On September 16, 2016, I sat down at my desk to write down what I wish I had known before I graduated college. I had only been out of school for four months, but it was enough time for the “real world” to have knocked me over and broken apart my idealistic visions of what life as a young Christian college grad would be like.
Today I revisited the journal I wrote that day in September as I’ve been reflecting on my post-college story. Looking back now almost 2 years later since closing my college chapter, I believe it’s important to share this incredibly formative part of my story, especially as another graduation season approaches.
What I Wish I Knew Before Graduating College
Here it is, mid-September, and I am sitting at my desk in the home I was brought up in. For the first time in four years, I did not return to south-central Michigan to embark on another year of college at the small liberal arts university I attended. Instead, I am finding myself in one of the most emotionally challenging seasons of my life thus far, asking a lot of questions about myself, my faith, and life in general as the cool air of autumn begins setting in and the back-to-school frenzy has finally died down.
If my past self, at any point during my final semester of college, could have looked into the future and saw where I would be by this time after I graduated, I’m not sure how I would have responded. I would probably have felt immensely disappointed and discouraged. Kidded, no doubt. Angry. Maybe even hopeless. With summer rapidly drawing to a close, I look back on these three months since graduating and feel like I was not prepared at all for the way my post-college life has started out.
Having had a lot of time to think in between job hunting and filling out job applications, one question that I’ve found myself asking is, Why didn’t they tell us it could turn out like this? The “they” I’m referring to is my college professors and career advisers, and “us” being me and the rest of my graduating class.
I had done as much as I thought I could to sufficiently prepare myself to graduate college and launch into pursuing a career in my chosen field of human services. I’d completed three internships, gained volunteer experience, and held two notable student jobs on campus. I attended lectures meant to inform students about the post-college world, registered for a personal finance class, and met with a financial adviser prior to graduation in order to educate myself on how to approach repaying my student debt. I even took a career planning class my final semester in which I was taught how to write top-notch covers letters, construct three different types of résumés, formulate elevator speeches, prepare for and succeed in job interviews, and market my “brand” to potential employers. We heard tips from alumni who had graduated and now held prestigious job titles, and we interviewed individuals in our own fields about what it took to succeed. I completed the class and crossed the stage to receive my degree, armed with the best experiences and practical advice possible. I moved all of my college stuff back home, ready to dive into pursuing the dream career I’d chosen in my class: working in the nonprofit, human services sector.
My LinkedIn profile was top-notch. My cover letters eloquently marketed myself for the positions I applied for. I began utilizing the list of my personal connections I’d complied in class to inquire about possible job leads. The job searching process began, and I dove in head first.
Over the course of the next two months, I heard back from multiple organizations and was offered a handful of interviews. I decided early on that I was going to pursue jobs in which I could directly utilize my B.A. degree in psychology and sent out applications for positions at a variety of mental health nonprofits, people-helping agencies, and psychiatric hospitals. For one position I applied to that seemed like a great fit with my degree and passion for service, I was offered an interview, and then a second interview. A few weeks later, I received a call offering me the job at a pay rate I don’t imagine many recent college graduates receive. Excitedly, I accepted the job and eagerly looked forward to finally beginning my career.
The path from accepting the job offer to beginning my new job did not go as expected, however. It took nearly two weeks for my background check to clear (in spite of my lack of criminal record of any sort), and then another month before I could come in for a half-day of orientation with the human resources department. I subsequently completed the required training courses online in a matter of just a few days in order to be cleared to begin my actual on-the-job training. This, again, required another extended waiting period. In the meantime, I was frustrated telling family and friends about my new job that it never seemed I’d begin. I stopped looking at job postings after I received the call about the job offer since I now, technically, was employed. I couldn’t help but wonder as the weeks slipped by how many other job opportunities I missed while waiting around for the job I did have to actually start.
At the very end of August, the day finally came. I was up bright and early that morning at 5:30 in order to be ready and at work by 6:45. I was a ball of nervousness and excitement rolled into one. A 12-hour day of orientation and training lay ahead of me after a long summer of job interviews, many prayers for direction, and much patience while waiting to be called in after accepting the offer. This would the first of three consecutive days of training, consisting mostly of shadowing fellow coworkers over the course of their 12-hour shifts. I had a three-page list of items to review, tasks to complete, and activities to have signed off by my job mentors over the course of my training.
By the end of my first day of training, I knew I never wanted to go back.
Being the deep thinker I am, I rarely get what many people call “gut feelings.” However, after my first day of my new job, I felt as if the reality of what I was getting myself into had punched me in the gut and knocked me clear off my feet. It was not at all what I had been expecting, and this was not the type of work I wanted to get into. I felt as if the work environment I’d been immersed in for twelve hours had had a toxic reaction on my entire person, and there was no way I could see it ever becoming agreeable with my system. I anticipated feeling overwhelmed by my first day, but I never imagined feeling repulsed by the idea of returning. As I sat drained and dumbfounded in my car in the employee parking lot at the end of the day, and later as I sat staring at my bedroom wall after calling my boss to tell her I wouldn’t be returning, there was only one question pounding in my head:
How did this happen?
Why had I seemingly failed, after one day, at a job I’d worked so hard to get? I’d done everything right, prepared for both of my interviews, dressed to impress, tailored my résumé superbly for the position, and even landed the job (not to mention it was in my chosen field). But I was totally and undeniably unprepared to handle what to do with finding out my job was a horrendous fit for me. Sure, I’d heard stories from people about their first jobs and how they weren’t ideal or glamorous, but it afforded them an opportunity to get their foot in the door and start gaining experience. But what on earth had just happened to me?
At first, all I felt was disbelief. I went through all of that—the interviews, the cover letters, the orientation, the waiting, the training—just to quit after one day? The vast majority of my entire summer felt like a huge waste. After all the time, and effort, and patience I’d invested into beginning this job, in the blink of an eye it was over. And I was back to square one.
In the days and weeks after my first-job fiasco, the disbelief subsided and I began processing the experience piece by piece. I was incredibly humbled by the ordeal for starters, but I was also left wrestling with heavy questions and feelings of confusion and anger. If this job didn’t work out, what kind of job do I want? I invested so much time into this one position;, where and how do I begin the job-searching process again? Why didn’t anyone at college tell me that starting my “career” could involve pain, failure, and setback?
Up until that distressing decision to quit my job, I felt all the career planning advice I’d received in college had been immensely helpful in getting me off to a great start. But here I was now faced with a reality that had never been addressed in any of my classes, or mentioned as being a real possibility for me and my classmates of aspiring professionals. In my career planning class the semester leading up to graduation, I was told to pursue my dream career by charting out the practical steps it would take to get there. I was told to make action plans, and was given numerous resources to draw on once meeting with college professors or career advisers wasn’t an option. But never was I or my classmates told that we may graduate college and fail, in spite of our best efforts and careful plans to achieve our goals. While the knowledge I now possessed of how to get a job had indeed gotten me one, my short-lived first job taught me I still had loads to learn about myself, what kind of work I really wanted to do, the type of setting I wanted (and did not want) to work in, and the value of taking small steps into the working world rather than large, extraordinary ones.
Before graduating college, I wish I would have known that failure is possible when it comes to entering the job field, but failing doesn’t have to be an entirely negative thing. I’ve learned that failure in the workplace, like any other area of life, can cultivate the ground for a great amount of growth, learning, and self-discovery to happen. While I wished I had been better equipped before graduation to know how to walk away from a job I quickly recognized was not for me (or that I even might find myself in that kind of job situation someday), this experience is helping me work through how to handle defeat: by picking myself back up, brushing myself, and persevering to keep going. One day, and one small step at a time.
To the college student preparing to graduate—maybe you already know the things I wish I knew before finishing school. But if not, let me be one to say that life after college may turn out differently than you expect. I never imagined my experience would include the job failure, difficult break up, faith crisis, or mental health struggles that it did. But somehow I came out on the other side of them much wiser, and kinder to myself, than I was before.
Whether things turn out as you hoped or don’t look much at all like what you prepared for, know that it’s okay. Your story is unique. Your story is your own. And while things may happen differently than expected after college, you are always in control of what you’ll make of them.
Take it from someone who now knows. 😉