There are three questions every college senior gets asked.
- You’re a senior?! How does it feel?
- Do you know what you’re doing in May?
- What do you want to be when you grow up?
#3 is my personal favorite, because it instigates a sense of inescapable panic while simultaneously making me feel like a six year old. Typically I fire a generic response (“I’d like to pursue a career in marine science blah blah blah”). But Spring Break is here, meaning graduation is closer than I’d like to admit, and I can’t rely on generic responses forever. What do I want to be when I grow up?
The last time I knew exactly what I wanted to be, I was 8 years old. I wanted to be a country music star. I grew up listening to greats like Martina McBride, Jo Dee Messina, Sara Evans, and Reba McEntire (let me clarify: this was pre-Taylor Swift), and I was convinced I would get discovered, move to Nashville, and pursue a lifelong career in country music. My friend Katie and I would camp out in my basement, taping “demos” on her sister’s cassette recorder and speculating what we would do once we made it big. The closest I got to Nashville was my 4th grade talent show, where I sang a Dixie Chicks song while decked out in a cowboy hat and boots.
In many ways I envy 8-year-old me. I have never been so certain of my life plan as I was in that basement. But I grew up and my plans changed, especially after I learned it took more than the ability to hold a tune to make it big in the country music business (plus, my parents refused to move from Baltimore to Nashville).
In college, I made a great breakthrough when I decided I wanted to study marine science. Although I’m unsure where my studies will take me, limiting job options to a single discipline is a big feat. I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to experiment with many fields within marine science, and have subsequently narrowed down what I don’t want to do (I loved marine ecology, but marine geology was the absolute bane of my existence). But that still leaves me with a generic answer to question #3.
But I came a little closer to answering the question last week. Over winter break, I decided to apply for a fellowship that would take me abroad for nine months next year. It was up to the applicant to design a proposal—the only restrictions were that the research had to employ a method of digital storytelling and apply to a wide audience. The rest was up to the applicant. Inspired by my work with The Lionfish Project, I chose to study community-based invasive species management on islands.
I worked on the proposal for six weeks. I spent many late nights researching topics, often pushing aside piles of homework I’d have to scramble to make up later. There were even a few nights I chose my research over going out with friends, opting instead to stay huddled at my desk, reviewing research papers and writing hurriedly in my notebook. Piece by piece, my proposal came together. I spent the week before the due date meeting with professors and analyzing every line of my proposal, writing and rewriting until it was perfect. The night before it was due, I was up until almost 5am reviewing every tiny detail (no typos, all margins 1”, 12 pt Times New Roman font, all biographical data correct, etc).
I submitted the document at 11:17 on Friday morning, February 28th. As soon as I clicked the “Submit” button, I was flooded with a mix of pride, panic, and relief. But there was another feeling too.
I hadn’t been so excited about something since I wrote the proposal for The Lionfish Project in 2012. Never once did I mind the research—I looked forward to crafting, writing, and editing the proposal, and I was truly passionate about the topic. As I stared at the submission confirmation screen, I realized it didn’t even matter if I got the grant (although let’s be real, it would be awesome if I did). What mattered was that I had pursued a topic that made me truly happy.
So maybe I haven’t figured out exactly what I want to be when I grow up (although a marine biologist studying invasive species is definitely on the list). But that’s ok. This experience has shown me that no matter what I do, I want to be so passionate about it that it keeps me up at night. That might be a stretch, but maybe not. I have the rest of my life to find exactly what it is that makes me that excited.
For now, at least I know how to answer Question #3.
When I grow up, I want to be happy.