License to chill: Brandeis students’ special edition

September 6, 2019

I lived and worked on campus this past summer. I wanted a break after The Semester We Aren’t Going to Talk About, and I wanted to clear my face acne, courtesy of said semester.  

But then one day in August, my summer of relaxation went caput. At SciFest. For those who don’t know, SciFest is an event at which Brandeis undergraduates present posters of research they’ve done in science labs at Brandeis and surrounding institutions over the summer. One minute, I was walking around looking at posters, cheering on my friends and eating some free cheese and crackers. The next, I was having an internal meltdown over my future.

First, I don’t speak Biology or Physics, and I am a novice-low speaker of Neuroscience (as a lowly Psychology major). With each passing poster, I nodded more and more vigorously and smiled harder and harder at the presenter, all while thinking about what I was going to eat later that day (while munching on the cheese and crackers). 

As I was nodding and smiling and eating and melting down, Ron Liebowitz and his wife walked past me, hand-in-hand, and I heard them heatedly discussing what they were going to eat for dinner that night. Great. So my future might be in administration. My Soviet refugee mother’s dream come true.

Most viscerally, with each passing poster, I started having flash-forwards of my future. Sitting in my rented apartment in the dimly-lit kitchen with a pile of rejection letters from graduate schools. Having to get some entry-level job to support myself. Getting married, having three kids, getting divorced and being a single mom. 

As I walked back to my dorm in an anxious state, I tried reckoning with myself. Why am I going into crisis mode over a couple of biology posters? Have I taken my meds today?  

The more I thought about it (even after eating food), the more I realized how deep-seated this insecurity was. From a young age, everyone taught me that every second had to be geared towards creating the best future I could for myself. Summers in elementary and middle school were spent getting way ahead in math class. Summers in high school were spent studying for the SAT. 

So how will I be able to compete with the real world if I don’t have a poster out yet? Even though most psychology labs did not present at SciFest, surely there are undergraduate psychology students out there with posters. And here I am, taking a break. What a travesty!

Now let’s get to the famous arguments and guilt trips my parents love to give about why I should have found a lab to work full-time in over the summer. Since my family comes from Russia, I will discuss the very real breed titled Immigrant Parents. 

So, possible arguments: Money. Stability. Supporting my own family one day (I hope that’s far into the future, for both my future family’s sake and my own).

 A family member once told me that I could always pursue my interests on the side, and that the goal is to find a job that I don’t hate. In this family member’s mind, and, probably, the minds of half the parents of Brandeis students, I should do anything I can to get ahead. This means it wouldn’t have been a bad idea to get into and start working in a neuroscience lab that I may have no interest in working in and eventually present at Scifest. I would probably “learn to love” this lab, anyway.

To counter: Yes, our parents may have sacrificed their happiness and taken jobs they despise (popularly within the Russian-American community, computer programming) to provide for us. That was their job as parents; they made responsible choices based on the options available.

If someone asked us students if we thought the statement “life is not fair” is true, most of us would raise our hands. 

But the truth is, for most of us so far, life has been very fair. Most of us enjoy living in a democratic state, in upper middle class families. We study at a small, wealthy, highly ranked liberal arts school in the U.S., in the 21st century. Most of us are lucky enough to not have anyone depending on us. That’s a truth we have to swallow (a sort of survivors’ guilt, but for being born at the right place at the right time). But that doesn’t mean we can’t take control of the choices that will give us the most out of life. College is the transition to real life, in which we have to make our own choices, and live with them.

For the 2.5 people who are still reading this: our job in college is to not lie to ourselves, to not be passive in our interests. 

Disclaimer (AKA, for the angry moms about to hit the send button to a strongly-worded email or social media post): The posters which my pea-sized brain could wrap itself around were great. Some of them were extremely creative, awe-inspiring, relevant and smart. It is clear that every single person presenting at SciFest poured at least some blood, sweat and tears into their summer research, and into the posters.

I hope that their interest and dedication is genuine. I hope that it’s not something they’re knowingly trying to convince themselves that they’re going to grow to love. I hope that it’s not a “Let’s Prove to the World How Smart I Am” or a “All the Other Smart People are Doing It, I Should Too” or a “This Way Mom and Dad’ll be Proud of Me” situation. 

Or an “I Can’t Wait to Update LinkedIn” situation. This is why a site like LinkedIn is still thriving in 2019.

Most of all, I hope that they, along with others, are not doing a poster, or a summer internship, because they’re afraid to admit to themselves they don’t know what they want to do for the rest of their lives. Ninety percent of us aren’t sure, and the other 10 percent are fibbing. 

So, while you still have a license to chill, don’t be shy to do some straight chillin’ next summer.

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