Senior Retrospectives: Talya Phelps

Talya Phelps is a film major with a correlate in educational studies. In her four years at The Miscellany News, she has served as Editor-in-Chief, Contributing Editor, Senior Editor and Design Editor, among other positions.

Sometimes, when I strip away all of the tangible evidence of the last four years, it feels like there’s nothing left.

I’m addicted to cataloguing and quantifying my existence, and I was born into a digital landscape that indulges my impulses at every turn. There’s Goodreads to tout my elite literary tastes, Pinterest to show off my unique aesthetic, LinkedIn to scream my CV from the rooftops, Instagram to convince my friends that each moment of my life is as well-lit and hi-def as my latest post. The Notes app on my phone is filled with lists: “Good music videos,” “Favorite outfits,” “Favorite lyrics,” vocabulary words I want to use more often, links to every one of my articles (Misc and otherwise), descriptions of my strangest dreams, a chronological account of my best inside jokes with my boyfriend, collections of the funniest quotes from my friends. I take an intense yet perverse kind of pleasure in updating each one, the same kind of pleasure engendered by revising my resume or checking my credit score. Sometimes it feels like, if I don’t concretely anchor and file away each one of my life experiences, everything that makes me me will slip away.

For me, college has been a never-ending battle against my to-do list. Each week, each day, each hour, was dictated not by the rhythms of the moon and sun but by an infinite series of checkable boxes: four Misc articles edited, three class readings completed, two loads of laundry washed, one research paper researched. When I felt overwhelmed by my responsibilities, I would relax by organizing the next four weeks’ deadlines in an Excel document—a brief respite before I continued my day, crossing off list items like a video game character collecting power-ups. Home on breaks, I would often feel aimless and agitated by the lack of achievable goals to spar with. Unable to drink in the delicious languor of unscheduled time without becoming overwhelmed by guilt, I would turn everything into a checkable box. Rather than taking my time to enjoy a junk-food novel, I would force myself to suffer through sophisticated classical literature, snoozing off at every chapter and finally reveling in the accomplishment when I turned the last page. At times, I reduced even my social life to a quantifiable entity: Hang-out hours were strictly limited, enough to show friends how much I cared about them but not so much that my to-do list would take a hit.

At parties and events, my friends and I are always the ones rampaging around with our phones out, Portrait Mode engaged and ready for photo ops. Especially since the advent of the iPhone X, I feel constant internal pressure to document each weekend, capturing each major life event and committing it to a digital memory bank far more trustworthy than my own fallible cerebral cortex. Already, my first months at Vassar blur together, turning soft and translucent, punctuated by particularly traumatic or joyful moments—and even those inevitably grow blunted by time. In 10 years, or even in five, my avalanche of photos will be the only corporeal nexus between the real and the imagined. If there are no pics, did it even happen?

In my last post for the Misc’s study-abroad blog, Far and Away, I wrote that my time in Prague had been marked by a sense of urgency: a constant awareness of the clock running out and my looming departure from Europe, after which it could be months or years before I would return. It’s true that, in my four years at Vassar, I haven’t done nearly as much as I could have. I missed out on dozens of performances and lectures, I neglected to take Art 105-106, I failed to test all of the study nooks in the library. Already, I’m on a mission to make the most of my post-grad existence: My Notes app is brimming with bars to try in Manhattan, meals to cook in my new apartment, attractions to see when I’m studying in the U.K. for the month of September. But these, too, are trappings of the attitude I have to unlearn, the paradigm from which I have to break free if I want to find genuine, lasting happiness not tethered to my latest achievement.

Yet within the tableau of scores and grades and image maintenance that is my life at Vassar, there have been moments of intrinsic motivation and unbridled joy—ones that resist being neatly catalogued. Even after I knew my senior thesis was acceptable to turn in, I happily continued fine-tuning it, resizing diagrams and massaging sentences until each was a thing of beauty and utility. Under the guidance of my wonderful thesis advisor, I created, perhaps for the first time, a product of which I was truly, unequivocally proud. Discussing social-justice issues with friends and family, I feel not the twisted pressure to use “wokeness” to gain social capital, which so long typified my engagement with power and privilege, but rather a genuine interest in working toward a better world—albeit in small ways, and with the awareness that my own education is an ongoing process.

As I exist in the liminal space between the end of finals and graduation, adjusting to the reality of oncoming massive change, tempering my wistfulness with overwhelming excitement, I am making space to reflect and to savor. I am thanking my communities at home, at school and beyond who love me unconditionally and keep me warm. I am reflecting on the incredible opportunities—studying overseas, running a collegiate publication, learning more than I thought my brain could hold, meeting an insanely talented and inspiring cohort of peers and professors—afforded to me by every single person who helps make Vassar tick. To put it simply, I am feeling incredibly lucky. And as I take my first wobbling, uncertain baby steps into real adulthood, my goal is to modulate my overdeveloped preparedness instinct with a healthy dose of spontaneity, gratitude and joy.

I’d better write that down in my Notes app so I can check it off later.

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