Almost one month ago, I graduated cum laude with honors from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with a bachelor of science in journalism and minors in Spanish, ethnic studies, and women’s and gender studies.
It seems like everybody says this after they graduate, but it’s true: these past four years flew by so quickly. Even as I moved my tassel from the right side of my graduation cap to the left, shook hands with the president of Cal Poly, and walked across the stage with a fake diploma in my hands, I couldn’t help but notice an unprecedented sense of loss.
Of course, I had looked forward to this commencement ceremony for a long time, but I was unprepared — and, quite frankly, overwhelmed — by the sense that I was losing a core part of my identity.
Ever since I could remember, being a student has consumed my entire life. Whether or not school was in session, I spent almost every waking moment with my studies and grades at the forefront of my mind. Though it’s hard for me to admit, I grew to associate my test scores and overall academic performance with my self-worth. Throughout high school, I took on the most challenging course load I could handle, jam-packed my schedule with as many extracurricular and volunteer activities as possible, and often stayed up until 2 a.m. — after Mock Trial and track & field practices — to complete my assignments so I could boost my chances of getting into a top-ranked university.
Then, once I got to Cal Poly, my focus shifted from college admissions to career prospects. I applied to dozens of internships before I was even halfway through my first year of college. I spent hours agonizing over whether my LinkedIn profile was filled with “enough” accolades and programs. I meticulously scanned my resume, line by line, character by character, to ensure each and every single word was just right for the hiring manager or committee reading it. I incessantly compared myself to my peers, wondering if I measured up to their successes on paper. I justified this by telling myself, “Hiring managers are going to compare me to other candidates anyway, so I might as well do it myself.” I got so utterly wrapped up in this superficial idea of “success” that I sacrificed my physical and mental health to chase down whatever “success” looked like.
And nothing was enough.
There is a cultural value taught in many Filipino families called utang na loob, which roughly translates to “debt of the soul.” It’s a Tagalog expression that means a person is eternally and irreparably indebted to someone for something they did, like a favor. Perhaps the most common example of utang na loob is a child’s relationship to their parents: because their parents birthed them (literally giving them the gift of life), the child is considered forever indebted to their parents and are therefore obligated — explicitly or implicitly — to “repay” that debt through acts of service, providing financial support, getting a good job, graduating from college, or any other means deemed acceptable and successful by one’s parents. (If you’d like to learn more about utang na loob, I highly recommend listening to this NPR Code Switch podcast episode.)
Several weeks leading up to my commencement ceremony, I kept reflecting on the meaning of utang na loob and how it has manifested in my life. My mom and dad, both immigrants from the Philippines, established a life in the United States from scratch. They raised me in a happy, loving home, somehow managing to give me all the toys and gadgets I asked for, even though we didn’t have much. While my parents never specified the principles of utang na loob to me, I self-imposed this constant pressure to repay my mom and dad for the infinite sacrifices they have made for me. I viewed all my achievements and failures through the lens of my parents’ sacrifices: Am I making my mom and dad proud? How can I make them prouder? Am I moving on the right path? Am I doing enough for my family?
The guilt that often accompanies utang na loob hit me like a ton of bricks once I accepted an offer for the internship role I currently have. For many families in the United States, it’s common (and usually expected) for a child to move out of their parents’ house at the age of 18, attend college, find a job, and live independently from their parents henceforth. But for many Filipino families — especially Filipino immigrant families — they’d prefer that their child stays home or as close to home as possible after college.
This was my reality at home. Throughout my life, my mom and dad have told me they wanted me to stay home or as close to home as possible. It’s part of the reason why I chose Cal Poly SLO over Emerson University in Boston, Massachusetts, the only other university to have accepted me for undergraduate admission: Cal Poly is a mere two-hour drive away from my hometown, a much more convenient distance compared to a six-hour flight from LAX to BOS.
But my current internship is located in the San Francisco Bay Area, a five- to six-hour drive away from my parents. It felt like I was choosing to go against my parents’ wishes and to be away from my family. Sure, I could have chosen to stay at home for college and accept a job in or near my hometown after graduation, but I likely wouldn’t have had the same educational and career opportunities as I did/do away from home. In other words, I felt like I was disappointing my parents because my moving farther away from home felt like I was failing to repay the utang (debt).
This may be difficult for some people to understand, but it’s an issue that many first- and second-generation college students face. Many communities of color have survived discrimination, persecution, and other atrocities by living communally or in hubs. It’s why we see Filipinotowns, Chinatowns, Japantowns, and so many more spaces of solidarity in large urban cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco. And this collective desire to keep families and friends together can not only be a source of empowerment and comfort for community members, but it can also mean that sacrifices made in pursuit of success — such as moving 350 miles away from home — are extra painful.
However, beyond the homesickness and utang na loob, I’ve been gradually adjusting to my post-undergrad life. “Adulting” feels more official and formidable than it did in college because college, while significantly more “free” than high school, still gave me a timeline and sense of structure that I no longer have. For instance, spending four years at a university with 10-week quarters and scheduled courses felt predictable, making me feel at ease when planning for the near future.
But now, navigating the uncertainty of adulthood (e.g. what I’m going to be doing after my internship ends, where I’m going to live, how I’m going to spend the rest of my life, etc.) has been a trip. There are no strict deadlines or timelines as an adult — except, say, filing taxes — which means that adulting is, quite literally, a game of how to spend time. I could choose to work for a company for six months or 12 years. I could get married and have kids this year or wait until I’m 35. I could go back to college in a year to get my master’s degree or stop my education at my bachelor’s. I could drop everything I’m doing right now to go backpacking across Europe for one year. Hell, I could even start a podcast or a YouTube channel tomorrow. In other words, the possibilities are endless — and that scares me.
And the weirdest part? Nobody seems to talk about this! Part of the reason why I’m writing this blog post is to provide a bit of comfort to other recent college grads who may be feeling the same way (and I know there are many, many people who struggle with navigating post-college blues).
Still, I intend to make the most out of this time in my life. I want to enjoy my 20s. I want to build better habits. I want to spend more time with my loved ones. I want to save up more money to travel. I want to use my PTO without any guilt or shame. I want to grasp all opportunities that come my way. I want to make new friends who bring out the best in me. I want to be authentically me.
I hope you join me in this next chapter of my life.
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