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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Sarah Says: What comes next?

There’s nothing quite like your final parents weekend to hammer home the fact that undergrad is coming to a close. As I toured my parents around campus one last time, I found myself thinking about the girl I was four years ago. I was a senior in high school the last time my future would feel secure. 

Like many of you, I was accepted Early Decision to Middlebury. That December morning, the letter in my inbox came as a breath of fresh air; for so long I had labored under an asphyxiation of stress, when, with one word I could finally exhale. 

I knew what my next four years would look like. No doubt I pictured many of the same images as you: striped wool sweaters, grassy quads, snowy winters, the turning of the famous New England leaves, friends from every corner of the country and long nights bent as easily over a book as bopping to the beat of a sweaty dorm party. Most of all, I pictured myself: eloquent, assured and somehow taller — a prototypical English major. 

In a previous piece, I elucidated how I came to Middlebury to be a Creative Writing major, and more specifically, a writer. Since the age of seventeen, my greatest ambition has been to find a way to make a career of my writing, with every step in my academic process since then underpinned by that same goal. 

Except for a brief summer spent contemplating a double major in Political Science, there was none of the major declaration hand-wringing which is practically a liberal arts rite of passage. I knew I wanted to be a Creative Writing major. This was a choice which sometimes incited my fellow freshmen to profess admiration for my bravery that always seemed slightly counterintuitive: to me, nothing had ever felt so solid, so sure. 

Besides, even as an 18-year-old then I knew the bravery would not be in choosing to declare a Creative Writing major at Middlebury, but continuing to pursue creative writing after I left. One of the occupational hazards of my chosen vocation is a talent for talking. When adults ask me about my future, I riff on Ramen dinners, wax romantic on Carrie Bradshaw and gush over my commitment to my craft while still subtly suggesting an openness to law school. 

Now, in the fall of my senior year, the time for talk is beginning to run out. It has become not only adults but also classmates who pose the question to me: What comes next? 

In their mouths, the question becomes an imperative. Not just what comes next, but: figure out what comes next. 

This past summer, most of my friends had internships in their respective career fields. I wrote a novel. Though I knew what I chose to do required immense self-discipline and effort, I always felt self-conscious when I was asked by adults or peers how I spent my summer. By not supplying my LinkedIn profile with an additional heading, I could not shake my imagined stench of failure. What did a draft of a novel matter compared to a LinkedIn post, much less to a return offer? 

This is but one manifestation of the contradictions intrinsic to a Middlebury education. For an institution which preaches the value of the liberal arts, but sends thirty three percent of graduates into the world of finance and consulting, there seems to be a point when we decide it’s time to put aside our old books and passions and embrace the financial value systems of the “real world.” 

One weekend, while visiting college friends over the summer, one of my friends said, offhand, “Well, most adults don’t like their jobs.” I tried to argue, but soon quieted, somehow chastened. If to be an adult was ultimately to get a job within a certain income bracket, irrespective of my intrinsic enjoyment, wasn’t I, then, like Peter Pan, digging my heels in the dirt of artistic dreams and insisting on not growing up? 

And there’s always law school. For as much as I rave on Austen or DeLillo, I have been told, even reminded (like I might forget), how good of a lawyer I would be. 

I am, after all, in many ways, a woman poorly suited to an unstable career path.  

Like most Middlebury students, I like plans. There is hardly anything more comforting to me than school with its predictable rhythms of the Socratic-style classroom, clear systems of evaluation,  and commendations for my right answers. 

Just as I could picture myself at Middlebury, I can picture myself at law school. I see myself burning the midnight oil in the library stacks, taking the bar exam, landing a job in some major city and working brutal hours, but, if I am lucky, with a salary I could convince myself of as worth the toil. This is the path I know. It is the path of so many of my parents’ friends and to which so many of my friends now aspire.

I wish I knew where I would be a year, two years or five years from now. 

But to embark on the dream that lies before me is to embrace uncertainty as my bedfellow. It is to know I will watch my college friends make more money than me. I will watch them settle into grad school and stable jobs while I struggle in front of my computer screen, toiling for the chance to make my living in one of the world’s most existentially lonely professions

Law is as difficult and demanding of a career as you’re likely to find. For some it’s a noble path, but for me, choosing to pursue law would represent cowardice, grasping for some approximation of stability instead of daring to brave the unknown. 

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Writing is a shot in the dark, the opposite of the sure thing and, fittingly for a student of this college, the road less traveled.

When I was seventeen, I attended a selective writing intensive run by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Before we “graduated” from the program, the program director, Stephen Lovely, gave us a speech. He told us that while at this moment people encourage our writing as a hobby useful to our college applications, their support would change to resistance once we began to consider it as a career. But, he encouraged us to stick with it, because if we were writers, then to neglect writing would rob our lives of an essential element. 

Writing is one of the few subjects for which I assume the guise of a proselytizer. Writing is the thing that lights my soul on fire, a forum for my best self which somehow manages to make use of my faults (my neuroticism, my ceaseless analytics, my blustering, bleeding heart) and transfigure them into matter better than the sum of my parts.

So, like many of my fellow seniors, I don’t have an answer for where I will be a year from now. 

Among the famous poet Mary Oliver’s more Instagramable quotes is a question: “Tell me, what is your plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” 

Though it might sound hokey, at the end of the day isn’t it the only question worth asking?  

Sometimes I am overcome by how little I know compared to my high school self, but I have never been more assured of my purpose. It’s time for me to tune out the noise of my peers’ plans which are for lives and ambitions so different and almost antithetical to my own and, for the first time in my life, truly jump. 


Sarah Says: 

On a semi-weekly basis Sarah Miller shares her thoughts on culture and campus life.

Sarah Miller

Sarah Miller '24 (she/her) is an Editor at Large.   

She previously served as Opinions Editor and Staff Writer. Miller is an English major on the Creative Writing track. She hails from Philadelphia and spent the spring studying English at Trinity College Dublin. She has interned for The New England Review and hosts a WRMC radio show where you can still listen to her many opinions.