For most of my life I have been a good student. Within the walls of the classroom I knew who I was. I knew what I was good at, what I was bad at, and the former always outweighed the latter. I wasn’t uncomfortable out in the world. I played handball for many years and developed, on those courts, the competitive instinct that sports demand. I wasn’t afraid to take up space, to sing along to every song on the radio or be the first person on the dancefloor.
These things gave me confidence, but none of my interests felt as important as my grades did. Because though I knew who I was, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Just that I wanted it to be cool. I was the kind of teenager who couldn’t pick a favorite. I had many favorite meals, favorite movies, and favorite subjects. Soon it became clear that I wouldn’t be able to pick one academic path until the last moment. So, good grades became a way for me to ensure that I would have as many choices as possible when the time came. Still unsure of what to do with my life (as twenty-year-olds often are) I chose a bachelor’s degree that made me curious, and told myself “just get good grades, you’ll figure the rest out later”. It is now, at the end of my master’s degree, that I see how much silent pressure I have been putting on myself. It is now, when I am supposed to start my career, full of ideas and energy, that I realize how tired I am. And it is only now, with the brutal honesty that comes with age, that I can admit the real reason I desperately worked for the As and Bs.
My family did not put pressure on me to study. My parents were always firm, but never overbearing. And yet we, my mother and I especially, shared an unspoken knowledge that I was not like everyone else in my class, and so I could not think like everyone else in my class. It is the sort of knowledge only immigrants can share, and truly understand the scope of. I know that despite loving this country’s most popular sport, its language, traditions, and people (despite being Norwegian) I am seen as an immigrant first. I have to, silently and verbally, prove that I belong. I knew this as a twelve-year-old. Even then I felt, deep down, like I had to be “good” at things, because being “mediocre” and an immigrant would be like having my legs tied together in a race. So, I tried really hard at everything. This is not the part where I dig for your sympathy. Here, I just want to put this complex, and often secret, experience as simply and honestly as I can: This country is good at giving guarantees. We are told that if you work hard, and treat people well, you can be anything you want. We are told that the doors are open and there is space around the table. We are told: Everyone is equal, and if you are somehow wronged, there is such a thing as justice. This is repeated over and over again until we believe it.
I have never wanted to sit in the quiet corner. I have always wanted a seat at the table where decisions are made, and I have always believed in equal opportunity for all. However, I have never felt safe enough to trust these guarantees the same way I have seen my friends trust them. Because though we share the same hopes and ideals, we do not share the same history and experiences. I am realizing though, as I navigate the anxiety and frustration of the job hunt, that I need to trust these guarantees now more than ever. Being a graduate in 2021 means writing a thesis and starting a career in historically uncertain times. The pressure is on. We are at a crossroads. And after years of higher education, we have to ask ourselves some hard questions: Who am I now? What do I do next? And am I good enough? To be a Black-Norwegian graduate in 2021 involves some more questions. The kind you never feel mature or well-read enough to answer. Like: “should I check the box that says I want the special treatment for applicants with an immigrant background?” You start to second guess yourself. The idea of checking this box curbs your enthusiasm and triggers your pride. Special treatment? What does that even mean? I’m a catch, not some political quota! Then again, the idea of not checking it seems like an unnecessary waste of opportunity. Special treatment? Absolutely… I need all the help I can get.
For most of my life I have been a good student, but now I struggle with feeling like my CV is not impressive enough. I struggle with the deep-rooted fear that maybe (despite all the work) my legs are tied together in this race for The Dream Job. And I struggle with trusting a competitive system that has let down so many applicants who look like me. When the vague rejection emails start ticking in, it does not help to be told (however kindly) that “this is just how it goes». It does not help to be told «relax, you’ll find something eventually». Only one thing actually makes me feel better, and that is hearing someone else, in a similar position, admit that they are struggling too. So, if you are someone who doesn’t recognize themselves after a degree, or you don’t know where you fit in on the job market, or you find yourself suddenly questioning if you are good enough; I want you to know that I feel the same way. And I don’t think we’re alone.
Written by: Tessy Caroline Bøsnæs