By Sara Shelton
Two years ago I achieved my first significant goal: I graduated from college. Now, to the everyday 22 year old this probably doesn’t seem like a big deal; thousands of them do it each year. But to a lifelong bookworm and over-achiever like myself, becoming a college graduate is the milestone I had been working towards since I carried my lunch box and backpack into kindergarten in 1989.
So when that day finally came I put on my cap and gown as if it were the most expensive polyester-blend ever made and ran towards my diploma like a moth to a flame. This was the moment towards which I had directed all my energies over the past eighteen years and now, here it was; I held the proof of my success on a rolled up piece of papyrus.
As I returned to my seat with the rest of my class, the dean of our university offered these parting words before directing us to participate in the symbolic moving of the tassel: “Congratulations. You aren’t students anymore; now who will you become? Your adventure is just beginning.” In one single statement, all the work, all the pride, all the glory of that little piece of paper and an itchy cap and gown came crashing down. I wasn’t a student anymore; who was I going to be?
Most of us spend the first twenty-some odd years of our lives finding our identity in the basic, everyday pieces of our existence. We do every aspect of life with our parents, and thus, we’re known as “Bill and Sherry’s kid.” We tag along with our older siblings and our parents force us to tote around our younger ones, making us “Will’s little sister” or “Emily’s big sister” to everyone they know.
But largely, for the majority of our lives in those first two decades, we are students, and thus, all that we are in that time is associated with this fact. We are student athletes, yearbook editors, student body presidents, members of the drama club and the marching band.
Our lives are made up of classes, extracurricular activities, homework, and report cards, all adding up to getting us that magic piece of paper, that degree that will serve as the golden ticket into whatever career we’ve always wanted. But that’s when reality storms in like a tornado to our dreams and we’re left with the simple truth of it: we’re on our own now and for the first time in twenty-two years, we can’t find anything to define who we are.
It is this reality with which I have struggled for the last two years of my life. After graduation, my adventure was beginning and I took my diploma and moved myself and what few belongings I had to Atlanta. I was away from my family, had very few friends in the area, wasn’t married, and found myself drifting between random contract employment and apartments for rent. And there was the truth: I didn’t know who I was and found nothing to ground me.
This was supposed to be “it,” the time of my life, the time where all my hard work as a student would pay off, and I would discover exactly who God made me to be and what He wanted me to do with all this hard-earned education. But instead, I found more confusion and struggle than I’d ever faced on my own.
So I made a simple decision: if things didn’t turn around, if I didn’t figure out who I was supposed to be in one more month, I would pack up my things, return home to my parents, and start all over again, maybe even go back to graduate school since all I really knew how to do was be a student. This was the deal I made, the ultimatum I threw out to God. And then, just like that, God showed up to offer the foundation, the identity I’d been looking for but that had been there all along.
Nothing really changed in my circumstances after that month. I still had no steady job, no true direction. I still missed my family and friends and had yet to really find anyone in this big, new city with whom I could connect. But I stayed. I stuck it out, because what I did find was the truth that had been there all along: the truth of who I am in Christ. In Psalm 139:14, the Psalmist writes: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.” There it is: in two simple sentences, the entire struggle for identity and purpose resolved.
I was not made to be a student or a writer or a wife or a child; I was made to praise the God who made me. My identity belongs to Christ and because of this, I must offer up to Him all of who I am. His works are wonderful and thus, I am wonderful in His image and my future will be bright.
To reinforce this truth, we read in Jeremiah 29:11: ” For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, plans to prosper and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'” God knows what He’s doing with us; He always has.
He’s known from the beginning who we are and what our futures hold, because He is the one who created us, who gave us an identity and a future. When we feel like we’re wavering in life, trying to discover who we are and what we’re meant to do, this is our foundation: we are who Christ made us to be and in Him, we will have the future we were made to possess.
So in staying in Atlanta, my new goal became simply to throw myself into relationship with Christ, to really study who He was and who He made me to be, just as I spent years studying the works of Homer and Hemingway in college. What have I learned in these last two years on my own? I’m not the best cook, and as a result, I spend more money than I should on take-out. I’m not good at keeping track of my budget, but I somehow manage to get by each month. I like to be outside on the weekends, and I like it even more with a good book. The best thing for a single girl is a good church and good friends and fortunately, I’ve found both. And I’m never done learning, never really done being a student because God is never done teaching me about who I am and who He is.
Most importantly, I’m never going to be left floundering for a firm foundation upon which I can stand. I am never really without an identity or a purpose, because I have a God who made me with a purpose and future that will be more than I can do on my own. Learning this truth has been my greatest achievement as a student, and I can’t wait to learn more. The adventure really has begun and now I’m just along for the ride.
If you liked this article, check out: Safety Last: A recovering control freak
Sara Shelton is a Tennessee native now living it up in Atlanta, Georgia. She works daily as a dance teacher, freelance writer, and general lover of creative work. She enjoys her family, her friends, a good book, a good day outside, and a good laugh. Her current goal is figuring out how to travel the world and she looks forward to seeing it happen!