Letter to an Almost- or Recent-College-Grad

Dear favorite student ever,

You don’t know what to do with the rest of your life. I know the place you are at because I have been there too.

I’ve been talking recently with other students who are either facing graduation or recently graduated, and like you, they are anxious. They don’t know what the right next thing is. They have student loans to pay off and they need a job and this pressure situation you all are under can make the leap out of college quite frightening.


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I have been thinking about and emailing with some of these students, and talking to others in my office, and I wanted to tell you what I have been thinking.

First, the job. The first job you get out of college might be ridiculous, wrong, or simply make you hopeless. It’s very likely that you won’t have the contacts or social connections to get the first job out of college that is the right job for you. That. Does. Not. Mean. You. Are. A. Failure.

Don’t do that to yourself. Don’t pronounce yourself a failure. I know it’s easy to do, because really, what else is Facebook for besides comparing our lives to others’ lives and feeling like crap as a result? (Actually, I love Facebook for other reasons. But you know what I mean.)

What is success for you? Don’t let commercials and Facebook determine what it means. Sit down for only five minutes, set the timer on your phone, and write: Success. What would it look like? Really? Don’t bullshit.

Post-college is a massive self-directed research project in determining what matters to you as a human being. Engage in that and you are a success based on your own terms of success. Treat it like research, which means to read. Instead of having your syllabi handed to you, you are going to have to go to the library and read voraciously on subjects that interest you. This, I’m sorry to say, doesn’t mean staying in your comfort zone and reading the same things you’ve always read (though that’s fine too, for a break). Instead, your larger project is to follow your curiosity, which will lead you to what is right for you to be doing in the world. This also saves your soul and your sanity if you are working a ridiculous job. You can definitely keep your intellect alive, and you owe that to yourself.

Maybe you will step out of college and right into the perfect job, and if that happens, I am happy for you. But I can’t speak to that experience because it isn’t mine.

Here’s my list of jobs before I became a professor: waitress, an artist’s model, a trash collector, gardener, nanny, dishwasher, video store clerk, researcher for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, canvassing staff for an environmental organization, coffeeshop barista, labor-community coalition organizer, organizer for a healthcare nonprofit, receptionist, mental health counselor, overnight security staff in a mental health center, nonprofit project manager, editor, associate publisher, reporter, medical proofreader, writing instructor for engineering students, adviser to a student newspaper.

I often want to print out my resume and my list of “failures” for students. I might start doing that. I have only in the past decade become a “professional.” Before that, I was just someone who someone hired to do a job. And that, too, was good, because I had the time to develop my sense of self in other ways besides through employment.

I built my sense of self on what I could make and write and how I could give to small community efforts. And I began to feel good about myself as an adult in the world. And that’s the secret.

If you get a job that doesn’t feel like you’ve “made it,” you have to build your self-esteem (especially in the United States, with the ethos of work=self) in other ways. So, how do you do that? If you make art or write, you have to keep doing that—not as a obligation but as a way to stay sane. If you are interested in a field and want to get into it someday, read and research about that field. Get on mailing lists, email people and ask for advice.

Another essential is to give your time. If you can’t find the great job, or any job, find an organization that does what you care about in the world and figure out how to get involved. This is research, and it might take time, but you have both time and the ability to research. Google an issue and the name of your city, send an email, offer your hands and your brain.

As a side note, you will be shocked at how often those connections lead to skills and employment and fulfillment. Your job is to figure out what to do with the rest of your life.

Graduation means that there’s suddenly so much potential, and at the same time there’s no structure–it can be quite scary because you feel like you have your whole life ahead of you and every decision means so much. But the truth is… it doesn’t.

The truth is that nothing you will do is a “mistake.” Your path will be wandering–it will have to be. I understand the pressure you can put on yourself because I have been there too and am actually–truth be told–just emerging from the other side of that pressure at age 42. You will make choices and not all of them will look logical or right, but you will get something important from each one if you are thoughtful and insightful–and you, my friend, are both those things.

You’ve been under incredible time pressure to do major projects in two or three weeks for your entire school career. Now the time frame shifts, and the deadlines are set by you, as are the assignments. Don’t forget to give yourself assignments that matter most to you, because that’s how you become who you were meant to be.

In your corner,

Sonya