May 15, 2014

Graduation, Social Structure, and Anomie

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

If you are about to graduate from college, or know someone who is, you may be feeling many things: excited, overwhelmed, stressed, proud, and uncertain, especially if you are not sure what you are going to do next.

For many soon-to-be graduates, this will be the end of a sixteen-year (or longer) journey. Participating in educational institutions all those years shapes the kinds of choices and goals that we make, whether we are conscious of it or not. Did you participate in extracurricular activities to boost your odds of admission to the university of your choice? Volunteer in order to qualify for a particular scholarship, as part of a service learning course, or because your fraternity or sorority encourages you to do so?

These are just a few examples of things you might have sought out—but maybe really enjoyed doing nonetheless—because of your participation in a social institution. Likewise, you probably chose many of your courses because they fulfilled specific requirements that your institution requires in order to graduate. If you live on campus, there are plenty of social opportunities to meet new people and get lots of free food. You might even know the names of everyone on your floor and many of the people in your building.

Graduating will mean that the social institution has less of a role in shaping your behavior and choices. This can be liberating, of course: no more finals, papers, reading assignments or tuition to pay. But exiting an institution that has been so powerful in shaping someone’s life can also be overwhelming, or contribute to a sense of anomie. French sociologist Emile Durkheim discussed how and why people might feel disconnected from the larger society.

When your social role has been that of student for so long, creating a new social role and sense of connection can be challenging. While making the transition from high school student to college student isn’t necessarily an easy one, as I wrote in this post a few years back, in college there is an institutional structure that surrounds you, tells you the rules and often works to induct you as a new member. (On our campus new students learn the school fight song, slogan, as well as how to register for their courses before the semester begins.)

Once you graduate from college, there are a potentially unlimited number of choices to make: what will you do—work? If so, where? Will you travel? Attend graduate school? Where will you live?

I found that the time immediately after college graduation was one of the most exciting but also overwhelming times in my life. It wasn’t until the fall of that year that it really hit me that I was no longer a part of any educational institution (at least for the time being). For the first time in memory, I wasn’t going back to school at the end of the summer with everyone else. That part was liberating.

But I also had to find an apartment—which the student housing office always took care of—figure out how much I could pay in rent before I actually had a job, and manage a host of other bills I never paid before, like for electricity, natural gas, a car payment, and then six months later my student loans.  I barely knew the people in my building, and unlike on campus, no one ever left their door open inviting neighbors to come in and hang out. No one knocked on the door and said, “Hey, there’s free pizza downstairs!” like they might have in the dorm.

I had a few entry-level jobs to start with, and spent most of my days with people who were older than I was and had more work experience, but were not necessarily more mature than people my age were, much to my surprise. One man—I’d guess then in his late thirties—was married with two teenage kids, and regularly showed up to work hung over. That took on a whole new meaning than it did just months earlier, when on occasion a student went to class that way.

As I wrote about last year, we might not notice social structure until part of it goes away. For those of you still trying to figure out what’s next, you don’t have to let go of all of the elements of the social structure of college. Some graduates find comfort in working for a university, already familiar with its rhythms and structure. Many more participate in alumni groups and stay in close contact with friends. Either way, feeling a bit of anomie is common, at least until you find yourself embedded within another familiar social institution once you find that first job.


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