The coffee shop line embodied my college experience

When you’re just not ready to order

lf17-SarahAshman

Last Sunday, I stood in line at a crowded coffee shop in D.C. absolutely starving. I stood on my toes and peered around the surrounding puffy North Face parkas to catch a glimpse through the glass of the baked goods display — it was brimming with muffins and scones galore. What I didn’t see were the breakfast sandwiches I’d been told again and again were so good. So, I waited patiently for my real options, and person-by-person, I reached the long awaited counter.

I reached forward with a mitten hand and took the small printed menu from the countertop, ordering a large latte and trying my best to skim over what seemed like thousands of options suddenly presented to me all at once. My eyes were drawn rapidly from one option to the next — from egg biscuits with bacon to turkey rolls with marmalade.

I had narrowed it down to about 10 when I could almost feel the barista tapping her foot from behind the register and the man behind me inching closer and closer oh so subtly to usher off my turn and begin his own. Were they serious? How was I supposed to make a decision that quickly?

Feeling entirely overwhelmed, I mumbled that I would take a chocolate banana scone from the bakery — the only thing I’d ever had before — as I immediately buckled under the pressure of the decision and reverted back to whatever was familiar.

I turned from the counter, relinquishing my invaluable spot in front of the register to the next person in line, with a knot in my stomach, knowing I hadn’t gotten what I wanted. It wasn’t until I backed away that I looked on the far wall to see the menu printed in huge front hanging on the wall alongside the very line I stood in for so many minutes. There they had been, I realized, all along. Suddenly, I could feel my cheeks turning rosy — no longer pink from the cold but now, red from the embarrassment of having missed something everyone else saw.

I’d clearly missed the writing on the wall.

I’m not the only one who’s had this experience on a small level. In fact, I’d bet that just about all of us have been caught completely undecided by a waitress or attentive server somewhere. We’re caught off guard and embarrassed, but we get over it quickly because it’s not that big of a decision.

However, I think many of us experience this on a much larger level at the University. Instead of a healthy dose of humbling embarrassment that comes with ordering something we realize we’re actually allergic to, this unpreparedness to make a decision — whether it be about internships, majors or jobs — leaves us deeply overwhelmed and ashamed. When were we supposed to be deciding between the thousands of things we could do? How are we supposed to know by now? Did we miss the writing on the wall?

Due to some pretty ungracious social norms, it’s not okay to get to the front of the coffee shop line and have absolutely no idea what you want to order. Unfortunately, I think our social and educational norms are changing in such a way that it’s becoming less and less acceptable to get to fourth, third — even second — year without having decided just what it is you want to do with every minute of your entire precious and priceless life. And it’s insane.

I don’t know what I want to do with my life. There — I said it. I hope this gives you courage to say it too. Do you know why? Because it’s okay.

There were probably some people who walked into that D.C. coffee shop with their order down pat — they’d looked up the menu on line a week before, decided on a small drip coffee and the bacon date scone. They were overly ready when they reach the front of the line — think your friend who’s been preparing for Comm school since the 6th grade. There were probably some people who showed up on a whim, saw the signs and had a good idea of what they wanted when they reached the barista — think your roommate who transferred into the Curry school and is on the five-year education track. And then there was me. I didn’t know, and I felt the pressure — think an English and American Studies major with no clear direction towards employment.

Just because you don’t have it all figured out doesn’t mean you won’t be able to choose something you love — you just may need an extra moment with the menu. That can be hard to take in a place like this — prepared, driven and competitive. Don’t be afraid to tell the guy — who is inching closer and closer to you and pressuring you to pick — to please take a step back. Taking time on what to study, what to pursue, what to do, is a wise hesitation and not a sign of weakness.

As a third-year applying to too many summer internships to count, I’m in the midst of fighting off the pressure to buckle and go with the scone I’ve tried before. I’m trying not to give in to playing it safe in the presence of overwhelming options. But even if I do, and I order the chocolate-banana-scone-of-an-internship I’m familiar with, it’s going to be okay. Here’s why.

When I got over the embarrassment of allowing myself to be rushed by an impatient barista with a tight-lipped smile and the 6’4 guy behind me, looming over my every indecisive move, I realized I wasn’t okay with settling. I decided to get back into the mile long line to get the ham and spinach breakfast sandwich I really wanted. Just because I’d already ordered didn’t mean I couldn’t order again. Just because you’ve already chosen doesn’t mean you can’t bravely chose again. You know what? I ended up with both the scone and the breakfast sandwich and I felt all the better for it.

I have a sweet friend who studied American Studies and Media Studies as an undergrad, and now, on the eve of graduation as a fourth-year, is taking prerequisite nursing classes at Piedmont. She wouldn’t trade her incredible liberal arts education for the world, and she’s excited for what’s to come. She’s brave, she’s wise and she’s getting back in line. She knew she wanted one thing, and now, she knows she wants another.

Hoos, whether you’re struggling with not knowing, have rushed and chosen the chocolate banana scone or loved your scone and want something else, let’s be a university of people who aren’t afraid to get back in line. Let’s be a university of people who don’t shame the line, indecisiveness or change. Let’s be a university of people who release the arbitrary timeline of life and embrace what’s best for each of us on our own time. 

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