An Open Letter to the Class of 2017

Lily Maestas

by Lily Maestas, MSW, UCSB Career Services

As the quarter comes to an end I get to thinking about my own university graduations and wonder how things have changed since those days in the late 70's that still seem so crystal clear to me and yet evoke shock from students when I tell them the year of my exit from student life. I take heart that in my position as tribal elder in the eyes of the class of 2017 I am allowed to reflect on my experiences before, during and after college graduation and speculate on what you might encounter upon exiting the hallowed halls of the university.

What struck me shortly after the end of my student life was that there is a great deal of attention paid to preparing for graduation and not much attention paid to what happens to your identity the first couple of years after you're done with your undergraduate work. Kind of like the energy that goes into a wedding, when it is the marriage that requires the effort and adjustment.

One of the first major shocks for me was that I was no longer a student. Do you realize that "student" is an identity you have had since you were probably five, maybe younger if you were in nursery or pre-school? It is an identification you have grown comfortable with. You have adopted the uniform, lifestyle, language and cultural norms of student life. All of a sudden, BOOM! You're booted out of the academic nest with a hearty handshake, a fond farewell and a diploma that will arrive later in the mail.

Come the first September after graduation when everyone is buying new books, scheduling classes and looking for roommates, you somehow feel at a loss for what to do. You begin to experience the first real loss of academic rituals that have become so familiar to you. You realize that September has always been the "beginning" of the year for you. Not so this year.

Many of you will begin professional positions right about now. After having spent three months traveling to your destination of choice, waiting tables and laying on the beach; or frantically searching for some kind of work that validates your recent metamorphosis from student to "qualified" college graduate. You hopefully settle into your new job only to be confronted by your second major shock about life outside of school. You realize shortly after you start working that most of your fellow employees are older than you, often times have lives and activities that are very dissimilar from yours and your social life is zero.

One of the many plusses of college is a ready source of potential buddies that change from class to class, from quarter to quarter. The pool of potential friends with similar interests and world-views is much denser in college than out in the employment arena. All of a sudden you are responsible for developing your own circle of friends, but from where? Certainly not from the old farts you work with.

You're not getting paid enough to join a health club and lunch out every day has caused your budget major problems, not to mention your new working wardrobe has created a credit card bill comparable to the combined national debts of several small third world countries. You spend several evenings a week on line until the wee hours of the morning chatting with your former college roommates about the good old days, only to realize that you need to be up at 6:30 in order to get a good parking place at work. Getting to work feeling a little fuzzy from staring at a computer screen all night is not going to get you on the promotions list so now you realize that you must head for bed at a more reasonable hour in order to put forth your best effort on the job.

This brings me to the third adjustment to confront you during this time. That is the rhythm of your life. Up until now there was a certain amount of flexibility in your schedule. I know as students, you are very busy, but most of you will move heaven and earth not to have an eight o clock class. You feel it is your right to receive special recognition at graduation ceremonies if you have had more than two of them in your entire college career. All of a sudden you have to get up every day and be at work by eight, and they expect you to be on time! You get an hour for lunch and are at work until five or later. Work takes up so much of your time, when do they expect you to get anything done? You're more accountable for your time now and you just can't blow off work and stay home and watch the Food Channel like you used to. It will take some time to adjust to your new restricted schedule, to redirect yourself to accommodate the changes working full time demands.

Probably the last shock I want to prepare you for is what I have labeled the "intellectual depression" that will set in as a result of your departure from academic life. I have heard former students complain about the fact that their coworkers are boring or don't really have anything interesting to say. I believe the crux of the matter is not your colleagues but the fact that up until now there have been people in your life whose most compelling professional responsibility was to intellectually stimulate and motivate you to learn. Whether they succeeded is not the point, but the fact remains that since kindergarten there has been an entire cadre of teachers, librarians, professors, T.A.'s and other academic types who have provided the framework with which you learned. Your colleagues are not boring or stupid, the fact is, it is not their job to entertain you with fascinating or scholarly details!

You will now enter a new phase of your intellectual life I call "adult learning." This is the concept that once out of the confines of academia we become responsible for determining what we need to learn, how we are going to learn it and if we have learned it. No more class syllabi or reading outlines with the number of pages clearly defined by the number of weeks in the quarter. There will be no mid-terms or finals in adult learning to determine whether you have learned what you were "supposed" to learn.

While this may be terribly uncomfortable at first, as you embrace this concept in your adult life it becomes very liberating and more intellectually motivating than traditional academic learning because you are learning what you want and need to learn as opposed to what is required for a class. You take control for your learning, for your own stimulation and advancement. You will begin to see your community as the new learning landscape for your continued education.

Some of you will find yourselves in the position of taking work that is not at all related to your long range career goals as a way to keep a roof over your head and cereal in the cupboards. Some of you will find yourselves piecing together two or three part-time jobs. I know what havoc this can do to your, by now, very fragile ego. Understand that this is truly one of the most difficult and profound transitional stages in your life. You are re-defining yourself within a context that is uncharted for you. The world will relate to you differently and expect different responses to its stimuli as a result of your loss of student status. The world in general will have different, more adult expectations of you as you shed your student identity for the professional working person you are in the process of becoming.

Research has shown that the average college graduate will stay at their job after graduation anywhere from six to 18 months, but most will want to leave within a year. Most of the time that first job is taken only to satisfy anxious parents, pay off student loans or to prove to yourself you can actually get a job with a degree. This usually results in jobs graduates are ill suited for or that hold no interest for them. They will take their second job simply to get away from their first and by the time their third job comes around they are ready to make some decisions about their life's work based on some hard knocks and some well-earned experience.

Take heart in the fact that most of us have traveled this road on the way to our own life's work. It is possible and highly probable that you will emerge from this period in your life with the kind of stamina and determination with which fortunes are made, scientific breakthroughs discovered, best sellers written and meaningful contributions to the community of humankind are made.

I believe you stand at a wonderful, highly creative and exciting place in your life and would like to offer some heart-felt advice on how to handle the transitions in identity that will take place over the next couple of years.

  1. Don't take it all so seriously. Relax. That is not an invitation to sit back and do nothing but rather an acknowledgment that with time comes wisdom and experience. Trial and error are the concepts that you should gravitate to. If you don't like what you are doing then change it. It is not the end of the world if you quit a job you are not suited for. Nothing at this point in your life is set in stone. You have the ability to change your situation. Make sure that in changing your work situation, you are going towards something better rather than away from something unpleasant.
  2. Spend some time talking to people who have been out of college from five to seven years. What are their experiences? What were their first couple of years out of college like? What advice would they give? People that have been out of college less than five years still have too much in common with you. You want information from those who have been through this process not ones that are still going through it.
  3. Take some time to take a serious look at your successes. You are, after all college graduates. You did not get here by chance or luck. You put in many hard hours of study. You developed time management skills in order to meet the deadlines and the demands of academic life, still have time to party and hold down part-time jobs, do internships and volunteer work. You got where you are through determination, self-confidence and motivation. There is every reason to believe that these same personal characteristics you demonstrated during your college career now position you well for the next adventure you face - the world of work.
  4. There are people in your life who want to help you succeed. Don’t assume since you have taken your first even your second job that you are not in a position to ask for advice and guidance from those that have offered help and assurance before. Look to those you value, those who have mattered in your life and those who have taken time and energy to validate your worth. You did not grow up without the help of lots and lots of people who cared for you. As adults we sometimes forget to seek the help and support of those around us. Adulthood does not need to be tackled independently or without outside consultation.

This process of becoming a Professional Self in one that takes years to happen. You will refine and finesse who you are professionally throughout your adult life. Understanding that occasionally it is in your own best interest to stop and evaluate how you are doing in your career. Is this really what I want to do? Do I feel valued in my work environment? Am I contributing to the common good?

The good news is that in 20 years you can look back and offer words of wisdom as a tribal elder to the class of the year 2037. I have heard many of you lament that your college years will probably be the best years of your life. I don't believe that has to be the case. Make every year the best year of your life. Take care of yourself, take care of each other, take care of Mother Earth, remember that risk is the price of admission and believe that the best has just begun! Good luck!

Lily Maestas is the author of "UNLIMITED OPTIONS: Career Strategies to Last a Lifetime" and "Get Clear on Your Career Workbook", published by Kendall Hunt. She is a Career Counselor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


Joshua Waldman, author of Job Searching with Social Media For Dummies, and recognized as one of the nations top authorities in Social Media Career Advancement, had this to say about Lily's "Open Letter"...

“...If I had read this letter sooner, my life may have taken a very different tack. But even after struggling for 9 years to find my professional self, I still did it, and I consider myself successful. So the good news is that it’s never too late.

If there is just one piece of advice I would add to this letter it would be this. Your career isn’t going to fall in your lap just because you graduated school. If you know what you want, do whatever it takes to get there. If you don’t know, do whatever it takes to find clarity, even if that means trying something out for a while.”