Life After Graduation

As the 2020 graduation season wraps up, I have reflected on my own graduation milestones, particularly my college graduation.  Sometimes it seems as if my college days happened just yesterday.  I remember the late nights studying in the basement of my dorm building, sitting on the old, faded sofa that was lit by the red glow of a pop machine.  I can picture my favorite desk in the library, my favorite path to walk with friends, and my favorite off-campus places to go.  My graduation day is just as clear in my memory as my college experiences.  I can still feel the pride of the day as our professors lined the sidewalks and cheered as the graduates walked towards the ceremony.  My friends and family smiled at me as I walked in.  That day represented the end of an important chapter in my life.  However, at that time I had no idea what was going to come next.  Looking back now, 12 years after graduating, I’ve reflected on what I wish I could have known then.  So, here they are, my top five pieces of advice for new grads:  

  1. Learn.  It’s normal to walk into your first job and realize you do not know as much as you thought you did.  As a student, you listened, observed, asked questions, researched, synthesized feedback, and reevaluated.  These skills will be put to use almost daily in any job, so despite feeling underprepared, you are more prepared than you think.  Check your stubbornness and ask for help when you need it. Seek out those in your field who have more experience and learn from them and their experiences.  So, learn and then when you think you know it all, look around, ask questions, and learn some more.
  2. Teach. Knowledge is not something to guard; we all do better when we share our knowledge and experiences.  Be confident in what you know!  Even though you are new to your professional field, you have just dedicated the past few years to absorbing the latest research.  There will be opportunities to share your current research based knowledge and uninhibited passion. Your contributions are important.
  3. Values. Know your values and what you will compromise on and what you won’t.  One of my professors offered valuable advice about a year after graduation.  I was working at a job that did not align with my values and I felt pushed to compromise my view on ethics.  She said, “Sometimes when you are working someplace that doesn’t align with your values or ethics, you have to ask yourself, ‘Did I do everything that I can to encourage change?’  If the answer is yes, then you have to decide, do you stay and align yourself with something you don’t believe in, or do you walk away and hope that by walking away you are making a statement for the need to change.”  I made the choice to walk away from that job and I am thankful I have since been able to find jobs that honored my values.  Don’t be afraid to speak up for your values and ethics.  Then, if your uncompromisable values are dismissed, walk away.  If you are unsure of your values, there will be people and places that will take advantage of your ethical fluidity. 
  4. Persist. Sometimes your career life will hurt. I will always remember the first time my “fresh out of college idealism” was knocked down.  Then it was knocked down again…and again…  So, know that it will happen.  But that doesn’t mean you are doing your job wrong.  Despite disappointments and setbacks, stick to your values and maintain the passions you have for making your field the best it can be. People deserve the best you can bring.  In my social work job, I always try to put the needs of my students before the needs of the systems we work in; I lead with my heart.  It would be easier not to do this, and yes, sometimes it hurts.  But, I challenge you to think about why you went to college in the first place.  Was your intention to lose your motivation and change your idealism the second you walked off campus?  Likely not, you worked too hard for that to be your story.  So, expect reality checks to hurt and then brush it off, the world needs you as you are today, a new, passionate graduate.
  5. Impact. Know that whatever you end up doing, whatever job you have post-graduation, you are making a difference. Sometimes it might not feel like it.  Your job might feel a lot like your pre-college job and a far cry from what you dreamt about doing, but be patient with yourself and be patient with your career path.  You are worth so much more than your title.  Bring your best self to your job.  Because it matters. Sometimes the biggest impact happens for people in the places they least expect it.  Maybe you cannot change the entire world in the days following graduation, but you can be you, and that energy and optimism will ripple to those around you.  

I wish I could conclude that your professional journey will be easy.  That if you follow these ideas, everything will go according to plan.  But, I have learned in the years since my own college graduation that there is no plan that will guarantee a “happy ever after.”  However, these five pieces of advice are drawn from my experiences as I have navigated my professional journey and I have found some success and confidence through following them while staying true to myself.   And, if you feel that you are the only person who is lost or struggling, come back here and join us as we navigate our understanding of the challenging, beautiful, unpredictable unexpected ever afters.  

Author: Jessica is a wife, mom, school social worker, and aspiring writer.  She is co-author of the blog The Unexpected Ever Afters.

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