I am entering my last week as an Americorps volunteer with Refugee Services of Texas and as a result am doing a lot of reflecting on the last couple of years and also looking forward to what’s next. So with my eyes set on the path before me and as I feel a lot less fear and insecurity than I did as a college graduate, I wanted to share a little bit of what I’ve learned the last two years – particularly for those who are about to walk across the stage and celebrate the completion of their undergrad but are feeling like they have no idea what they’re doing.
I will say upfront that this post isn’t reflective of every post-grad’s experience and honestly I’m sitting here feeling like I’m about to expose myself as a failure when it comes to moving on after college, especially when I think of former peers reading it. But I also know I’m not the only one who has or will struggle with making that next step. Now that I’m starting to shake the funk of post-grad life I’m hoping I can share some encouragement and advice for those about to make that step out of the academic world.
My last semester of college was filled with a lot of emotions. I was going to miss everyone I had met in my small college town. I would miss seeing people I knew when I would go to the store or the coffee shop. To my surprise, I had grown to see that town as my home for those four years and I knew I would miss the feeling of being a part of that community. Then there was the whole “What are you going to do next?” question. I had experienced a lot in school and jumped around in my studies as well so I really had no idea what I wanted to focus on or do because I wanted to do everything. I also really wanted to live in another country. I did not want to stay in the States but live for a significant amount of time in another place at least once. So I decided to go home and figure it out there.
For the next year I felt really frustrated and abandoned. I was frustrated that anytime I looked for jobs there was always this ache that I was choosing against going abroad. I believed that a salary in Fort Worth would prevent me from ever doing the things I wanted to. I felt abandoned because even though my friends in school talked a lot about their fear of losing friends post-college and the fear of people falling out of touch, it happened anyway. I tried. I tried to hold on to them and probably squeezed the life out of good friendships because I was trying so hard to maintain some kind of sense of community.
Ultimately, after six months I was rubbed raw with rejection and uncertainty. I had only part-time jobs and spent hours reading over teaching job opportunities abroad or job opportunities with refugee nonprofits – never being hired. I had also started opening up to the idea of grad school, something I had previously been set against. I tried to write some, but when I would sit down to I would be flooded with how I had failed at everything – failed to find work, failed to find direction, failed to keep friendships.
I applied and got accepted into Duke’s Divinity School where my best friend was studying. I hoped that moving to a new place, being on my own again, and living near some community would at least be better than what I was doing, plus the program was really great. But the ache for something else didn’t go away and when the financial aid didn’t come in March 2016, I made the decision to say no. That, and the loss of a dear friend, broke something in me – I needed change. I need to do something. In the span of a month I deferred on Duke’s offer, cut my long hair, lost one of the dearest friendships I had ever had, and joined Americorps. A month after applying and being selected for a position at Refugee Services of Texas, I flew to Arizona where I was trained and sworn in. Then I began a year working in a resettlement office as a full-time government volunteer.
Now, making the decision to join Americorps has it’s own parallel story to what I described above, but much like I hoped going home would provide the catalyst to help me decide on a path, I hoped working a year in a resettlement nonprofit would help me move forward. And it has.
Looking back at that last semester of school and at the year following it, I can tell you that I was paralyzed by uncertainty and fear. I was afraid that if I chose the wrong full-time job I would be stuck there and would miss out on what I really wanted. Instead what I missed out on was a year of making and saving money to prepare for my path. Soon-to-be graduates, if you are returning home to figure things out or haven’t landed the job you most want I want to encourage you to just do something. You can always leave. When you’ve found the job that is a better fit for you or are offered an opportunity elsewhere, you can leave whatever you are currently doing. Accepting a job offer is not a life sentence. I wish I had understood this. I turned down a great job offer my last semester of college because it wasn’t exactly what I wanted. If I could, I would go back and slap my twenty-two year old self and save her some future regret and breakdowns. With that job I would have developed some really incredible skills that are now nearly impossible for me to find entry-level opportunities for. It would have looked beautiful on my resume even if I had been there for only a year or two. So don’t necessarily be quick to refuse a job offer because it isn’t what you dream of doing. It will most likely be a step forward. I know that job opportunity would have really helped with the path I’m currently on. But also don’t be ashamed or afraid of refusing an offer when it doesn’t feel right, but do something.
I was also afraid of making the move abroad. At the time I didn’t want to acknowledge that I was actually scared because nobody wants to be seen as fearful or incapable. But looking back, I was absolutely afraid of being disconnected from my friends. I was afraid of being alone. New places don’t scare me any more than any other person, and that tends to be outweighed by my interest to experience those new places, but I had been afraid of not having my friends anymore. I didn’t realize that as I feared thousands of miles would cause relationships to fade, it would only take a couple hundred of miles to do that. But instead of being alone in Tokyo or Bangkok, I was alone in Texas. I don’t regret this decision as much as the job I refused, mainly because I think I needed the last two years of experiencing solitude, loneliness, and loss of friends while in my own country to realize that it could happen regardless of where I ended up. I also needed that time to become more comfortable with being alone and reflect on why I ached so much for community. I try not to dwell on why I don’t have community, though. Don’t go down that path of dwelling on why you lose friends. Just recognize that it will happen with some and don’t try and cling to all of them, it’s exhausting and heart breaking. Instead, in this time you will see the right friends rise up who will be dear to you for a very long time no matter what. Sometimes the friends that show up on the other end will surprise you, being peers you had known more as acquaintances, and those that you expected to be there for life will be the ones that hurt you the most and who may even burn bridges. So soon-to-be-graduates, know that your relationships will change – some for the better and some for the worse. Know that no matter where you end up – whether it’s Chicago, New York, your hometown, or Seoul – the friends that will stick with you will stick with you and those that won’t will just fall away, but I hope you find the strength sooner than I did to let friendships fall away.
I do want to end this with saying that I have somehow stumbled upon a path. I don’t anticipate it’s my only path, but it’s a direction. And I think that’s how it is for most of us: we stumble upon our passions and stumble upon our gifts and stumble upon our opportunities. You figure it out as you go, but to figure it out you’ve got to be taking some kind of step forward.
Enjoy your final moments in the unique world of college life. I pray you find peace and wisdom on your path. If you are praying for guidance, I promise you the Lord is guiding in ways you don’t see – it’s the most infuriating thing in the world. So when someone tells you the Lord spoke to them about what their next step is, I want to reassure you that He is your lover and guide too, and no, it’s not okay to slap that spiritual humble-brag right out of their mouth. Though it’s tempting. Don’t let others make you feel inadequate as a disciple because you have uncertainty. Keep moving forward. It requires so much faith to move forward when you cannot see clearly before you. Just know there are a whole lot of us out here stumbling around and we’d love to stumble along with you, because we know you will stumble upon something.