It’s that time of the year. We’re steeped in all the rituals and celebrations surrounding college graduations. There’s the profound exhale and joyful relief we experience among graduates and their parents---the exhilarating sense of accomplishment, the anticipatory promise and hope for the future, and an almost audible chorus singing in the background the title of that Dr. Seuss book, Oh, The Places You’ll Go.
As a college professor for 21 years, I can say with great confidence that that’s only part of the picture. And a very small part of it really.
The truth is, most graduates don’t have a clue. And they have no idea of the places they will go. And they are the first to admit it. In fact, some of my very strongest, most thoughtful students, the ones who are the sort of human beings I enjoy spending time with the most, are often the ones most ambivalent.
I think we can attribute this confusion to a number of reasons:
1) Most students go off to college directly from high school with no time to truly pause, reflect and explore what they most need and want from the future, and to determine if college is the necessary and immediate next step or what they might want from the college experience.
2) Children raised amidst helicopter parenting come to college far less equipped to make decisions on their own and to face the consequences of their decisions, both good and bad ones.
3) Colleges invest far more resources in prospective students to attract them and in first year students to retain them than they do with students towards the end of the journey.
4) Colleges generally lack a comprehensive and intensive senior launch experience comparable to the money and resources put into the first year experience. Regardless of where I have taught over 21 years, graduating seniors have told me again and again that while they are ready to be done, they don't feel ready. And, they have learned to perceive from adults around them that ready means completely decided about career direction.
5) The college experience is wildly expensive and not just in terms of actual money; and graduating seniors can be overwhelmed by all that just happened and what the perceptions and expectations are of what should happen next.
6) Mental health challenges and trauma histories that have plagued some students for years can be even more paralyzing upon graduation when there is the anticipation of less infrastructure for support.
7) Most students don’t want to return home to live, nor should they, and yet financial realities can make living independently almost impossible, forcing young people to choose living situations, schedules and jobs that can be compromising.
As a culture fixated on doing over being, work over leisure, future over presence, and predictable control over uncertainty, this time after college that appears at best ambiguously structured seems disappointing to many parents. For parents with big careers and lives and even bigger dreams for their kids, a young person’s reluctance to embark on all that can be downright maddening. It may seem like rejection of ambition, of purpose, of all the reasons one went to college in the first place and ultimately may feel like slap in the face rejection to parents.
I was one of those uber-focused undergraduates who took an excess of electives in my major and minor instead of a wider sampling of courses all across the curriculum, I elected to write a senior thesis, and I applied to graduate school in the fall of senior year so I could head directly there after graduation. I wanted to become a professor and knew I needed to pursue a Ph.D. so I figured why postpone that? Twenty-five years later almost to the day of my own college graduation, that line of thinking makes sense to me---for the most part. While I chose graduate school in a state very far away that I had never even visited, I still wonder what if I had been in less of a rush to go and to start, and what if I had taken even more risks then?
I have mentored a few students who have taught me a lot about all this. One young man finished last spring and texted me as soon as he landed his dream job in Georgia; he wanted my advice as to if he should take it or try to find a different job in Connecticut so he could finally be with his longtime girlfriend. I had met the girlfriend months prior and knew she was beyond fabulous. But, I figured he could make both work as he had with college, and so I will admit it; I leaned toward the job. I felt the pull of practicality, and I have sometimes wondered about the teen to twenty something love affair. But I also told him, as I tell all my students, to listen to his gut. He did just that. He moved to Connecticut, traded flip -flops for down coats and suspended the job for love. He found a job at a school for children with mental health issues where he has learned a ton and contributed even more, and then just won the award for Educator of the Year. The cool thing about this story is that as a young man, he turned his back on the hypersocialization toward masculinity and breadwinning and followed his heart. And it’s working out.
Another student from nine years ago felt a pull to go for yoga teacher training and certification in Costa Rica, a far cry from Connecticut College in New London where I had been her professor. She fell in love. And not just with sun salutations in the rainforest. She met the man who would become her husband, and just this weekend I learned that they will become parents very soon. She followed her heart. And it’s working out.
Another incredible student I taught nine years ago at Harvard and whose thesis I advised on the problem of domestic violence in rural areas just launched a floral company. I didn’t expect this, and many probably wouldn’t expect this of the most successful Harvard graduates. But, why not? She was always passionate about cultivating the conditions from which she and other living things could flourish. She chased gardens and growth and beauty. She followed her heart. And it’s working out.
Another student just graduated two weeks ago and invited me to lunch with her mother. She said that she is not sure what she wants to do next. She’s gravitating towards social work or possibly a career with criminal offenders. Her mother and I think she would be perfectly suited to work in student affairs at a university. But, what do we know? Maybe not much. Before beginning a job though, she decided to make a gutsy move and embark on very major weight loss surgery. She knew she wanted to care for herself first. She’s open to what happens next. She’s likely to follow her heart. And it will very likely work out. How could it not?
These young people all have something in common---they possess a pretty keen self-awareness, especially for people in their twenties, a willingness to turn their backs on societal and familial expectations, and they all have kept love at the center from which they operate----a love towards others and themselves. They didn’t really go after the most dazzling jobs necessarily, but they have each dwelled closely to the channels in which their lives are flowing, to borrow an expression from Henry David Thoreau. And they have created dazzle and sparkle from there. We could borrow from their playbook.
So, what are the takeaways from this? What do we do with our kids who just graduated and don’t have a clue what they want to do next? Or, what if we hate their choices? We might benefit from considering the following:
1) As I say to students who come into my office concerned about declaring a major, “undecided” may very well be the very best major to have. This gives them the necessary permission to explore. As Rainer Maria Rilke said, “Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves. Do not now seek the answers which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them now. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps, you will then gradually without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
2) If college is successful, it provides an environment for questioning and for giving space for young people to begin to integrate the various parts of themselves into a sense of wholeness.
3) If young people are going to be successful, they need opportunities to try and to fail. Now would be the time to try any job or any passion and see where it leads.
4) If there is ever a time to be curious, to explore, to take risks, to travel, to be open, to fail, to experiment, it is right after college.
5) Most people have a thread they follow throughout their lives even though their jobs and positions often do change. We benefit from anchoring into the pleasures and pursuits we had, even as small children. All of us need space to listen to that still small voice, and we need mentors and parents who are also interested in listening.
6) The most prestigious internships and jobs right after college may be right but not right at that time. And that is okay. Young people should not be pressured to say yes to every work opportunity just because it presents itself. Maybe “no” or “not right now” are important answers to cultivate. Saying no helps us say yes to other things. (see the story of the young man above!)
7) The good news is that not having a clue may be a good thing. College graduation is the end of the beginning of a certain phase of young adulthood. And it is the transition to new and bold beginnings.
On a sheet of paper posted to my door with my office hours, I have this quotation from the dancer, Martha Graham, and it captures the essence of the advice here:
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated into action. And because there is only one of you in all time this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable, nor how it compares to other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channels open!”