“On days like that I guess the best you can hope for is that you took something from it… anything… anything at all. Even if it’s just taking the time to lay in the grass and think of all the things you have left to do.” – J.D. in Scrubs
This post has literally been 8 years in the making. 8 years ago I crossed the stage on Tucker Field at Smithfield Selma Senior High School and, for the first time in almost twelve years, had to make a decision whether or not I wanted to continue as a student the following fall. Up to that point I had attended school because it was required by law and because it was what you did (my mother making me had a lot to do with it too!).
Yet, there I was diploma in hand, tassel turned, facing the question whose answer would change my life forever: “what’s next?”
When I crossed that first graduation stage, I had no idea what was next. I couldn’t fathom what the next 4-8 years would look like for me, where I would go or end up. I’m not sure I was ready to face the future and yet, there it was, looming on the horizon.
As I reflect on the last eight years there are a few things I want to make sure I write down before I forget them. These are things that I wish someone had told me after I crossed the high school graduation stage so that, perhaps, stepping into the future might not have been so terrifying. I share them now in case someone else needs encouragement. I share them for those who, like I had, have crossed that first stage and are seeking the answer to the question: “what’s next?” Do I have all the answers, definitely not. Is this list complete? Not by a long-shot. But maybe, just maybe, these things will help you as you face your future. Maybe they’ll aid you in taking that first step.
1. Grade School was NOT a joke:
I can’t remember how many times I got in trouble for sleeping in class, mumbled that I was never going to use something I was being taught or skipped homework because I thought it was pointless. My first twelve years as a student (K-12) were mostly spent thinking it was all a waste of time that was keeping me from being free from the classroom prison I was in. I’ve learned however, that those long days at school, early morning bus rides and “boring” classes actually gave me more freedom than I could have ever imagined. You see, I stepped onto a college campus in the fall of 2005 feeling like everything to that point had been a waste and yet discovered that all those years had really prepared me for something greater. Everything from learning how to read to discovering “X” to writing an essay had prepared me for not only school but my career as well. As I sat in a classroom and as I stood in front of students in my youth group teaching, I found myself silently thanking countless teachers which I had under appreciated over the years. Those things you are learning ARE important and you WILL use them no matter what direction you go next. If you are still battling through grade school, hang in there, it is worth more than you’ll ever know- no matter what direction your future goes.
2. Don’t Slack Off at the Beginning:
If I could go back to my first semester of college and tell myself one thing, I would say “don’t slack off so much.” It’s not that I didn’t try or didn’t study, but I sought to just skirt by, doing the minimum required and seeking to fit school into the fun I was having being at college. I remember thinking many times that GPA was not important in the long run and that as long as I passed I was good to go. “C’s get degrees,” I remember hearing many times back then. While this is true, I can’t tell you how much I wished I could go back and slap myself in the back of the head. Sure I kept going and even got my Master’s degree, but had I focused just a tiny bit more on my grades at the beginning, I would have had many more open doors when I reached the end. GPA is more important than you think and believe me, when you reach the end and are facing graduation, potential employment opportunities and graduate school applications, you’re going to wish you’d paid a little more attention and studied just a bit harder. (Added to this: don’t be afraid to ask for help. Other students and professors are there to give advice when you need it… if you don’t understand something, just ask!)
3. Enjoy It:
On the flip side of point 2, take time to enjoy the journey. I can’t imagine what it must be like for those people who focus solely on the academic side of higher education and yet miss out on the life-altering friendships and memories they could be making outside of the library. Take time to meet people: go to school-sponsored socials (you can often get free t-shirts by doing this), hang-out with your roommates or people on your hall/suite, don’t always go back home on the weekends and take time to do what you enjoy. Don’t go overboard (see point 2) but do take time to live life, make friends and get more out of college than just what you learn in books. After all, book smarts are only half of what you should take away. You only get one chance to do this so take time away from the books and breathe every once in a while.
Some of us go to college knowing exactly what we want to do in life and some of us have no idea what we want to do tomorrow. Either way, I’ve learned that it’s important to take time to figure out what you love/care about/enjoy doing during your college years. Take up a new hobby, join student organizations, take classes that don’t have anything to do with your degree but that will be just fun. (I took a photography class my senior year and though it had nothing to do with my actual degree, it was a lot of fun and I learned a lot about a subject I would have not encountered otherwise.) Again, don’t go overboard and don’t overextend yourself, but take time to figure out what you like and don’t like. Those student organizations, ultimate frisbee matches, or random electives might not translate into your eventual career but they can give you hobbies or life-focuses that will help you get through the toughest of days.
5. Discover What You Love:
(emphasis on “you”). I saw so many of my fellow students pursuing degrees for the eventual paycheck or because it was what was expected of them. While many of them went on to get their degrees in those areas, some ended up continuing education or going into careers that had nothing to do with their degree. While it is generally not the best (or cheapest) idea to change your major 5 times, it is equally not wise to choose something right out of the gate because it will get you a lot of money or because someone else wants you to do it. Take time to discover what you love and what you’re passionate about. Ask yourself the dreaded question: “where do I want to be 10 years from now?” and seek to see if the answer is somewhere that is going to make you love waking up each day (well, at least, most days!). I can think of nothing worse than entering into a career where you quickly begin to look forward to retirement. Take time to find your passion and then see if there is a way to turn that passion into a career. You only have one life to live, don’t let someone else choose its direction without first seeking if that is the direction YOU want to go.
6. Don’t Dismiss Graduate Education:
I remember approaching the mid-point of my junior year and thinking to myself, “this is it, no more school after this!” I had, after-all, been in school for almost 14 years and was dreaming of the day where I would not have to write any more papers or study for any more tests. Well, I crossed the stage once again last night and earned my Master’s degree and I can’t begin to tell you how much it has enriched my life. Not only has it prepared me for what’s next, I have gained some of the best friends I could ever have and have been able to discover, even more, what I love and what I want to accomplish. Graduate school is a great chance to focus more in-depth on a field you’re interested in and can really show you what, within that field, you love the most. Graduate school will not be for everyone, but I encourage you to at least explore it and see if it might be for you. I’m sure glad I did!
7. It Goes By Fast:
It might feel like life is crawling by right now but believe me, it all happens really fast. One minute you’re graduating from high school, moving into a dorm room and going to your first class and the next your done, holding a degree and moving onto the next phase of your life. Take time to enjoy each and every moment because it really will pass quicker than you’ll expect. Make time for people, study hard, get to know your professors (you never know when you’ll need a reference letter!), and take time to breathe. If you do these things, it will still move fast, but you’ll look back find that you’ve experienced some of the best and most formative years of your life.
This list is compiled from my experience and I know that there is much missing from it. What would you add? What do you think today’s newly graduated (or soon to be) students need to know? Add your thoughts in the comments below.