The first time I felt old, like really old, was when I met about twenty William & Mary students on the steps of the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C in June. The students were all part of the D.C. New Media Institute, an incredible class that I both took and T.A.ed as an undergraduate at W&M. As I looked around at the somewhat nervous students in their business professional attire, a crushing thought hit me.
I am the oldest person here.
Perhaps I was being a bit dramatic — I’m only 22 after all, my parent’s would laugh at my crisis of being “old”. But it seemed impossible that it was three years ago that I stood on those steps with my class in anxious anticipation, waiting for our Nat Geo contact to usher us into the building. Now the roles had reversed and I was the employee talking to undergrads.
It freaked me out.
The worst was in the Q&A session after the other speakers had presented when the class asked for my advice. I found it almost comical. I shouldn’t be trusted to give anyone advice, I thought. Can’t you tell I have no idea what I’m doing?
Their questions certainly made me think about everything that has happened after leaving W&M. Since I graduated, I’ve traveled through Europe, worked on a dive boat, started a real job, moved into my first apartment, took a train across the country, and left my real job for research opportunities abroad. I’ve made new friends, lost people I loved, found incredible mentors, and learned more about myself than I could have imagined.
How was this over a year ago?
Point is, I’m a very different person than I was when I graduated last May. And I guess that entitles me to share a few lessons. So here are a few tips I’d like to pass along to my (slightly) younger peers:
1. Don’t be afraid to make big decisions
Leaving the familiarity and security of William & Mary can be overwhelming. There are a million decisions to make: Where are you going to live? What do you want to do? Who are you going to live with? Are you going to move home? What about grad school? It’s enough to make anyone say “screw it” and curl up with Wawa mac and cheese and start a Game of Thrones marathon. Don’t let the fear of making the wrong choice spook you from making any decisions at all.
As the wise and beautiful Amy Poehler once wrote, “great people do things before they’re ready”. You’ll never have a flashing neon sign tell you when it’s the right time or place to take a leap. Just do it.
2. Get a thick skin
If you’ve managed thus far to make it through life without major hurdles (how?), prepare yourself for life after college. You will face failure, and it won’t be pretty. It could be from a dream job, a potential roommate, or a grad school. For me, it came as a rejection in the final round of review for a research grant. I had spent eight months of my life on that thing, and even turned down a job for it (that’s a story for another time). It sucked, but it didn’t suck forever. Soon another job opportunity came up which took me down a totally different (but equally awesome) path.
I believe a person is measured less by their reaction to success, and more their reaction to failure. Use the opportunity to learn from the experience and pursue new adventures.
2. Be persistent, but not a pest
This one applies mainly to emails and networking. So you spent an hour crafting a perfectly-worded email to send to that lady at your dream job who you met at a happy hour last week. Unfortunately, she probably has countless identical emails sitting in her inbox. Still send the email, but don’t be afraid to follow up, especially if you can drop in something timely about what the organization is up to.
This also applies to jobs. Don’t let the fear of rejection hold you back (see #2) — I was rejected from six internships at Nat Geo before I found the right one. By continuing to send my resume and following up with folks I had interviewed with, I think I was able to stick out a little from the other applicants (either that, or Nat Geo got sick of seeing my resume and said “alright already, geeze”).
4. Cut yourself some slack
This is important. Do not expect to have your life together by 25. It is impossible. You likely won’t get your dream job right after graduation, or find your soulmate in grad school, or know what you want to do until you rule out things you definitely don’t want to do. Unlike many of my friends, I moved home after graduation. Some people were judgmental, but I waved away the haters with my mouth full of a homemade meal. Living at home wasn’t initially part of my plan, but it gave me time to travel and find a job that was a good fit.
I’ve had plenty of “oh shoot” moments where I felt like I had no idea what I’m doing, but that’s part of the experience. Everyone feels that way. So relax and get yourself some ice cream or something.
One of the most important things to remember is this: we’re all in the same boat. We’re all trying to figure out our path and adjust to life after college. I’ll admit that I’m not the best at taking my own advice, which is probably why I feel weird giving advice in the first place. So learn what you can from those who graduated before you, blaze your own path, and remember that no one else knows exactly what they’re doing either.