According to the University of Washington, it takes the average college graduate three to six months to find a job after graduation. As much as Michigan has constantly reinforced the importance of being different, of leading and being the best, I’m trying to be okay with being “average” in some measures, including this one.

As difficult as it can be following several years of an incessantly forward-looking culture, we need to allow ourselves and others space to linger and feel uncertain after graduation. Despite how the social environment at Michigan makes us feel, it’s normal to need time and to not have everything figured out even after you’ve received your diploma. This is especially true for the class of 2021: as much as you may feel urged to move on as if things were normal, what happened to our college experience frankly sucks. It’s more than okay if you need some extra time to wrap things up.

I have some ideas for what the next phase is, but for the moment, I’m not finished here. I’m going to linger in between Michigan and whatever’s next for right now. And besides, there’s always grad school.

Statement Correspondent Mary Rolfes can be reached at morolfes@umich.edu.