Navigating Post-College Life: We graduated — Now what?

One of my volunteer involvements I signed up for after college was to serve as our class notes correspondent, taking updates on the class of 2017 and what they were up to in their lives after college. I loved doing the role because it was fun to connect with people from my graduating class and put the column together. However I noticed that it was always the same 15-20 alumni who would submit updates. In attempts to try and diversify the groups of people who submitted notes, I started to understand more reasons why people did not want to share. 

One friend mentioned that they felt ashamed to submit an update to the magazine because they felt they “hadn’t made anything of themselves after college” and were really struggling with their health. Another college friend who also felt they weren’t putting their degree to much use following their graduation and were working a retail job they couldn’t leave. A close friend did really well in high school, and then suffered through college. Three years out of college, they feel more lost than ever trying to map out their own path when their initial career plans fell through. Who would want to report to their alma mater how ashamed and lost they were? I realized how blind I was to their experiences and their pain, and my own assumptions and narrowmindedness frustrated me.

How could I be so presumptuous about their college experience and their lives four years after college? Why did I assume that people were comfortable to “report out” for our alumni magazine? On the flip slide, what are the factors that create this sense of shame and embarrassment, and what could my college have done to help those students transition out? I write with empathy to those friends and the recent college grads whom I have never met, who aren’t quite where they thought they would be after college. In each of these conversations, I relayed to them that finding yourself after college is not a linear process, and it’s important to practice self-compassion. A few themes have come up in deliberations with myself and others that I wanted to share here.

  1. Your productivity is not equal to your value as a human being. Some people are people pleasers (I am guilty of this too!) and base their worth on meeting/exceeding expectations of their partner, parents, bosses, etc. Please stop! You are not worth more or less just because of the relationship or goods you provide to others. You’re not being graded for your brains, for your memory, your ability to write. Unlearning these harmful thoughts rooted in the white supremacy characteristics is easier said than done though. Remember that you are enough just as you are. 
  2. “I knew everything when I was young.”- Cardigan by Taylor Swift. Hearing this lyric for the 1,000th time, I realized what this line actually meant to me, even to the 4 years post college me. Though I acknowledged verbally that I wasn’t a know-it-all, I think back to 21 year old me and know I still acted as if I did. I was so afraid of leaving the support and community of my college, it took me nearly a year to get over that grief. Moreover, I was grieving who I used to be in college. I felt successful, supported, brilliant in college. I came back to MN, without many friends to reach out to, to a job I didn’t feel adequate in my current job for many months. I felt this grief so intensely one night after coming home from my direct service job and I was so sad because I didn’t feel competent and the best version of myself anymore. That girl didn’t come back to MN after graduation. I cried to my mother for an hour outside her bedroom that evening because what I thought my initial post-grad life would be, was not what it manifested itself to be. But it got better. I realized that this mentality of perfection led me to that false sense of competence and security. That everything was “perfect,” I was “perfect” in college. And that wasn’t true at all, nor would it ever be true. I needed to struggle a little in order to continue learning and growing and realize that I didn’t need to be perfect in order to do good in my work. 
  3. Don’t be afraid of your vulnerable self, and admitting shame doesn’t make you weak. One of my favorite Ted Talks is by Dr. Brene Brown, who is well known for her research in vulnerability and shame. In her “Listening to Shame” talk, she walks us through some of her own realizations in these topics. Dr. Brown details how being vulnerable is a sign of strength. Addressing our shame means we are strong enough to peel back those onion layers and confront our insecurities and fears. [A fellow YNPN blog post details experiences with vulnerability in the workplace. Check it out!] Dr. Brown says it best in one of her several memorable quotes in the Ted Talk, “Vulnerability is the most accurate measure of courage.” If you are addressing your vulnerable self, you are doing the work to be a courageous human, and I applaud and support you in these efforts. 

My message to you all is to be gentle, be forgiving of yourselves, and don’t give up. We’ve had a lot of challenges we have faced so far in our lives, 2020 being one of the craziest yet, and we have lived to tell the tale. Lean on your loved ones, and know that you serve to take up the space you occupy. Give yourself the time to grow into the person you want to be. One more quote from the Dr. Brown Ted Talk that I loved and will leave you with is, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” 

You are not alone on your journey to grow and change.  

- Elisabeth Zarnoti -

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