Your degree does not define you

Subpar Advice from the Sub-Basement: Graduation Edition

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Illustration by Lydia Wojack-West

Hello, everyone! This week, I’d like to take some time to reflect. I’ve been at Portland State for almost three years now, and I am finally graduating. During my time here I’ve watched people push themselves to the brink of exhaustion and weep with joy because they won Subway gift cards. I’ve watched student groups try to get budgets passed and been a part of some very fun bingo nights. I’ve watched protests and street preachers. I’ve eaten at Joe’s Burgers and Hot Lips and was completely shocked when the McDonald’s got shut down.

Before I go, I’d like to pass some advice to you. Whether you’ve been here long enough to remember my first few awful shows as a KPSU DJ or you’ve just met me through my “Subpar Advice” column, I hope you’ll find something in my words that will hold you fast through the rest of your college career and life beyond.

1. Your degree does not define you. Sure, you’re paying quite a bit to be here, but if the piece of paper is your endgame, that’s a bad endgame. College is the beginning, the stepping stone, the investment into your life. And life is short. And your college experience goes by in the blink of an eye. You’ll have some regrets, but live your college life so you have those regrets and things to remember.

2. Learn how to advocate for yourself. This one spills over into your workforce life. We’re always told just to be thankful we have jobs at all, but you also have to think about the quality of work and the amount of time you spend working to make money just to survive. I want more than that. I want to live. I want to enjoy my life. And I don’t think that should make you a snowflake. Learn what you need and how to advocate for it. Unabashedly, but not abrasively.

3A. Your allies are everywhere. College may seem like nothing more than a bureaucratic nightmare, and it may make you feel powerless. But you are not powerless. And sometimes simply raising your voice will show you who agrees with you, though other times it won’t. For instance, PSU Student Union had wanted to get rid of Aramark because of some practices they don’t agree with. But what I didn’t see them doing was working with SALP, who deals with the Aramark contract and had been having that debate for over a year.

3B. Know what metaphorical hills you’re willing to die on. As with the above example, PSUSU has a heart that’s in the right place, and most people would agree that a living wage of 15 bucks an hour is a good thing. But PSUSU is doing a lot beyond that—so much that they spread themselves pretty thin. When I was a DJ with KPSU, they never came on my show even though I asked them several times. In this case, they didn’t utilize their community correctly. When they formed, they had about fifteen issues they were fighting all at once. They didn’t pick one thing to fight for—some one thing that they might have achieved by now. I have no idea what their one cohesive passion even is.

4. Don’t talk trash. Unless it’s called for. Then talk all the trash.

5. Every term is like a pint of ice cream. Sometimes you’re gonna get a lot of delicious cookie dough. Other terms? Smooth ribbons of caramel. And sometimes all the grocery store is gonna have is rum raisin and you have to make do. But stay strong…you never know what the next pint might taste like.

6. Community is gonna help you get through rough times. I can’t tell you how wonderful the first couple of terms before I became a student leader were. I tried rock climbing and yoga classes and just experimented. Though I lived off campus, I put myself out there not just because I was paying for these experiences but because even as a commuter, I knew it was important to stay around people with an educational focus and to enjoy myself at the same time. When was the last time you enjoyed yourself?

7. The street preacher ain’t gonna go away just because you yell back at him. Is that the most creative protest you can really think of? There was a guy in Scotland that played bagpipes to drown the street preacher out. Get creative.

8. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I don’t know who coined this old chestnut but it definitely applies, right? Just because you think it’s still a good idea to drink four Red Bulls and write a four-page paper in an hour doesn’t mean it is. And you know that, deep down.

9. Take breaks. Not long, interminable ones, but even just an episode of South Park might be enough to give your brain a reset. You like pinball? They have an Addams Family machine at Hot Lips.

10. Your degree does not define you. Your debt does not define you. Your number of spoons does not define you. You are a masterwork. You are a creation of great potential. But you have to climb for it, strive for it. Nothing will be handed to you. You have the power, but you have to own that power. I believe in you. I believe that even if you fail, your attempt will resonate with the universe. Do not become weary. Become yourself.

I’ll leave you with my favorite Maya Angelou quote (it’s the start of a much longer poem). When you get tired—and you will—just remember what she said. It may do you more good than you can believe.

“You may write me down in history with your bitter twisted lies. You may trod me in the very dirt, but still like dust I rise.” – Maya Angelou, And Still I Rise, 1978.

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