Life After College

If you would have asked me a year ago what I wanted to be when I "grew up," I would have told you something very different than what I want to be now.

I would have told you something along the lines of "opera star," "music teacher," or "Broadway star." Never in a million years would I have told you "photographer." I mean, I was about to spend 5 years of my life at Lee University getting my music education degree, killing myself the whole way with long summer classes and late rehearsals. Surely I wouldn't drop everything to become a photographer - and that was something that was not even in the same field of music!

So how did I get here, you ask?

In the middle of my college career, right before my (second) senior year, I had a huge crisis. My medication was all out of whack, I had doctors prescribing medicine I should have never had, my parents were putting a lot of financial stress on me, and my boyfriend (now fiance), who had just moved to Chattanooga, and I were trying to navigate our relationship that was becoming serious and rocky. All of this combined sent me into a terrible place physically and mentally for about a month and a half. It took me the rest of the semester and into the summer to recover from that place.

During that semester, I decided to only take 13 hours instead of the usual 17+ that I took each semester, and just finish up the rest of the classes that summer to not be behind. The semester before, my advisor suggested I take a class other than music to give me a break from everything so that I wouldn't get burnt out (which, spoiler alert, happened anyway). Instead of acting, dancing, or underwater basket-weaving, I chose to take a photography class. I had always wanted to learn how to use a camera.

During that semester, that photography class was the only thing that kept me sane. From having panic attacks before class, to being unable to sleep at night or eat barely anything, when I got behind that camera, everything seemed to fall in place for me. It was similar to the feeling of being up on stage singing a song I knew so well, but different... It felt newer, and fresher.

I remember my first shoot with a model, and how nervous I was beforehand. However, whenever I started taking pictures, it was just so natural to me. The photos flowed out and we both loved the end results - with lots of Facebook likes. It gave me such an adrenaline rush. The same thing happened to me whenever I had my first paid shoot. I was getting paid to do something I love!

Then I get a text from a friend who said her brother wanted to book me for a wedding because they liked the pictures I posted on my photography page. I was thrilled, but scared to death. I have no idea how they booked me based on the meeting I had with them, since I was so unsure of myself and had no self-confidence. After the wedding, I was so burnt out from school that it took me a while to edit the images, however they did like the end product.

School started back up that next semester and I only had one client that whole semester. I was busy planning my senior recital, taking tests to make sure I could student teach the next semester, and finalizing all my classes to graduate. If I had the time, I would have tried to promote my business, but there was none.

The next and final semester of my college career was finally here, and I was so excited to student teach. Without going into deep detail, I had a rough time that semester. My grandfather died at the beginning of it, I now had the stress of planning a wedding, and I was so burnt out with school in general. Waking up each morning just to arrive at the school building became a chore, and I didn't put my usual 100% into the students - something I still regret.

Once I graduated, I was so happy to be free from the oppressive grip that music had me in for so many years. I never thought I would actually type out that sentence, especially on a public forum, but here I am. The long hours in rehearsal slowly using my voice, getting sick right before performances, never being good enough no matter how hard I practiced, the terrible competition between musicians, the politics of the music world, and everything else that came along with being a musician got to me after a while, and I never knew what kind of fresh air I would be experiencing after I graduated.

Being away from the music world has been very strange. How do you step away from something you thought would never leave or abandon you, never stab you in the back, something you thought you would never get tired of? How do you completely turn away from something you've been doing your whole life, as long as you can remember, something you knew deep down you were made for?

Right now, I am completely fine with simply doing photography. I love capturing the essence of people and creating a magical moment during important events they otherwise wouldn't remember without photographs. I love using my eye to create a painting with light, capturing that tiny moment in time that is just perfect. I feel as if I am in the right place and where I am supposed to be, behind the lens.

Will I ever return to music? I don't know. I feel as if in some capacity I will, although I'm not sure in what way yet. Maybe I'll wake up one day itching to get on the stage, or want to start teaching again. But I am at peace knowing this is what I am supposed to be doing.

McKenzie Stephens