Matthew: Hopeful, and a Little Bit Scared

My friends have fallen asleep on a couch in Squires Student Center, which is where I find them after my 9 AM class. We’re coming up on finals and are all dragging, so the naps aren’t unexpected. The stranger, awake and slouched on an adjacent couch, is a surprise. He looks a lot like every freshman I’ve ever seen — small, wide-eyed, tense.

I sit down, dump my backpack on the floor, and introduce myself. His name is Matthew, no he’s not busy, and yes he’ll help me with my project. I press the record button on my phone’s voice recorder.

“How are you today?”

“Pretty good. How are you?”

We trade pleasantries. How was Thanksgiving? What are you doing for Christmas? When it seems like Matthew has started to get comfortable, I point to the bulky uniform he’s wearing.

“I’m assuming you’re a cadet.”

“Yes.”

“My dad was a cadet here. He was Navy, and I was born in the area.”

“I am Navy as well.”

“Cool! What’s it like?”

“It’s good. I enjoy it. It’s setting me up to get into the Navy when I graduate, so I’m looking forward to that.”

“What’d’you want to do?”

“Uh, something in service warfare. I’m not sure yet, but we’ll figure that out.”

“Yeah. Yeah, and after you get out of that, I mean there’s all the contracting jobs you can get into.”

“Exactly. I have options.”

“It’s a good career. And they’re paying for your school, right?”

“Yep. That’s a big plus, obviously.”

“That seems to be a big reason why people join. I don’t know, what’s that process like?”

“Basically you just fill out a scholarship application. It’s like any other application, just with a little bit more. You need references, and you have to take a fitness test, a few things like that. But you just apply for it and if you’re good enough you get a scholarship. And even if you don’t, you can join the program anyway and try to get a two or three year scholarship while you’re in school so you still get some of it paid for.”

“What kind of stuff do you do? Are they hard on you?”

“I mean, they are, but it is what it is. It’s just a freshman year thing.”

“You’re a freshman?”

“Yes.”

“So you’re like, getting the worst of it right now?”

“Eh, it’s not too bad.”

“What do you guys do?”

He shrugs. “I can’t talk about that too much.”

“Oh, okay.” I feel bad about asking, like I stepped over a line, and I do my best to backtrack. “But you don’t regret it, you don’t wish you chose something else?”

“Nope. I’m glad I was here. And I know next year I’ll be even happier I’m here because I’ll be an upperclassman.”

“Yeah,” I laugh. “So what are your classes like?”

“Um, so I’m a math major.”

“Exciting.”

“I know, I get it. But other than my math class, my classes aren’t that bad. I have a Navy class, of course, the Corp of Cadets class, and a few other ones. My math class is hard, but outside of that it’s not too bad.”

“That’s good. Yeah, I was never very good at math, but I think that’s probably because I didn’t like it.”

“Yep, it’s definitely not for everybody.”

“Do you like it?”

“Yep.”

“That’s good. That’s great!”

“I wouldn’t say it’s a bizarre major, but it’s something a lot of people don’t like. I get that. But I’m good at it, I enjoy it, and I’m happy I’m in it.”

“We’re on opposite ends of the spectrum. I’m a creative writing major.”

“Yeah, see I don’t like writing too much.”

“I get that response a lot. People are like, ‘Why- what are you going to do with that? What careers are there?’ Frankly, I don’t know yet. I didn’t go into this being practical.”

“Okay. Well, as long as you enjoy it you’ll probably be able to find something.”

“Do you think that if you enjoy something you’re going to be okay? Does there have to be some kind of application there?”

“I think so,” Matthew replies genuinely. “I think I’d rather do something I like and not be sure how it’s going to end up than something I hate doing but know it’ll be good because if you don’t like what you’re doing, you really shouldn’t do it.”

“Yeah. I agree. Have you ever been scared of — like, I don’t want to say the future because that’s so broad but — what comes after this?”

“A little bit.”

Me too, Matthew.

Academically, Matthew and I couldn’t be more different. But the thing that really struck me about our conversation was how easily he accepted my pursuit of creative writing despite not being able to relate to my choice. I’ll admit, there was a time I was confused when people didn’t share my interests. I made the assumption that if I felt strongly about something, others must feel strongly about it too. Matthew wasn’t like that. There was so much sincerity in his voice when he said he really did believe people could “make it” if they follow paths that made them happy. Maybe that’s dangerously naive, but to hear him say it gave me a moment of hope — for me, for him, for everyone maybe.

We shared a fear, too, one that everyone experiences. When Matthew leaves Virginia Tech, he’ll join the military. I have no career plans, and the only thing I know for certain is that I’m marrying my partner as soon as I graduate. We are taking different paths, and we are both scared on some level of what lies ahead. I believe it’s part of human nature to fear what we don’t yet understand. The only way to overcome that fear is trying to understand it.

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