Victory Laps Are For Winners.

When I made the decision to extend my undergraduate degree by an additional year, I was confused and unsure about what industries interested me, where my marks would take me, whether I wanted to pursue some sort of a vocational post-grad program or what type of job I wanted. In fact, my idea of what I wanted to do with the rest of my life was essentially non-existent.

Yes, I really am the loser who could not plan her life for the next forty-five years after four years of university-level education.

My reality.

The most intimidating part of going forward with this decision was not the fact that I would not be graduating on time nor was it the fact that I was postponing my entrance into adulthood by another year. It wasn’t even a question of my decision-making skills, despite that I consciously signed on for more essays  and away-from-home expenses while many of my friends and peers moved forward with their lives and careers. More than anything, I was worried about taking on the stigma associated with hanging back for another year.

Really speaking (and I tell people this often), if you are confident with what you are doing and are supported by those close to you, then it shouldn’t matter what anyone else thinks or says about your decision. But how do you explain to others that you’re not graduating because you just don’t know what to do? Why would anyone be understanding of this confusion when you are a part of a generation that is criticized for its sense of ‘entitlement’? Would future recruiters and employers think less of me? These concerns persisted well into the first few months of my victory lap, alongside the sympathetic looks and conversations with people who, in summary, displayed the following:

This is probably a good moment for me to mention that I had already fulfilled my graduation requirements by the time my fourth year was coming to a close. I wasn’t taking a fifth year just for the hell of it. My ‘productive’ goal for the duration of my fifth year was to improve my marks so that I could keep the option of pursuing a Master’s on the table.

Last week we were having a discussion in one of my classes about the critical analysis and thinking skills that liberal arts students get exposed to and how they have been devalued in the work force today in exchange for practical skills. We talked at length about how for many, university is now considered to be a stepping stone to getting a job and how prospective students look at the likelihood of employment upon graduation from a program. For many, it’s no longer about critical thinking and expanding your intellectual horizons, but career opportunities.

That’s not to say that these are mutually exclusive experiences, but I think the latter tends to be a higher priority these days. While studying HR, I felt that the former was missing. Granted, I did study political science as my minor, but after spending the last few months learning about consumer behaviour, mobile media, international law and popular culture, I realized that I was missing context for my undergraduate coursework. And context gave me everything.

It started with the obvious lesson to do, or in this case, learn what you love. For years all I’ve been interested in is media, entertainment, and technology. Production, content development, business operations, products, and even font on a DVD cover sleeve turns me into a hot, nerdy mess. My fifth year gave me a chance to analyze Pop Chip advertisements and talk about Barbie as a cultural symbol without feeling like a waste of space. These courses weren’t bird courses, but they were easy because I was excited to get my hands dirty in a realm that I had never really been able to approach academically before. It was fun. Being able to pursue my interests was exciting.

I think there is something to be said about the usefulness of critical thinking. This year I got to listen to some very intelligent people hash it out over these subjects in a deep and analytical way. I realized that these conversations, these theorists, these ideas, they all bring you perspective. I think it is important to be conscious not only of what is being delivered to you in these industries, but how and for what reason. By developing this consciousness you open yourself up to new ways of analysis and understanding, in both theoretical and practical ways. In the workforce, this helps you to think strategically about your business, customers, competition and product. If you expand these ideas and think of their implications for society, you’ll develop a sense of where we are and where we are going. It also helps you to see where you as an independent individual fall amidst the debates and controversies …or at least prove that its difficult to be decisive.

But that’s exactly it. Decisiveness. CONFIDENCE. Having faith. Context gave me a clearer idea of what I want my future to look like, regardless of how challenging it may be. It helped me realize that a career in HR can be a passionate career. What makes me the happiest is working with what I am passionate about and that pursuing passion is worth it, even when the world tells you to avoid it in favour of stability and “safe bet” jobs.  Context let me see that I have a lot to learn and a lot to do, but that I can make something spectacular of myself if I go for it.  I’m not naive. I know its idealistic and optimistic and maybe an “entitlement” attitude, but I want to try.

So…what about you?

I know that it’s not necessarily an affordable option for many people to take an extra year. Education is expensive. For some, its just not something that can be taken on after three to four years worth of tuition, rent, grocery, gas, and personal expenses. For others, saving becomes a priority for post-graduate studies, so taking another year doesn’t make a whole lot of sense against longer-term objectives. And many people who do end up taking a year are either prepping to meet those objectives by improving their marks, correcting earlier lapses in judgment, or simply because of the nature of their program, which may include co-op or be a dual degree.

Whatever the reason, I get it. If you are taking one, don’t let anyone make you feel like less of a person for it. And if you aren’t…well there are plenty of reasons why one shouldn’t or wouldn’t be able to take an extra year. But I guess its not about the actual timing or definition of a fifth year that I’m advocating for here. It’s about ensuring that these reasons don’t turn into excuses to stop learning.

This is surprisingly not the cheesiest 'learning' image on the internet. But it makes Top 20.

This is surprisingly not the cheesiest ‘learning’ image on the internet. But it makes Top 20.

Learning can be pursued in the form of post-graduate programs, college diplomas and specialization certificates. If you can do any of these options, go ahead and pursue something directly related to your field – OR, learn something new. If you’re still in an undergraduate program, perhaps you still have a chance to add an additional concentration to your degree or explore different course options through your available electives. If institutionalized learning isn’t financially feasible or something you’re not interested in, then abuse your library. Head to second-hand [online] stores and try out some Bukowski or an old edition of a science textbook. Scour the internet in search of your one ring, or simply just talk to people. Keep asking questions. Keep exploring. Keep finding context. Trust me when I say it will do wonders for your brain, and, oddly enough, your complexion (#cortisolcontrol).

Taking a fifth year is the best decision I ever made, mainly because it confirmed that I should trust my instincts, embrace my dorkhood and make something out of it. It taught me that it’s okay not to have all the answers, but it’s good to figure out what they are.

Besides, I am now totally worthy of playing this at graduation in June. Look who is laughing now, Wonkas.