Searching for an exit: The liminality of student life

It’s a place to grow, and learn, for sure, but always a stop along the way to some destination.

My drive to campus is short, and almost always the same. Ignition kicks in, sputters and settles. I dawdle through school zones, then stumble down the highway. Head moves frantically. Left, right, back-mirror. Blindspot (watch out for those bikes). I stick to the left, and other cars rush by in bursts of confidence. They exit down streets of pleasure or turn into lanes of anxiety. The road to certainty flies by too. I avoid it. It feels like a lie. Pulling into the Law Building’s car park, down below the desks and shelves, is where the trip ends. But there’s no sense of completion. Not here. Even at home, where my walk to class was a mere two steps (bed to desk), an uncomfortable liminality hung around. It still loiters in the air, unmoving.

For me, university has always felt like a transient space before adulthood. It’s a place to grow, and learn, for sure, but always a stop along the way to some destination. I would wander here for a bit and then emerge a different person, with a different life. But I’m still wondering when that new life would start, and how I should live in the meantime.

In my first few years of university, I felt like everything I did – every unit I took, every job I sought – was crafted to be enjoyed later. There was no immediate satisfaction in my days spent typing in empty classrooms, or in nights lit with glaring monitors. Yet, I was convinced that thrill would eventually come. That endless temporariness would eventually subside, and crossfade into meaning.  

2020 was the year that I thought my life would somehow string itself together. Something meaningful must be on the horizon, I thought – some simple joy or earth-shattering change would be waiting around the corner. But sitting at my desk, stuck in Zoom calls watching empty roads and sunrises and sunsets, the future felt more distant than ever. Day after day, I strode down the same concrete paths and uncertainty oozed in like grout between tile. Five years is a long time to linger. After high school graduation I had proudly dug myself out from the ground, shook the dirt from my roots and strode towards a new, adult life. But there has been nowhere yet to settle. 

I can’t remember exactly when this started, but I feel like I have to put at least some of the blame on Pokémon. See, the Pokémon games I played religiously as a kid never felt like completed stories. I could finish the game in a few hours or stretch it out for weeks. And when I did beat the Champion, at whatever point I decided to, the game would send me right back where I started. I could wander the routes again. I could fight whoever I pleased again. Chronology became otiose. At some point I must have decided to exit each game; to power it down and never pick it up again. At no point, however, did I remember feeling the sense of an ending – just the muted idea that I would return to its familiar surroundings. 

Student life is very much the same. We all have graduation in mind from the day we step foot on campus. The end dominates the means, though living for some far-off career traps us in a need for continual progress. In this way, university warps into a liminal space. Until we are no longer students, we retrace familiar routes. We must wait for that ending, or create one for ourselves. 

It’s hard to tell when the edge of liminality is close. I don’t know when, or even if, I will finally be able to turn a corner and leave my adolescence. At the end of my drive to campus, when I pull back the handbrake and climb out from my seat, it feels like neither an end nor a beginning. I’m stuck on the infinite loop of generic student activity, waiting for someday to begin.

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