Coming back to campus to start our senior year, my friends and I are a little stunned. Many of us are returning to Ann Arbor after semesters abroad and acclimating to the absence of our graduated friends. Between hugs and house parties, we can’t ignore the epic finality this year represents.
When the last class left, we inherited their senior status even though it doesn’t quite feel right. Even as a “senior,” I don’t feel significantly surer of my dream job than I did three years ago. But because I know I’ll have to walk somewhere once I step off the graduation stage, I fear I’ll stumble into some professional life that I’m not sure I want. As a student of a system that guided me here tightly and a citizen of a country that encourages — if not requires — a salaried, committal lifestyle, I’m having trouble internalizing the “it’ll all work out” mantra my parents prescribe. If the last five years of college graduates have taught us anything, it’s that we’ll be lucky to find a job — let alone one that makes us happy.
Shouldn’t we know by now what we want to be when we grow up? And shouldn’t we have learned how to get there? I can’t help but expect myself to build a makeshift trajectory to jump on to once the one I’ve followed for the last 18 years has run its course. And I want a guarantee that in whatever direction I head, I’ll find fulfillment and meaning — oh, and a livelihood. So while we’re celebrating the culmination of our entire education, we’re also terrified that we’re standing on the most profound pivot point of our lives.
But when I take my deep breath (also part of my parents’ prescription) and stop panicking like I’m about to be driven off a cliff into the abyss of real adulthood, I can see my fears of change, failure and the unknown for what they are. Senioritis, which feels way less fun and more anxiety-ridden than I remember from high school, only enhances feelings that are common to all people at every stage of life. To lean into those feelings by facing the changes and challenges head on is to grow, albeit uncomfortably.
To question where you’re headed in life and whether or not you’ll find success once you get there is not unique to college seniors. I met two 26 year olds this summer who recently quit their high-paying jobs (one at a consulting firm, the other at a record label) to take and create jobs that made them want to work longer hours for less money. It would have been safer and probably easier for each of them to stay with their previous jobs, but they chose to create the change they wanted in their lives. The complete control we have over our post-graduate steps allows us to pivot whenever we want to. Few of us can make our dream jobs appear from thin air, but then again, some of us can.
Nancy Lublin, the CEO of DoSomething.org (the non-profit where I worked this summer) began her career as a leader in the non-profit sector when she was 23 years old. She started Dress for Success, a non-profit that provides professional attire to low-income women, with a $5,000 inheritance check and little experience. When her organization grew up and no longer needed her leadership for its survival, she left to take over DoSomething.org, the leading non-profit for youth and social change. Nancy Lublin chose to pivot when her career was climbing because she missed the excitement of building something.
Rather than fearing the end of college, I think we’re feeling overwhelmed by our soon-to-be sudden gain in freedom and possibility. That freedom requires decision-making not just leading up to graduation but every day thereafter. Rather than feeling pressure to make the right career choice for the next 10 years, we should concentrate on becoming even clearer about what work engages us the most. The only real threat we face upon graduation is allowing our fears to paralyze us from making the scary decisions that always precede success.
Libby Ashton can be reached at email@example.com.