I didn’t attend my undergraduate convocation.
I was not a disengaged student. As is often typical in Student Affairs, I’m a professional who found my way into this work through my engagement and over-involvement as a student leader. So, why would I miss this seemingly vital ritualized closure to my undergraduate life? To answer that, I need to tell you more about transition and how those times of flux have played out in my life.
As I mentioned, I was a highly engaged undergraduate student. I was a residence assistant, orientation volunteer, president of my college student association, part of the university chamber choir, and a member of the orientation team among a host of other involvements. Looking back on my final year, I displayed typical exiting behaviour (which I had never heard of) and internalized a lot of guilt about letting people down. I underperformed academically as I realized I didn’t want to be a biologist, and yet, was going to graduate with a degree in biology. I applied and was accepted to a Masters program in College Student Personnel, which seemed to be the answer to all my problems, but the timing of the semester start date made for a messy transition. I remained working at the University of Guelph on Orientation Week and missed my own graduate school orientation. In short, I did everything wrong in terms of helping myself be successful. It was only after making it through that next awful year of homesickness, isolation, and anxiety that I began to recognize what had happened. I had entered into a period of transition that I didn’t see coming and had in no way prepared for. I didn’t ask the right questions, take any actions, or seek much support to help me navigate the new reality I was faced with and the subsequent breakdown of my own understanding of my identity. Instead, I heaped on more challenge by becoming mired in feelings of inadequacy and self-blame.
I remember it was all summed up in a conversation I had with my Mom at a particularly low point in my first semester at grad school, when I was considering packing it in and going home. She said “Lesley, you called me to come and get you from Guelph after 1 week and then ended up loving it there. Give it a bit more time.” Hilariously, I have no memory of making that call in my first week as an undergraduate. That period of discomfort was erased by the sense of mattering that replaced it, and it had a heavy influence on my feelings about the importance of managing transitional periods in our lives. When I graduated, I had thought that I had my life together and had a sure sense of self. This experience made me realize that I would never be done. I would never be a fully completed, finished person. There would be many more changes in my future that would again knock me down and facilitate my growth into yet another version of my identity provided I was able to rise to the challenge.
Missing my own graduation was an unceremonious closure to an incredibly transformational and important 6 years of my life that still saddens me, but it crystallized my feelings about the gap that exists in supporting the transition of our graduating post-secondary students. Our students expect that coming to Ryerson will mean a transition, and we reinforce that with the depth of programming we provide to support first-year students. They expect that their experience will change them, although the reality of that change is usually impossible for them to predict or grasp. There are few students I’ve talked to, however, who understand that graduating takes them back to square one on the transition cycle. I can see myself mirrored in many of them as they see themselves as fully formed individuals with an immutable sense of identity moving out into the world to face new challenges, and I worry for them as they are blind-sided by the internalization of their transition.
In September of this year, several colleagues and I, representing Student Life, the Career Centre, Alumni Relations, and SA Creative began talking about programs we already run that support graduating students, and programs we could be running that would support their transition. We wanted to not only provide opportunities for graduating students to gain support in their transition, but to educate them that it was going to happen. So was born #RoadFromRyerson.
We started by cataloguing existing programming such as the Alumni Expo, Grab A Grad Job Fair, Convocation, and then added some new programming in the form of our Last Lecture and a Career Centre networking reception. All of these were hosted under the banner of #RoadFromRyerson in order to help students identify the theme of outgoing transition. We knew that we needed to do more than just host some events, however, and so we put together a campaign to mirror the wildly successful #RoadToRyerson. We now have five graduating students working with RU Student Life to showcase their journeys online via social media and the RU Student Life website.
We can’t take away the challenges inherent in the transition out of the Ryerson community, but we can be more intentional about opening a dialogue with graduating students so they can anticipate the changes coming, and empower them to share their stories so they know they’re not alone. I still wonder how different my graduating transition would have been if I’d known there were others like me, but I take pride in knowing that #RyersonSA is ready, willing, and able to make the transition away from the Ryerson community as fulfilling and joyful for our students as possible.
— Erin MacDonald (@emacyyz) June 3, 2015