Advice to recent graduates
Photo: Jeremy Jenum / CC BY 2.0

As I sat at Dixie State University’s graduation ceremony amid the crowd of rambunctious students, proud family, and fellow colleagues, the energy was contagious. Originally, I dreaded the prospect of sitting through two graduation ceremonies (one for baccalaureates and another for associates), but once there, I realized this was the culmination of the past eight months of rigorous instruction on my part and extensive study on the part of the black-robed figures strutting across the red and white stage. Though I personally touched only the smallest percentage of these particular graduates, I couldn’t stifle the pride I felt at seeing them so excited for the next step of their lives.

The commencement speaker had cookie-cutter advice for the graduates, using popular children’s rhymes as her platform, and the valedictorian was passionate, peppy, and adorable. And yet, despite the pride and the energy, there were something “off” in the room, or maybe just within me. I couldn’t help but think of this commencement as an apex for the graduates: a high point that could only result in a decline. I couldn’t help but to think of what would happen to these graduates after today.

Advice to recent graduatesGranted, it’s called “commencement” and not “termination” or “conclusion” for a reason, a fact that many commencement speakers emphasize. Yet as I considered the rise in unemployment and academic (or degree) inflation, a place in my heart — already soft for these graduates — softened even more.

Coupled with my passion to make a difference in my students’ lives, this odd soft-hearted feeling sparked the most desperate need to speak to these students, to give these graduates more advice than I already had. I wanted them to know the hardest part was still in front of them, especially for the traditional student. That, yes, they had accomplished so much, but their lives were so big and so fast-paced and so full of potential. Though young myself, I still wanted to pass along the smallest bit of wisdom I’d accumulated over the last several years, to pass along my advice to recent graduates.

Graduates should keep life expectations high

Some give the advice that having high expectations causes disappointment. And, in contrast, when you have low expectations, most outcomes exceed your outlook and make you happy. However, when you have low expectations for your life or your career or your happiness, you may never even exert effort to chase life down. For instance, if you have low expectations in regards to acquiring a particular job, you will most likely not apply to the job at all or not put much effort into the application.

My dear recent graduates, my advice to you is to keep your expectations high, so that you truly believe you are capable of anything. If you believe it, you will chase it with intensity. Heck, you might even get the job. (If not, please see item number two.)

Graduates should externalize (their) failure

In a nutshell, externalizing failure is saying “That test was difficult” rather than “I must be stupid to not know this material.” The latter, or internalizing, may result in never seeing yourself as successful in general or as successful as your peers. In my experience, the people I know with the least amount of confidence also internalize their failures, viewing them as personal downfalls or disappointments and ultimately harming their ego. Often, this is debilitating and not only harms the ego but subsequently destroys confidence and the desire to get up and try again.

In contrast, externalizing failure allows you to see the situation as an obstacle; it may allow you to see the task through a new non-linear perspective, challenging you to test, experiment, and — ultimately — learn. What could be better advice for recent graduates than to ask them to continue on their path of learning?

In most cases, successful people have achieved their goals not because of some great gift of the universe but because they’ve failed so many times that — by probability and effort — they at some point succeed; they didn’t see the failure as personal enough to give up on the task.

In my own writing, every month I receive about six rejection letters from creative writing journals in regards to my poetry and creative nonfiction essays. When I tell this to my students, they often ask, “How do you handle that rejection?” I reply, “I like to think of each rejection letter as being one step closer to finding a home for that particular work.” And while my reply is completely honest, I also know that this is how I externalize what would otherwise be considered a failure. I know that if I processed it any other way, I’d slowly write less and less until I stopped entirely. Externalizing the failure fuels me to continue sending out my creative work, week after week.

Advice to recent graduatesGraduates should instill creativity and curiosity within themselves

It is my belief that most, if not all, passion originates from curiosity, and people gravitate to passion: employers, co-workers, strangers, family, and friends. My advice is that this gravitational pull can be used to graduates’ benefit in regards to networking, socializing, and career building.

A passion for life is created and fostered from the curiosity to know the capacity of the human limits. Hopefully, this is what you’ve been doing in your studies. Carry it forward. Even athletes, for example, develop their passion from a curiosity regarding their physical limitations, their capacities, and the strategies of the game.

Graduates, use this passion to continue on the path of life-long learning. I believe successful people make an effort to expand themselves, to chase down their curiosities, to learn, and to grow as individuals. Many fields will require this of you. Doctors, for instance, must attend conferences in order to attain continuing education credits. Other fields may require you to pursue additional certificates. You may have to conduct extra research in your discipline to best serve your clients.

Take the curiosity that academia has already instilled in you and care for it, nourish it.

Graduates should give themselves deadlines and find a community that will keep them accountable

I cannot stress enough the importance of this last category. My dear graduates — in the last two, four, or maybe even seven years, you’ve been held accountable by your professors, advisors, classmates, and deadlines. These will fade from your life, and you are expected to pick up the reins yourself.

It is okay to admit that you are not strong enough — yet — to hold yourself accountable to your own deadlines. So, graduates, find close friends, family, or even strangers who will hold you accountable. Tell people what your aspirations are so that you can work with the pressure that this accountability creates.

Chances are academia has made you a wonderful procrastinator; it happens to the best of us. But in the classroom, you had deadlines to give structure to the procrastination. Now, out of the classroom and into the real world, chances are you aren’t going to have that same structure. Who will give you a deadline to apply to your dream job? That sailing trip around the world? Learning a new language?

Without the self-discipline inherent in creating deadlines, you could end up procrastinating on your dreams … until the ultimate deadline. Don’t wait around. Accept help from others. Extend your own hand in support. My dear graduates, don’t let life pass you by.


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