An open letter to elite university graduates

**originally written to recent graduates of Vanderbilt University, not to exclude, but because it is what I know — this piece may resonate with many graduates from with a high-achieving past, hence the change in title**

Dear Young Vanderbilt Alum,

I’m here to drop some truth on you, to share the little wisdom I have gained in the three and a half years since I sipped champagne and strawberries, celebrating my graduation from Vanderbilt. It may not mean much now, but at some point in your life, I have a feeling you’ll be glad you read this.

Life will not work out as planned. Let me say that again. Life will not work out as planned. For any of us. And I’m not even talking about plan A not working so fall back on plan B. Nope. You will end up on a plan that you didn’t even know you would have to make. It is scary as hell, for everyone in life really, but for a Vanderbilt graduate it can somehow feel even scarier. Let me go back and explain.

I graduated college having interned in my desired field all 4 years of college and already 4 months into a job in my desired field as part of the most elite organization within that field. If anyone thought their plan was going to ultimately work out, it was me. Just in case, I graduated with a second major as a plan B and even had another career picked out as a plan C. But plan A would work. All I had to do, was make it work. Right?

HA! Wrong. For an unknown reason, plan A was derailed 7 months after graduation. A year after graduation, plan A still wasn’t working out. Life unexpectedly led me to plan C. Plan C! Wow! Didn’t think this would happen. I was having fun though! My plan C was not something I needed to attend Vanderbilt University to do (or honestly any university), and people asked me daily why the heck I wasn’t using my education. I laughed off the question and pretended like it didn’t bother me.

Let’s be real, for a high achiever who grew up impressing people (even when I didn’t work hard) — it did. For a while I began to wonder, why am I not living up to my expectations? Were my previous successes just a fluke? My friends are doing well…what’s wrong with me? I began more and more often to only say “I went to college in Nashville” as opposed to “I went to Vanderbilt”. I was ashamed of myself and where I was in life. Actually let’s clear this up — I was not ashamed of my life at all, until other people told me I was wrong. I was being told that I was “wasting my education”. Here was my first realization about being a Vanderbilt grad. A Vanderbilt graduate is smart enough to properly evaluate their situation, prioritize their opportunities, and follow through on their plan. That is exactly what I did when I began plan C. I chose plan C. My mind became clear again…for a while.

As my life road continues to twist and turn, I am being led away from plan C to the plan I never thought I would have to make. You may stay in one career from graduation to retirement (although our generation has a tendency not to do so), and your life changes may be related to other areas of life. Regardless, in time, we likely will all find ourselves where I am now. For the first time ever, I find myself making a plan without anyone who has authority to say it is wrong. Sure, many, MANY people are chiming in, but ultimately, this plan will be based on my decisions. 100%. No advisors, no professors, no in-field guest speaker. And here is where I am starting to truly realize the value of my time at Vanderbilt.

The whole time I have been off “not using my education” during plan C, I have used my education daily in the real life settings. A Vanderbilt education doesn’t just last for four years. A Vanderbilt education gives you a pair of glasses through which you will look, analyze, and see every experience for the rest of your life. Every seminar you attended, class you sat through, drunken life-pondering conversation you had, and event you showed up to, surrounded by the most thoughtful and brilliant group of peers you may ever experience, has shaped the way you look at the world. You will never not be using your education. Don’t let anyone feed you that bullshit sandwich. You can always use the information you’ve gathered to propel you forward — even in a new direction.

Vanderbilt students became Vanderbilt students for a reason. We wanted to be in the right place, at the right time, around the right people, learning the right things. We chose to become Vanderbilt students. The community of Vanderbilt is relatively small. Break that down to the community that experienced YOUR Vanderbilt, that is, the Vanderbilt from the time you stepped on campus to the time you left is even smaller. Stay in touch with your college peers. Note that I didn’t say friends. I have since become friends with people I barely knew during school. Your college peers are the movers and shakers in this world and the Vanderbilt bond means that they will probably be there when you need them — as a soundboard, to show you the red flags of a situation, and yes, as a networking opportunity. You need them and they need you. Together y’all made an elite group. Keep choosing Vanderbilt. Choose Vanderbilt regularly and you will continue to benefit from the community.

Most importantly, realize that Vanderbilt was not a means to an end. It is something that you get to celebrate daily because you did the damn thing. Think back to what you did every week. You can probably acknowledge that your college schedule and to-dos barely seem feasible now. Even if it felt easy in some capacity, mentally, physically, emotionally, etc., I promise you that graduating from Vanderbilt is an accomplishment. This is not something that everyone can do. But you did. That should spark incredible confidence in yourself.

You did whatever you had to do to get to graduation. Maybe you stayed up all night, maybe you skipped parties on weekdays to get 8 hours of sleep, maybe you went to parties on weekdays because you worked on weekends and without some social life you weren’t happy. Maybe you marched into office hours demanding your paper be regarded and gave all your reasons why, maybe you refused to participate in a mandatory activity because you needed to use that time and energy elsewhere, maybe you did exactly what you were told to do even when it wasn’t fun but was extremely necessary. You saw what you needed to do and you did it. You may have blown it a few times, but ultimately, you did it.

Guess what? No matter where you are in life at this exact moment, you still have that inside of you. You went to Vanderbilt and you have fight inside of you. You have the will and drive to succeed.

So every time your life feels uncertain or someone shakes your confidence, remember Vanderbilt. Remember that you literally have a giant gold star in your past. Remember that the Star V means you can reach your goal because you have done it before.

I know you can do it, so go do it.

- A fellow Vandy grad