Welcome to your Post-College Starter Kit and congratulations on your graduation to the real world! You did the work, completed the assignments, made the grades, did the internships and the part-time jobs, and had all the experiences that you’re supposed to have in college. Only two million people graduate from college with a bachelor’s degree in the U.S. each year, which puts you in a rare group, indeed. This is something to celebrate! You are, officially, a college graduate! Fully sixteen-plus years of hard work has gone into this moment (perhaps many more for your family), and that is no small accomplishment. We are so very proud of you.
And…. now what? You’ve received that diploma and you’ve been hired at your first job or you’re headed to graduate school. Perhaps you’re still looking for what’s next. You’ve moved to a new town or city, where maybe you know some people, or maybe you don’t know a soul. And you’ve been told to go figure it out. To make the most of it. To jump in, feet first, and to learn how to swim. What in the world are you supposed to do with that?
Well, that’s what this Starter Kit is for, and what we – the Alumni Personal & Career Development Center – are here for. The point of this guide isn’t to tell you everything, or how to do everything, but to give you some tools and advice on how to make the most of this transition, so that you can land on your feet and feel a bit more confident about who you are and where you are headed. Because the truth is, change is hard, and this change that you’re going through right now can be one of the hardest.
Why is that? While you have accomplished a whole lot, and you have learned a whole lot, and you may have worked really hard to get here, nothing in the past sixteen years (from a structural sense) has really prepared you for this moment. Unless you are off to graduate school (and on to be a professor, and even then, this applies), nothing about the rest of your life will be organized by semesters, lectures, syllabi, grading rubrics, and so forth. You won’t get to re-set every few months and begin again. You may not be surrounded by helpful, supportive people who want to see you succeed.
Well, great, you’re probably thinking, that sounds terrible. Why do I want to do this? Great question. We don’t know, either. Just kidding. But there is a reason people call college the best four years of your life, and there’s a reason why no one says that about the rest of your life. Whether you feel that way about college, or not, being a fully-fledged grown-up (which you are, now) can sometimes feel like it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be. Being a grown-up is going to work, and paying your bills, and cleaning up after yourself, and putting money away for your future, and finding and building adult relationships, and doing it over and over again every day for the rest of your life.
BUT. Here’s the good news (phew!). Being an adult is also about making choices and decisions about who you want to be, and what you want to do, and living life on your terms. And you get to start to make those choices right now! Because you are, officially, part of the adult community. That’s what you’ve really graduated into: a community of people going through the same things you are. Another word for graduation is commencement, which is, I think, a better way to look at it. You aren’t just graduating from college, you are commencing the rest of your life. It is, and should be, a pretty amazing journey. You just need some tools and resources to help you get started. That’s why we’re here, and why we will continue to be here along the way. Because no one should have to do this work on their own.
Why a Starter Kit?
So why, then, a Starter Kit? Why not a “Give Me Everything I Need to Be Successful Forever,” kit? Well, first, there’s no such thing. Life is all about gaining wisdom, knowledge, and insight into who you are and where you are headed, through experience, and no amount of to-do lists or tools and strategies given to you by others is going to take the place of that. At some point you do have to jump in, feet first, and learn how to swim. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make it a bit easier. Because this transition that you’re in right now is hard, and no one talks about it nearly enough.
You got a lot of help when you made the transition into college, from orientation to dedicated advising to a campus full of resources including counseling, career development, identity-related spaces, tutoring, and many, many more. You may have had endless amounts of people giving you advice on how to navigate the system effectively, and you were surrounded by thousands of your peers in a ready-made community. On top of which, you were entering into an experience (school) that was not so dissimilar from the experience you just left (school). Does all of that mean it was easy for you? Not necessarily, of course. But at least there was some familiarity about it.
This transition, from college to work and life after college, is one of the biggest ones you will ever make in your life. And you probably haven’t gotten a lot of help with it, at least not explicitly so, in terms of how to navigate through it, how to show up and be successful, both in work and in your life, how to weed through all of the information and advice in order to make the right decisions for your future. In fact, when we started the Alumni Personal & Career Development Center at Wake Forest, we did so with a primary goal of helping our students and young alumni as they are making this specific transition, which we have identified through our research as the greatest pain point young adults face. So, take heart! You’re not alone.
That’s why we have created this Starter Kit — to normalize this experience a bit, and to get you started with as much confidence and sound advice as possible. Think of this as your orientation to your life after college. Just like new-student orientation, this will be a snapshot of what you need to know, so that a few months from now you will feel more confident in your new role as a young adult. Along the way, you will add in tools and knowledge that you gain from your own experiences, creating a path forward that is uniquely yours.
Change is Hard, Proceed with Intention
Before we get started, let’s take a moment to talk about change. Change is hard for everyone, but we each move through it in different ways. The organizational consultant William Bridges has described the change process as involving three critical stages. Endings require you to let go of what has become familiar and comfortable. The neutral zone, in between endings and beginnings, can be both freeing but also a little scary. You are no longer tied down to the past reality that you knew and have yet to attach yourself to a new one. Finally, you reach a new beginning and must adapt to a new place with new norms and rules for behavior. Your progress through these stages is deeply personal; while I may race through to get to a new beginning, you may hang out for a bit in the neutral zone, resisting the urge to adapt and conform to new rules, or maybe someone else is clinging for dear life to that ending, not wanting to let go.
Take a moment here to think for yourself: which stage would you say that you are in right now? Are you trying to cling to that past life (college) that was so safe and familiar, where you knew what you needed to do to be successful? Have you grabbed on to this new beginning, excited and perhaps a bit apprehensive about what comes next, but ready to face it? Or are you trying to hang out in some in-between space, not quite wanting to let go and not ready to fully embrace what’s next?
There is no right or wrong answer here, though circumstances eventually will force you to let go of the past and walk into what’s next. Your choice (and it’s always a choice) is whether you do so with intention or whether you do so with your eyes closed, your arms crossed, being pushed from behind.
It’s important to recognize and acknowledge what your emotions are around this point of transition. The psychologists Don Kelley and Darryl Connor created what they called the Emotional Cycle of Change, which describes the journey that each individual completes during any sort of change process. A person moves from a state of uninformed optimism (I don’t know what I don’t know, but I bet it’s going to be great!); to informed pessimism (Wait, this is what it means to be an adult? This sucks! No one told me this!); to informed optimism (Alright, this isn’t completely terrible, I’ve found some friends, and I know a bit more about what I’m doing at work.); to acceptance (I’m an adult, and that means taking responsibility for my choices.).
Note that acceptance doesn’t mean being Pollyanna about it. Adulthood isn’t all sunshine and roses (you do still have to pay those bills and take out the trash, among other things). But neither was college, nor adolescence, nor any other stage of your life. We look back on these former stages with fondness, often willfully forgetting what was hard or challenging because it’s easier to remember the good times. But you should remind yourself: you had to figure out how to be successful as a college student, and that wasn’t easy; you had to figure out how to make friends and find your place in college, and that wasn’t easy; you had to seek out opportunities and find mentors and learn and grow while you were a college student, and that wasn’t easy. But you did those things. You can do them again.
As you move through this transition, resist the temptation to do it too quickly. Whatever stage you are in – ending, neutral zone, new beginning – that is exactly where you are supposed to be. Resist the temptation to capitulate to the “should’s”: everyone else seems to have it figured out, so should I. First of all, everyone else doesn’t have it all figured out, I can promise you that. And, who cares if they do? Your life is about you, not about anyone else.
Recognize that at some point – today, tomorrow, next week, next month – you are going to have to get on board with that new beginning, whatever it looks like for you. As much as we really liked having you at Wake Forest, you just can’t stay here forever. You know those people that everyone refers to as a “permanent college student?” That’s not a compliment. That’s a euphemism for someone who isn’t willing to do the work that he or she needs to do to grow up and be a fully-formed and functioning adult. So, now is the time for you to do the work. To walk through this transition with intention, to make the most of what is happening to you, right now, to have the absolute best young professional experience you possibly can have. And, let me assure you, that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun. This is your life! It better be fun at the very least.
Start with these questions:
- What do I still need to let go of that is preventing me from moving forward?
- What will I need to accept in order to move forward?
- How am I feeling about this transition?
Making the Most of Your First 90 Days
The point of this Starter Kit is to give you some tools and resources to make it through your first ninety days with confidence, with intention, and with a bit of grace. That last one is no small thing. Give yourself a bit of grace that you will struggle, that you won’t have it all figured out – not at the end of ninety days, possibly not ever. Because this is about the journey, not the destination. You are in a constant state of becoming: becoming who you are, becoming who you want to be, becoming who you will be. And that work never ends! (When it does, well, this ride is over.) It’s an ongoing process of having some experience, learning something from it, and applying that knowledge to what comes next. Some of your best learning moments will come in the places where you screw things up. Embrace it, but don’t forget to learn from it.
You won’t have it all figured out in the first ninety days; far from it. Just like your orientation to college was important, these first three months after college are important as well, and deserve a bit of an orientation, too. These first three months set the tone for what comes next and give you valuable insight into work and life and how you can be successful there. In these first three months you will learn volumes about what it means to show up every day to work; tools and habits of productivity and relationship-building; and what you do and don’t like about work environments and management (and let’s be honest, other adults). You will feel a tiredness like you’ve never felt before and wonder how it’s possible when all you do is sit all day. Your relationship with time is going to change. Your relationships with your friends and family will change. You’re going to be bombarded with tons of ideas, and questions, and thoughts that you might just feel unprepared to answer.
So consider this Starter Kit a bit of an orientation to what’s about to happen. In the next few pages, I will give you some tips and tools on doing the work part, doing the life part, and doing the next part, which is what we call your Five For Your First Five. Just like with your college orientation, you will find a lot of general information here, which you will then need to adjust and apply to your specific situation as needed. Some of you will be in large corporate environments, some in small start-ups, some in non-profits, each of which has a particular culture, norms, and expectations for behavior and success. You may be headed to graduate school or you may still be looking for a job. You may have moved to a city with tons of fellow Wake Forest graduates, or to one where you know no one. Your situation is individual to you. Think of these resources as your training wheels, to give you the confidence that you need eventually to take off on two wheels on your own.
As with all things, you have a choice. You can choose how you walk into, and through, the next three months, not to mention the next five years and the rest of your life. We hope you will do so with intention. No matter where you are in the change process – ending, neutral zone, new beginning – and no matter how you are feeling about where you are, don’t miss the opportunity to set some intentions for yourself, to fully take advantage of this time in your life. After all, you will never be here again. What a shame it would be to look back and think: I would have, or I could have, done that differently had I only paused to think about it.
Take a moment to jot down the answers to the following:
- What do I hope to know about myself, three months from now, that I don’t know now?
- When I look back, three months from now, what will I be able to say about myself and how I approached my work?
- When I look back, three months from now, what will I be able to say about myself and how I approached finding friends and building community?