Sunday, May 5, 2013

Five Things Your College Degree Didn't Prepare You For

Act #125: To thine own self, be true.

Today my college alma mater will be holding its 141st commencement.  I always get contemplative during this time of year and wanted to offer my congratulations to the graduating class - maybe even some profound words of wisdom about the importance of their role as stewards of change.  But who am I to compete with the graduation speaker, Steve Jobs video clips, and their witty professors?  So alternatively I offer the 2013 graduating class this...permission not to be perfect.  Go ahead and let that sink in.  It's really OK.  And just so you don't end up completely disappointed and disillusioned with a few inevitable failed expectations of the real world (it gets better), I also humbly offer you:
Five Things Your College Degree Didn't Prepare You For:

Being put in your place
When I graduated 18 years ago, I held a top student leadership position on campus. I was a 21-year old with no real-life work experience who single-handedly managed a $60,000 campus activities budget and served on every student committee available.  Naturally, when I graduated, I believed that any non-profit organization would be lucky to have someone with my skill set and passion.  I applied to be the volunteer director for the Lexington Children's Museum, I ended up working the night-shift at the front desk of a local hotel. Throughout college everyone told me how exceptional I was.  How much promise they saw in me.  Turns out when everyone else graduating in the country is also exceptional and also shows great promise, that made me pretty darn average.  It would take me 17 years to land my dream job, and I'm thankful for every single one of the seven jobs I held prior  to that. Without the skills and life experiences that I've slowly acquired over the years, I would have been grossly unprepared to manage the realities of non-profit management with any level of confidence or competency.  And I have no illusions about the fact that I'm still pretty darn average, and that there will always be room for me to grow.

Thriving in uncertainty
Four years after I graduated, I was packing a sandwich to take with me to a job interview because I was down to my last penny, and was going to absolutely starve if I didn't get that particular job.  The year after that I was riding a gondola down a canal in Venice, Italy.  In virtually every job that I've held, we've experienced budget cuts, stock market crashes, government shut-downs, sudden changes in leadership, and sequestrations.  I bounced around from non-profit, to government, to the private industry.  I couldn't wait to get as far away from "here" as possible, but once I did, I realized that I wanted nothing more than to return.  When you graduate you are expected to know exactly who you are going to be, what you are going to do, and who you are going to do it with.  And statistically speaking, none of that will likely remain constant.  The true test is how firmly you are able to plant your feet on the shifting ground beneath you, without compromising your very core ideals.  You know what they are.  Don't be afraid to let them guide you.

Courage to change your mind
I majored in Psychology, have a graduate degree in Counseling and structured the first 25 years of my life around the notion of being a therapist to underserved populations.  I would have a home office for my private practice and I would counsel people of color, immigrants, and members of the LGBT community.  The only tiny problem was this:  I was a horrible therapist.  This became increasingly clear during my practicum when I had the opportunity to practice my counseling skills, and I found myself mentally fixing everyone's "problems" in my head.  While my role was to reserve judgement and facilitate personal healing, I just wanted to take each and every client by the hand, develop a concrete plan of action, keep them focused on their personal goals, and then hold them accountable to those goals.  For years, I felt obligated to continue down this path that I had so greatly invested in, but when I finally came to terms with the fact that you don't always know exactly who you are by the time you turn 21, I felt free to figure that part out.  My commitment to social justice and activism never changed, but I had to find a way to contribute that more closely aligned with who I was.  As a director of a small non-profit I now get to do exactly what I tried to mentally do in my head years ago - develop strategies and plans of action that are mission-driven, and hold our agency accountable to them - all without damaging the psyche of any individual client!  

How to survive heartbreak (and learn to forgive yourself for breaking someone's heart)
You feel falsely invincible when you are faced with little responsibility and a world of possibility.  You fall in love hard, deep, fast, and all of a sudden you find yourself nurturing a relationship with someone else, before you've even figured out who the heck you really are.  In 1995 I graduated from college with an engagement ring on my finger.  A month after that I moved away with another man.  For years I held on to the guilt of walking away from my first college love.  He was a good, solid man who loved the person he thought I was.  The problem was, I didn't even know who I was. Ten years after I left town with the other man, that man left our marriage, and I didn't think I would ever be the same.  In many ways I'm not.  But I'm thankful for my eventual realization that love is way more complicated than your first three months of butterflies and late night two-hour phone calls.  I learned that there is some element of truth to the seven-year itch phenomenon when you have already gone through the excitement of buying your first house, having your first child, achieving your career goals, and you're left trying to find renewed excitement in the seemingly mundane routines of life.  I learned that the deepest joys I've ever experienced, have been in those very mundane routines.  I learned that love is as much of a choice as it is a feeling.  And I learned that you can actually fall in love with the same person over and over again if you stay connected, if you stay true to yourself, and if you accept that chances are neither of you will ever stop changing.

Being OK Just Being You
During the past 18 years since I graduated I, 1.) Took the LSAT and visited two law schools.  I was going to be the legal director of a human rights organization; 2.) Submitted an unsolicited video of myself to a local news station.  I was going to be an on-camera news reporter.  I wore a red suit; 3.)  Applied for a passport.  I was going to be an anti-human-trafficking worker on the streets of Bangkok, Thailand.  Every time I found myself in a certain job environment, and every time I received encouragement from someone I respected, I was convinced that I was suppose to follow some predestined career trajectory - because it was promising, had growth potential, or simply because I was good at it.  But never once did I ask myself if it was truly a personal fit, or if I would even be fulfilled in that role.  I didn't know that that choice was mine to make, and had to take the long route to learn, that it is.  It always has been.  And class of 2013, that choice is now yours.  Congratulations.


  1. NICE POST!!! An education provides individuals with the ability to develop their potential to a much greater extent. It improves interaction between people and results in more efficient exchanges. Thanks for sharing a nice information.
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  2. Mae. This entry is perfect. So many truths- thank you for sharing your experience!