As the quarter comes to an end, I get to thinking about my own university graduations and wonder how things have changed since those days in the late ‘70s, which still seem so crystal clear to me and yet evoke shock from students when I tell them the year of my exit from student life. I take heart that in my position as a tribal elder, I am allowed to speculate on what you might encounter upon exiting the hallowed halls of the university.
What struck me shortly after the end of my student life was that there is a great deal of attention paid to preparing for graduation and not much attention paid to what happens to your identity the first couple of years after you’re done with your undergraduate work. Kind of like the energy that goes into a wedding, when it is the marriage that requires the effort and adjustment.
One of the first major shocks for me was that I was no longer a student. Do you realize that “student” is an identity you have had since you were probably 5, maybe younger if you were in nursery or preschool? It is an identification you have grown comfortable with. You have adopted the uniform, lifestyle, language, and cultural norms of the student life. All of a sudden, BOOM! You’re booted out of the academic nest with a hearty handshake, a fond farewell, and a diploma that will arrive later in the mail.
Come the first September after graduation, when everyone is buying new books, scheduling classes, and looking for roommates, you begin to experience the first real loss of the academic rituals that have become so familiar to you. You realize that September has always been the “beginning” of the year for you. Not so this year.
Many of you will begin professional positions right about now. After having spent three months backpacking through Europe, waiting tables, and laying out on the beach, or frantically searching for some kind of work that validates your recent metamorphosis from student to “qualified” college graduate, you hopefully settle into your new job only to be confronted by your second major shock about life outside of school. You realize that most of your fellow employees are older than you, with lives and activities very dissimilar from yours, and that your social life is zero.
One of the many pluses of college is a ready source of potential buddies that change from class to class, from quarter to quarter. The pool of potential friends with similar interests and world views is much denser in college than out in the employment arena. All of a sudden you are responsible for developing your own circle of friends, but from where?
You’re not getting paid enough to join a health club, and lunch out everyday has caused your budget major problems, not to mention your new working wardrobe has created a credit-card bill comparable to the national debt of a small third-world country. You spend several evenings a week online until the wee hours of the morning, talking with your former college roommates, only to realize that you need to be up at 6:30 a.m. in order to get a good parking place at work. Getting to work feeling a little fuzzy from staring at a computer screen all night is not going to get you on the promotions list, so now you realize that you must head for bed at a more reasonable hour in order to put forth your best effort on the job.
This brings me to the third adjustment to confront you during this time. That is the rhythm of your life. Up until now, there was a certain amount of flexibility in your schedule. I know that as students you are very busy, but most of you will move heaven and earth not to have an eight-o’clock class. You feel it is your right to receive special recognition at graduation ceremonies if you have had more than two of them in your entire college career. All of a sudden you have to get up every day and be at work by eight, and they expect you to be on time! You get an hour for lunch and are at work until five or later. Work takes up so much of your time – when do they expect you to get anything done? You’re more accountable for your time now, and you just can’t blow off work and stay home and watch the food channel like you used to. It will take some time to adjust to your new restricted schedule, to redirect yourself to accommodate the changes working full-time demands.
Probably the last shock I want to prepare you for is what I have labeled the “intellectual depression” that will set in as a result of your departure from academic life. I have heard former students complain about the fact that their coworkers are boring or don’t really have anything interesting to say. I believe the crux of the matter is not your colleagues but the fact that up until now there have been people in your life whose most compelling professional responsibility was to intellectually stimulate and motivate you to learn. Whether they succeeded is not the point, but the fact remains that since kindergarten there has been an entire cadre of teachers, librarians, professors, teaching assistants, and other academic types who have provided the framework within which you learned. Your colleagues are not boring or stupid – the simple fact is it is not their job to entertain you with fascinating or scholarly details.
You will now enter a new phase of your intellectual life I call “adult learning.” This is the concept that once out of the confines of academia we become responsible for determining what we need to learn, how we are going to learn it, and if we have learned it. No more class syllabi or reading outlines with the number of pages clearly defined by the number of weeks in the quarter. There will be no midterms or finals in adult learning to determine whether you have learned what you were “supposed” to learn.
While this may be terribly uncomfortable at first, as you embrace this concept in your adult life, it becomes very liberating and more intellectually motivating than traditional academic learning because you are learning what you want or need to learn, as opposed to what is required for a class. You take control for your learning, for your own stimulation and advancement. You will begin to see your community as the new learning landscape for your continued education.
Some of you will find yourselves in the position of taking work that is not at all related to your long-range career goals, as a way to keep a roof over your head and cereal in the cupboards. Some of you will find yourselves piecing together two or three part-time jobs. I know what havoc this can do to your, by now, very fragile ego.
Understand that this is truly one of the most difficult and profound transitional stages in your life. You are redefining yourself within a context that is uncharted for you. The world will relate to you differently and expect different responses to its stimuli as a result of your loss of student status. The world in general will have different, more adult expectations of you as you shed your student identity for the professional working person you are in the process of becoming.
Research has shown that the average college graduate will stay at their job after graduation anywhere from six to 18 months, but most will want to leave within a year. Most of the time, you take that first job only to satisfy anxious parents, pay off student loans, or prove to yourself you can actually get a job with a degree. This usually results in jobs graduates are ill-suited for or that hold no interest for them. They will take their second job simply to get away from their first, and by the time their third job comes around, they are ready to make some decisions about their life’s work based on their experience and some hard knocks.
Take heart in the fact that most of us have traveled this road on the way to our own life’s work. It is possible, and highly probable, that you will emerge from this period in your life with the kind of stamina and determination with which fortunes are made, scientific breakthroughs discovered, best-sellers written, and meaningful contributions to the community of humankind made.
I believe you stand at a wonderful, highly creative, and exciting place in your lives, and I would like to offer some heartfelt advice on how to handle the transitions in identity that will take place over the next couple of years.
1. Don’t take it all so seriously. Relax. That is not an invitation to sit back and do nothing but rather an acknowledgment that with time comes wisdom and experience. Trial and error are the concepts that you should gravitate to. If you don’t like what you are doing, then change it. It is not the end of the world if you quit a job you are not suited for. Nothing at this point in your life is set in stone. You have the ability to change your situation. Make sure that in changing your work situation, you are going toward something better rather than simply away from something unpleasant.
2. Spend some time talking to people who have been out of college from five to seven years. What are their experiences? What were their first couple of years out of college like? What advice would they give? People that have been out of college less than five years probably have too much in common with you.
3. Take a serious look at your successes. You are, after all, college graduates. You got where you are through determination, self-confidence, and motivation. You put in many hard hours of study. You developed time-management skills in order to meet the deadlines and the demands of academic life, hold down part-time jobs, internships, and volunteer work – and still have time to party. There is every reason to believe that the same personal characteristics you demonstrated during your college career now position you well for next adventure you face: the working world.
4. There are people in your life who want to help you succeed. Don’t assume that since you have taken your first, even your second, job, you are not in a position to ask for advice and guidance from those who have offered help and assurance before. Look to those you value, those who have mattered in your life, and those who have taken time and energy to validate your worth. You did not grow up without the help of lots and lots of people who cared for you. As adults, we sometimes forget to seek the help and support of those around us. Adulthood does not need to be tacked alone or without outside consultation.
This process of becoming a professional self is one that takes years to happen. You will refine and finesse who you are professionally throughout your adult life. Understand that occasionally it is in your own best interest to stop and evaluate how you are doing in your career: Is this really what I want to do? Do I feel valued in my work environment? Am I contributing to the common good?
The good news is that in 20 years, you can look back and offer words of wisdom as a tribal elder to the class of the year 2033. I have heard many of you lament that your college years will probably be the best years of your life. I don’t believe that has to be the case. Make every year the best year of your life. Take care of yourself, take care of each other, take care of Mother Earth, remember that risk is the price of admission, and believe that the best has just begun! Good luck!
Lily Maestas is the author of the Unlimited Options: Career Strategies to Last a Lifetime and Get Clear on Your Career Workbook, published by Kendall Hunt. She is a career counselor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.