Why were we admitted? Why do we slave away at Sisyphean sets, day after day? Gradually, I inch closer to the day I can dramatically post “It’s over. It’s over. It’s over. It’s over” on Facebook, and I find myself wondering:
Does life really exist after commencement?
It’s a question that most of us encounter as third-term frosh, when we face the reality of our first midterm grade report. At this inflection point of our time at Caltech, many turn to the comforting belief that our being is made up of more than the physical collection of letters on our transcript. If we are nothing more than the little numbers making up our GPA, then as we put on our goofy little graduation hats and cease to be part of the matriculated, there will no longer be anything left that we can call ‘us.’ However, if there is something of us that cannot be described by mere grades, then there is at least a possibility that we persist in some form after commencement—a soothing thought for those 3 a.m. moments when you’re wondering what the fuck anything even means on your set. Even if we may not know how this continued existence would compare to our current selves as students, the idea that there is something different out there, after all this, is enough to keep many going.
I’ve personally explored a few of the different variants of this school of thought on campus. One of the most dominant would be the Sect of Grad School Apps, whose main doctrine states that the actions of a student inevitably lead to a new academic life after death in an endless, painful cycle of samsara. If one accumulates enough merit in this life, then rebirth in a First-Rate Grad School awaits; otherwise, one might be consigned to some unheard of school, or worse: MIT. Cautionary tales abound of souls condemned to be reborn over and over again in adjunct hell, but then there are also the legends of those who achieve the ultimate status of Tenured Professorship and break out of this cycle.
Rivaling Grad School Apps is Career Fair worship, headed by the CDC (Career Development Church). Its devotees believe that with the right diploma, there is a bright future within reach: a heavenly life where one does not have to grind themselves to the bone for the right to keep suffering on this wretched campus—a paradise where effort is recognized, talent is praised, and good work is appreciated. Too good to be true? Some Grad School adherents certainly think so, calling members of the CDC “filthy capitalist sellouts” and so on, to which some CDCers respond that any such insults are inaudible over the sounds of their paychecks. There’s certainly no shortage of bad blood—but isn’t it all a little ridiculous, when you remember that we’re all part of the same student body (and that the real enemy is an administration that springs several trainwreck policies on us at once and then binds us with enough red tape that we can only fix one (not that I’m salty about this at all))?
Complicating matters are the rumors of alum sightings that always come to a peak during occasions like Thanksgiving and that most holy of days, Ditch Day: these ghosts that come to us in dreams, looking far healthier and happier than they ever were in Techer life, saying things like “The real world is so much better!” While plenty of accounts of such encounters—of both the Grad School and Career flavor—exist, I myself still find it personally difficult to believe. Maybe I’ve become too much of a scientist to proceed on blind faith alone. What if the materialists are right, and there really is no omniscient President Rosenbaum out there to watch over us? As we walk on stage this June 14th, will our consciousnesses just fade into nothing as our bodies crumble into cosmic dust? It’s a peaceful and heavy and chilling thought, all at once.
Maybe—all this ruminating doesn’t really matter. Maybe all we can really do is to approach commencement with a brave face, no matter what might become of us afterwards. Like how Jonas Salk dared to make his polio vaccine free for all, or how Emmy Noether pushed her way into a system that could not see past her gender, or how Jack Parsons just blew up random shit in Pasadena until someone gave him funding to do it officially. So, well, I don’t really have an answer to the Big Question right now.
But I’m ready to find out.
— Sue “me no more, we’re passing on the Torch to” Yu