I Got the Degree, but Not the Life That Was Promised With It

Read this reflective narrative about how to find your self worth after feeling like you have failed.

For Gabby, following the “traditional” route meant graduating in four years with an immigrant-parent-approved degree. She trusted in the promise that the world told her — a good degree meant a good job. Six months into a fruitless job search, she felt deflated and alone. Here’s how she rediscovered her worth.

I had a short stint with the sneakerhead community. I was more so an observer as I didn’t have the budget or dedication for it, but I found it fascinating to watch people do anything to obtain a hot-ticket item. Collectors would refer to their most sought-after item as their “grail.” These kinds of items were limited in stock and hard to get, sometimes near impossible, and you were usually one of thousands who wanted that item for themselves. 

What makes a shoe successful? Worthy of being chosen as someone’s “grail”? As far as I could tell, as long as a shoe was representing the right brand, it could be ugly, confusing, insulting, boring, whatever. With the right brand, any shoe could be elevated from ordinary to extraordinary.

I never wanted any of the sneakers for myself, but I did want my life to be as straightforward as being a coveted pair of shoes. That’s why at eighteen, when faced with having to choose what I wanted to be when I grew up, I decided I wanted to be a “grail.” 

In my eyes, the path to this was a lucrative degree — I chose computer science. As a freshman, I was told by a well-meaning computer science alumni that once I graduated, degree in hand, every company would want me. What got me through four years of an unnecessarily grueling undergraduate program was this promise that employers would not mind if I was an ordinary woman, as long as I was holding an extraordinary degree.

I celebrated my graduation like it was the peak of my existence. I was preparing to be the most anticipated drop of the season. I threw little parties for over a week, invited friends and family from out of state, and shared sentimental posts on every social media platform I had. I possessed an untouchable confidence, imagining recruiters and employers lining up to have me on their team, wallets at the ready. Looking back, I sometimes feel embarrassed that I could be so naive. In the moment, however, I felt so elated and relieved. As far as I knew, the hidden wound that had been driving my life thus far — the wound of being unwanted and not good enough — was patched up and resolved for good. With this degree, I would be wanted and needed forever.

Of course, that was not the case. Recruiters informed me that I was “too junior,” “not the right fit,” “inexperienced,” — all different ways of saying “not enough.” Rejection emails flooded my inbox, with phrases like, “We have decided to pursue other candidates,” or “We will not be able to move forward” — all different ways of saying “We do not want you.” So easily, faceless recruiters and automated emails reopened and deepened the wound that had never healed in the first place. For so long, I had been measuring my worth according to my success, and with nearly eight months void of success, I started to believe I had just as much worth as I did professional experience: little to none.

Deflated by my soul-crushing job hunt, I chose to hide away and struggle quietly, embarrassed that the same people who watched me succeed would also watch me fail. Doing so was immediately painful and lonely, but I was sure that dealing with my disappointment alone would be more manageable than explaining it to others. Isolating myself was easy; I had the excuse of not having a car to drive and all of my friends lived at least an hour’s drive away from me — a trip I did not want to burden anyone with. My post-grad descent into insecurity and uncertainty was a lonely one, and despite the difficulties of being alone, I kept it that way.

I may have kept to myself for much longer, if not for the inevitable annual question of what to do for my birthday. For the two years prior, I had made grand plans to celebrate my birthday — only for them to be canceled due to COVID-related circumstances. Previously, I had imagined that my 23rd birthday would be the one where I would be most pleased with my life. I had finally graduated, I would be working at a great company (with, I assumed, a great salary), and would be able to throw a birthday party outside of Zoom. I had even envisioned it to have the grandeur of three birthdays in one: 21, 22, 23. But how could I celebrate a new year of my life when I was completely disappointed by how it had ended up? How could I celebrate myself when I felt like I no longer liked myself?

A few days before my birthday, a friend reached out, hoping to ask me some clarifying questions about a youth ministry event she was planning. To my surprise, she asked if she could drive to my house to get my thoughts in person. Practically, this didn’t make sense. I could easily answer her questions over a video call, and she lived nearly two hours away from me. However, my deepening ache for company was stronger than my respect for what was practical, and I figured she felt obligated to greet me so close to my birthday, so I happily accepted her suggestion. 

When she arrived, it took less than an hour to resolve the questions she had. After some conversation, she expressed her primary goal in coming all this way was to spend time with me. I remember feeling ashamed I had nothing much to offer her — no entertainment, no food, and no car to take her anywhere else interesting. However, she shared that we could do anything, or even nothing. She was completely satisfied to just be with me.

I had anticipated something extravagant to change the course of my story. I imagined my Deus ex Machina would be throwing the perfect birthday party that everyone had fun at, thus proving to myself and others that I was good, wanted, and worth celebrating. Then, empowered with a newfound confidence, I would apply to jobs with more gusto and finally get the position I was meant to be in. With my problems solved, I would come out of hiding, returning with confidence and certainty. But in a humbling, yet tender way, what sparked change in my story was eating take-out with a friend and taking turns playing a single-player video game, each of us happy to cheer on the other. During her visit, she didn’t mention my upcoming birthday at all; yet, I felt wanted and celebrated in every moment.

There was something transformative in being seen, chosen, and loved. It wasn’t for my accomplishments or even for my birthday. My friend simply wanted to spend time with me because she loved and appreciated me, exactly as I was. This encounter, and many others that followed, slowly filled me with a warmth — the kind I imagine you feel when you slip on your favorite sweater. Perhaps the sweater is objectively plain, but the affection you have for it imbues it with meaning, elevating the piece from something ordinary to something extraordinary, at least in your eyes. Thousands of people may not be lining up to buy your sweater, but it is your “grail,” because you have chosen to wear and love it well.

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