An open letter to recent college graduates who aren’t quite there yet

Five months shy of 24, soon to be relocating to the Big Apple, and just now realizing that my first year out of college spent serving tables at two jobs wasn’t a waste. It was the year I discovered more of what I don’t want to do, what things I have left to do, and drawing closer to answering the question, “What on earth am I doing with my life?”

I’m not there yet. Ha! Not even close. Are any 22, 23…..29 year olds there yet? How do we know if we’ve made it? I honestly don’t even think there is such a thing anymore. Making it is no longer achieved by checking the boxes in the life-path trajectory our parents, teachers and peers may think it is. It is not the un-interrupted natural order of progression and raising station that the American Dream was founded upon. It’s not the ‘I can’t make as many mistakes now because I’m a real adult and you’re not supposed to anymore’. What has taken me a long time to realize is that making it means you’ve discovered more about yourself, your wants, needs, desires, and what it takes to make you happy. No one else. Not even your parents. Painfully I admit, this was, and IS, still a particularly hard thing for me to digest and, with full conviction, believe.

In my world, making it infers you’ve scored the job in your field, secured the salary you desired, found the city you’re excited to adventure in every day you wake up, and have found the precise coffee blend perfect for you. While the latter is the only thing I’m closer to discovering, I’m finding the former criteria lacking. Having spent six months job searching and applying with the feedback that basically says “you’re not qualified enough,” I find myself drawing farther from the hope and positivity that I will be working towards a stable career by first landing an initial entry-level job — and by extension, the idea that I, too, will have made it. Instead, I’ve taken a liberal arts kid course at how to persevere at surviving an overqualified job market saturation in a STEM oriented world.

For me, the first year post-graduation started out promising. I secured a full time internship at a strategic communication consulting firm and was working with real clients while building up my portfolio and broadening my professional network. The first couple months were great. And then I got bored. I ran out of work, wasn’t finding my assignments fulfilling, and most definitely wasn’t being challenged in ways I thought a real-life company would provide. I left that job disheartened and more confused. I thought this was going to be the thing that confirmed what direction I wanted to pursue with my career, what I wanted to do. All of a sudden it wasn’t. I left that internship despising what was actually a PR firm who took on many public sector clients. I hated media monitoring, media pitching, and writing things that never survived a second round of edits. I was discouraged at not getting my drafts read or ideas taken hold. I thought to myself, “Why would I ever subject myself to this kind of work again?”

During the second half of the internship I picked up a part-time serving job at a new-to-open restaurant in downtown Minneapolis to make some extra money. It also served as a much needed distraction myself from the monotony of going to a desk job everyday and linking the chains around my wrists. That position turned into the more exciting part of my now extra-long days, and eventually, into the only job I had. During the winter and spring months it was my only source of income — and still is. Yet I wasn’t using my degree(s) or figuring out more about what kind of work I wanted to do.

In the middle of it all — the stress and anxiety of finding a job post internship and figuring out where I wanted to be next — grad applications were due. Friends around me were applying and I was no where near figuring out my next move. I knew grad school would be in my future either way and thought to myself, “why not just apply a year or two earlier than anticipated?” Clearly, finding a job wasn’t working out and I had no idea what I wanted to continue doing. If anything, I knew that I could not — I would not — become stuck in the serving industry.

The problem was, there were/are a tremendous amount of interests I care(d) to pursue and turn into full time work. This time, I had boiled it down to public administration.

Within a three week time frame I applied to four schools for two different programs I was interested in. As it turns out, I still wasn’t convinced that this is what I wanted to do next (see my earlier blog posts about my BIG decision). Just because everyone else was going back to school and it made sense to find a direction to pursue, I wasn’t convinced this is where I wanted to guide my life next. Stuck in school for two more years after surviving the past 16?! I still need a break! And how is a person to know, at age 22, exactly what they want to do and how to get there? Or that a masters degree will secure just that? After talking with a peer who’d gone down this path, reading others’ grad school goers decision-making processes and talking with friends and family, I decided that grad school wasn’t going to do everything I needed it to. Boiled down, pursuing grad school would have given me a path, but not the security I so craved. It wasn’t going to solidify my interests or fuel my passions if I wasn’t already convinced of what they were.

Listen up now, and learn this sooner rather than ($500 in application fees) later: grad school isn’t for figuring out if you can do [insert your interest or field here] for the rest of your life. It is an educational experience meant to shape and professionally expand your career field/interest area that you are already intent on or actively working in. It’s a means to an elevated end goal.

What exactly is my end goal? I can’t answer that question, and most likely, neither can you.

During the period of my post-grad existence I call ‘the struggle’, days passed by and my decision loomed. If I didn’t choose school, what else would I do? I can tell you this. I didn’t decide on one career field (i.e. media or public affairs) or one company I needed to work for. I committed to moving. Yup, that’s what I decided. The rest would follow, the people would follow, where I would end up and what I would eventually do would follow. Most importantly, I had made the decision, all by myself, that the truly inspirational and next life-step for me was to change my scenery and start anew. Cue New York City. I can tell you, turning down NYU and still deciding to move to NYC was the hardest decision of my measly 23 year old life thus far.

Now I had a plan.

At the end of summer I would leave Minneapolis: my home for the past five years and place I spent my young adult life maturing and growing. My serving jobs would have to come to an end in the near future and I now had so many things to look forward to and plan. With that simple decision and commitment to it, I refreshed my mentality and vigor for life. For one of the few times during young adulthood, I am thrilled to be young and adventurous individual with the ability to just up and go anywhere I want. My plan isn’t necessarily nailed down but I have an idea about where I want to be and where I want my life to be moving. It was a direction — something I advise you to figure out. If nothing else, at least pick that. The rest will follow even if it doesn’t seem to be working out right now.

In my case, the job, new connections, housing, and figuring out how to navigate an overpopulated city will follow. I will commence my job search remotely before moving and hope that my connections and ability to whip out a decent cover letter in 20 minutes will provide me some sort of lead in the job hunt. I’ve already found an affordable room to rent in a cute little apartment in Queens with a friend of a friend — all in a matter of a two weeks after making my decision to move! I’ve even had one phone interview for a job I applied to that I discovered through the mass email list serve GlobalJobs.org. They are small but hopeful things that are slowly happening. It’s all coming together. I can feel it.

My ultimate message to you is to hang in there. Push through the feelings of helplessness, no direction, and being lost in your own life. If you don’t know which direction you want to take your career or what type of job to pursue — perfect. You are completely normal. You shouldn’t necessarily know at this point in your life. Having just completed 16 subsequent years of schooling with no time to explore your passions, interests, and self-reflect it is A-OK to take the time to now. Those who do have everything lined up and know what they want now are special, even an anomaly. All you need to worry about is doing something. Even if it happens to be barista-ing at a local coffee shop or living nomad style for a while, it’s something. And something will inevitably get you a full step closer to figuring YOU out and what it’s going to take to make you happy in your life/career while drawing further from doing nothing.

I realize I’m no expert and it has only been a year. Why on earth should you listen to me? LOL maybe you shouldn’t. But having personally struggled emotionally, mentally, and spaciously the most I ever have in my young adult life this past year, and getting through it to tell the tale, I feel a sense of empowerment and the desire to share my experiences in hopes of better connecting to my peers, my friends, and my fellow millennials.

They may never understand us — our parents, leaders, teachers, instructors, or veteran professionals. The only hope we have is to better understand each other. Our generation is the one soon to be taking over the work force with the chance to create a space for all kinds of working professionals and adventurous individuals. The sooner we understand each other and change the social dialogue of a ‘success story’, the sooner we become a collectively dynamic, evolving, and successful network of individuals.

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