[Image description: Allison is sitting in grass in front of rose bushes. They are wearing a cap and gown, stoles that say ‘Swat,’ and are holding a Swarthmore College pendant.]
Today is May 21st, meaning that I graduated from college exactly one year ago. And if you’ve been reading this blog at all since then, you’ll know this year has been tumultuous to say the least. To commemorate this special occasion, I thought I’d share five things I’ve learned in the past year of my life. If I had known these things a year ago, or when I was still in school, life would’ve gone much smoother, but as you’ll see below, sometimes you just need the experience.
You’ll see parts of yourself you never have before.
Having the structure of living at school, a nonstop flow of work, and living within a 2 mile radius of 90% of my friends meant that I rarely had a moment to myself, let alone time to think about my likes, dislikes, and wants. And to be honest, the time that I did have for those reflections, I deeply avoided those thoughts (probably because I’d realize how unhappy I was). So I was shocked when, the day after graduation, I suddenly had so much time on my hands to get familiar with myself.
Undergrad functions by making every assignment or meeting seem do or die, and I can attest to this from not only doing it myself, but also working full-time with college students after. With so much of your day blocked off for you, the freedom that comes from leaving that situation can be either invigorating or terrifying. For me, it’s definitely been both. Having that structure removed has given me a lot of space and time to just think. I’ve learned things I love about myself, and seen some of the more ugly parts of myself, and now I have the space to address those things.
Your relationships will change almost immediately.
This one is probably obvious, so I’ll keep it brief. When my students complained to me about their shitty friends, I’d tell them, “The second you cross that stage, your relationships become a choice.” You’re not forced to interact with people you hate anymore, or stay friends with people you don’t want to. Life is offering you a nice, clean break in this moment of transition. Use it if you need to.
If you’re like me and have moved far away from friends and family after school, being in a long distance relationship with everyone you know definitely has its challenges. All in all though, my life is a lot less stressful and dramatic than it was when I was in college and had a deeper sense of obligation to lackluster people. My relationships have actually improved greatly and thus my quality of life has, too. The people in your life will also see you differently since you’re transitioning from one point in life to the next. If you can, be open about this. Don’t push good people you love away just because your relationship to them is momentarily changing.
It’ll feel like nothing is happening fast enough.
A year out of school, I often look around and wonder, where is my retirement account? Why haven’t I paid off my debt yet? Why aren’t my crush and I cohabitating? Many times this year, I’ve felt as though things aren’t happening fast enough and then I have to remember how much I’ve grown in just one year. It’s safe to say none of those changes happened overnight and because I see every painstaking detail of my life, I lose sight of the big picture. Where I am now is progress from where I’ve been.
If nothing else from this article, remember this one thing: The amount of things that are your business is greatly outweighed by the amount of things that are not. Where does that feeling of inadequacy come from? It’ll feel like things aren’t happening fast enough for you when you’re busy paying attention to other people and comparing yourself to them. I often compare myself to folks who are several levels ahead of where I am. You don’t know how people afford where they live, if their relationship is actually as beautiful as it seems, and all the work that goes into looking like I woke up like this. Take this for example. To some people, the fact that I moved out of my family’s house at 22 is remarkable. And in many ways, it is. But there are particular reasons why I actively choose to live on my own, and that brings on the added stress that comes with being as financially independent as I am.
And for folks that are as self-motivated and as much of a perfectionist as I am, maybe comparison isn’t the only thief of our joy, in which case, the same is still true for us. What we do isn’t other people’s business. If your anxiety comes from worrying about other people’s opinions of you, remember that what they think doesn’t matter, unless they’re helping you towards your goals. If not, you’re using mental space you could be going elsewhere. It’ll feel like things aren’t happening fast enough, but that’s because we’re only at the beginning. You can’t accomplish anything worthwhile without experience and occasional mistakes. Stay focused and trust that what you need is already inside of you.
That degree only matters sometimes.
By the time I graduated, classes for my major seemed like they were at the bottom of my priority list (I say this as someone who was guaranteed to graduate on time – I know that’s not a universal thing). All in all, I probably spent around 40% of college actually doing academic work for my majors. That means that a lot of the time, what my degree is in isn’t so much a sign of expertise so much as a tool. While I’m looking for jobs, having a bachelor’s is most often a requirement. But what matters way more is having experience and vision in the kind of work I want to do.
More generally, a lot of my pride was wrapped up in being a Black person that graduated from an elite PWI. That’s still important to me, not because of the prestige, but because I succeeded somewhere that wasn’t made for me. And while that degree gives me certain access and privileges (don’t degrees say ‘all the rights and privileges’?), it’s been super important to temper my internalized elitism, especially in Black spaces, where it’s important to keep in mind how being college-educated does or doesn’t affect my social standing. Most of my knowledge of the world doesn’t come from having a college degree, so that also shows me that other people can have so much more wisdom than I could ever dream of without ever setting foot on a college campus.
And when I reflect back on some of the dipshits I went to college with, I remember that going to college does not by any means make people smart or worthwhile individuals.
You’re not tied to your past.
One of my high school teachers said, “When you go to college, you lie about who you were in high school. And then when you get your first job, you lie about who you were in college. And then at your second job, you lie about who you were at your first job.” While lying may be a bit intense, he did have a point. Again, you have a nice, clean break. You aren’t bound to be who you were or what you think you should be doing a year out of school. You aren’t beholden to most of the things you once were so embrace that. Let yourself live a little. Let shit go. And I know it can be hard, but try to tune out the voices who tell you otherwise.
I could probably make a podcast season about everything I’ve learned in one year of being out of college. The things I’ve listed here are some the most important changes that have happened for me, and I’ll report back about what happens in year two (because I have many exciting things planned). Leave a comment or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me either what you’ve learned recently, or what you learned after leaving school. Until next time, follow me on Instagram @allisonalcena.
Thank you for helping me edit, Rena.