Friday, May 08, 2009

So, you've graduated from college. Now what?

So here we are, preparing for the annual rites of spring commencement, with our nation's universities preparing to roll their last undergraduates off the assembly line and into the working world. The smart ones will put off any meaningful career choices for as long as they can, waiting until they run out of degrees and/or out of money before they are pulled, kicking and screaming, into the "real world." Perhaps they'll make some money this summer, working as bartenders, waiters, camp counselors, strippers, amusement park attendants, toll booth operators, Hooters girls, Chippendales, bat boys, heat gun specialists or minor league baseball mascots . . . jobs they don't have to defend as their "life's work" if they run into someone they know from days gone by and take comfort in knowing they can leave to return to school. Comforting, sort of . . . unless you're on the receiving end of the barber who isn't really a barber, but a poet; or the Spanish tutor who doesn't speak the language but has been to Madrid and Bilbao; or the heart specialist who isn't really one at all; instead, he drives the fence-enclosed cart that picks up golf balls at the driving range, the cart that 99% of people hitting off the mats are trying to kabong with a well-struck iron or a beautifully drawing drive.

The less fortunate ones will start their first grown-up job. After four or five or six or seven or however many years it took them to graduate from college, they'll finally have to get a haircut, a pair of shoes that covers the entire foot, put on a shirt that covers most of their torso and does not say, "Delta Tau Delta/Alpha Chi Omega Spring Bar Crawl Informal 2009" or sport a t-shirt with clever one-liners like, "P * * * y Magnet" or "Warning: Touch Me and You'll Burn I'm So Hot," or "I Make Chicks Choke," put away the sweat pants with "I Love Pink" or "Delta Gamma Forever" on the butt, take off their welded-on baseball caps or at least turn them around and practice their conversational skills so that the words "like," and "dude," or the phrases, "like, no fucking way," or "get the fuck out!" or "OMG, check out, like, my new tramp stamp!" or "bitch you are such a slut!" do not make an every-other-word appearances in their sentences, especially the ones they will use in their job interviews.

The first few years after college are a difficult time in a young person's life, much more so than the commencement speakers drawn from politics, business, entertainment or technology, university presidents, career center counselors or even professors are willing to admit. For a teen-age underachiever like myself, college was a great time, my personal Get Out of Jail Free Card from high school, an opportunity to start over, free from the suffocating cliques and social pressures to become the person you wanted. You spend four years -- that's all I was permitted at my father's expense -- taking steps towards adulthood, learning how to navigate your way through personal problems (getting blown off by Sheryl Crow) or financial crises (($7.24 in the bank with a week left in the semester) on your own, learning about the rest of the world works (you mean they actually have grocery stores in other countries? Who knew?) and learn the art of calm, deliberative and engaged conversation on complex and often controversial topics ("YOU'RE GODDAMN RIGHT WE SHOULD HAVE DROPPED THE ATOMIC BOMB ON HIROSHIMA SO FUCK YOU, ASSHOLE, WIMP, SHITHEAD!!!") and how to sleep on other people's floors to avoid paying rent or buying groceries that will help you transition into the adult world.

And then what? Just like that, you're back at the bottom, fretting over whether you're going to get a job doing someone else's bidding for barely enough money to pay your rent, go out once in a while, buy beer that actually tastes like beer and have enough money to buy clothes for work, usually from places you would never have considered entering in broad daylight when you were spending other people's money. Who wants to tell their friends, extended family or former professors that their first job, for the most part, really sucks? You spend most of your day looking for things to do because there just isn't that much going on; what you actually do doesn't really require skills beyond 10th grade literacy (and that's even if you attended a public school in the South, like me); you would quit and wait tables or mow lawns or just bag it and drive around the country attending major league baseball games in every city if you could.

But you can't. Nope. You went to college, you majored in political science and you're in debt up to and probably past your eyeballs. And, to complicate matters, you live in Washington, D.C., where bragging about how long and hard you work doing something that is no doubt very important is the highest form of conversational currency. Try this little test sometime:

"So," says an assembly line Washington professional to you, adjusting his Timex watch under the cuff of his ill-fitting button-down shirt with one hand while looking over your shoulder to see if he knows someone genuinely important, "who are you working for since you graduated?"

You: "I work as a male prostitute for Hollywood female starlets shooting scenes for their movies in Washington. These women are away from home for long periods of time and they have needs, if you know what I mean (don't forget to wink while you say this). It's all very cool. I get a call from a personal assistant saying that Julianne Moore, Sandra Bullock, Kate Hudson or Hillary Swank is coming to town for a week and would like someone to show them around town. And that's what I do. No $300 massages, just brass-tacks, scream-out-loud, crazy-ass sex with some of the hottest women in show business. And let me tell you about Lindsay Lohan . . . that girl can party."

Him: "Great talking to you. I think I see someone who owes me an email. Nice seeing you again."

"Again?" You've never seen that person. Ever. You'll also never see that person again. Until he needs something, provided you have something to offer.

Now try this answer:

You: "I'm working as a Legislative Assistant for Rep. Bob Forehead, who represents the 3rd district of Fredonia."

Him: "Hey, that's a great job! I was with Representative Forehead a couple of days ago -- he and I are very good friends -- to talk about some legislation that I am helping him write. You ought to get to know Patty Pearls and Wally Wingtips . . . they've worked for him for a long time and know everyone in this town. Stay with it. You're in a good place. Here's my card. We'll talk again soon."

Really . . . try it. You'll learn soon that I'm not making this up.

* * * * * * * * * *

Work, work, work. That's all Washingtonians like to talk about. New Yorkers like to talk about money. Los Angelenos like to talk about deals . . . deals coming, deals going, deals missing and deals pending. Southerners like to talk about football. Washingtonians talk about work like weight-lifters talk about how much they can bench press. "You worked how many hours last week? 483? That's nothing. We didn't get out until 28 o'clock on Friday night." So you start to wonder: "What's wrong with me that I'm not working that much or that I don't really care if I do."

The answer: Guess what? No one is really working that much. The people who regale me with their stories of workplace heroics are the same ones who forward me unfunny emails throughout the day, email me links about things I may or may not care about, call to vent about some injustice visited upon their child in youth sports, by their 2nd grade music teacher or ask me where my children are going to summer camp three years from now, email me to tell about the email they sent to someone about another person's email who had emailed another person about an email sent out by someone I don't know about an email that has nothing to do with me or anyone related to me or email me to tell about something they just won on Ebay after six very intense hours of bidding.

My dad ran a small retail business for 25 years and then ventured into other things that required him to go to an office building with an elevator, marking the first time that he had to venture beyond street level to go to work. My mother was a nurse. My neighbors growing up owned small grocery stores, insurance offices, two-person accounting firms, managed retail stores or worked for Delta, Coca-Cola or some other company I had actually heard of. I didn't know anyone who taught college, practiced law for a big firm, worked in politics or was a "consultant" of any kind. But my parents and their friends all worked hard, and spent very little time during the day wasting as much time as their "professionally educated" children do, whether shopping on-line, exchanging "drop-dead" emails with their son's hockey or soccer or baseball coach for hours on end or reading blogs like this one.

Here's what I can tell you:

Do not make work your life. Do not become one of these people who ends up profiled in the Washingtonian or the Washington Post as one of Washington's "rising stars." Do not plan your career so that everything you do depends on a patron. At some point, your boss will lose an election, get nailed doing something really stupid or you'll realize that loyalty begins at the bottom and there is little room for you to advance. You'll quit or get fired, and you'll be right back where you started -- looking to ride someone else's coattails and make someone else's dreams come true, not your own.

Washington, D.C. is a great place for people who really loved high school -- the Post is the school paper; the Washingtonian the yearbook; Congress is the SGA by any other name; the White House is for anyone who got elected to something in high school and never got over it; the bureaucracies are the nerds' revenge . . . maybe they weren't cool enough to get elected to the homecoming court in high school or invited to join a fraternity in college, but they are smart enough to extract their revenge on the cool kids; and the Supreme Court? That is for National Honor Society members, the kind of kids who aced every class in high school, but couldn't make through a sleepover or summer camp without coming home early. I have lived in Washington almost eighteen years. People still ask me why I don't get involved in politics or try to latch on to someone's candidacy so that I can "use my skills." Leaving aside for the moment that I don't have any skills that could possibly benefit anyone in politics, the question for me is not why I am not involved, but why would anybody want to do this?

* * * * * * * * * *

Around 25% of all college graduates receive their undergraduate degrees in business. Less than 4% major in English and 2% earn a degree in history and even less than that graduate with a philosophy degree. Here's one for you: more degrees are awarded to undergraduates every year in Parks, Recreation, Leisure and Fitness Studies than in foreign languages, comparative politics and Middle East studies combined. So much for September 11th changing everything.

For the liberal arts major, nothing is more awkward than having to explain to friends and relatives bearing congratulations and gifts at their commencement what he or she plans "to do" with their degrees not that they've graduated. You majored in political science? Seriously? Did your parents know? Are you planning on going to law school? Running for office? Worse, you majored in philosophy, so what can you do with that, right? Go to law school? Teach English in China? Fold t-shirts in a "vintage" clothing store? Work as an au pair? Really, what can you do with a degree like that?

All you can do with a college degree is frame it. Beyond that, how you choose to make your way in the world is up to you. Few people, even those with degrees in business, are prepared to do much more than menial work for someone else when they leave college. Although we tell our prospective students (and their families) that we are preparing them for careers in their chosen fields of study, that is nothing more than a sales pitch. All we can do is provide a baseline education in the hope that our students will become a little less certain, a little more skeptical and a little more aware that there is much to learn and that life's most enduring questions do not have clear cut answers. The world is too complicated, there is too much left to chance and there is simply so much that is going to cross a young person's path that cannot be known or predicted that the true legacy of a college education is the gift of an open mind.

* * * * * * * * * *

And just when did 22, 24 or even 25 become the cut-off point for young adults to make their choices in life? About this time two years ago, I had the pleasure of coffee and conversation with a recent graduate of my university, a 23 year-old woman who is brilliant, beautiful and will achieve whatever she wants. And here she was . . . worried that she didn't have a "plan" for the next few years, or even the few years after she finished law school. Part of me understood exactly where she was coming from, having had the same anxieties after I finished college and had gotten off to a less-than-terrific start in graduate school (except I wasn't as smart and certainly not as attractive as my former student). But the other part of me -- the semi-grown up part -- couldn't believe what I was hearing. How could someone like this feel pressure about anything? Here is someone who is as good as it gets, and yet feeling like she wasn't moving ahead fast enough.

(By the way, my student was accepted at several excellent law schools and ended up taking an offer from one that included a full academic scholarship.)

This was not the first conversation I have had like this with former students (and now friends) in their twenties. For all I make fun of some AU students, I have had the privilege over almost 20 years to teach some incredible young men and women, people far more talented, hard-working and mature than I was in college. Confession: I wasn't nearly as together as my students are when I was 21, 22 or 24. The difference was, and this may not apply to everyone going through the post-college blues now, is that I was never pushed to achieve, achieve, achieve and achieve. Kids now have a hard time just being kids. I had good time being 12 when I was 12, being 15 when I was 15, and 17 when I was 17. Now the pressure to make not just good grades, but perfect ones, to build a resume so that colleges will give you a serious look, to devote ridiculous amounts of time and money to their children's sports interests to "round out" that perfect child (and secure a professional contract or, at minimum, college scholarship) is not just wildly disproportionate to its long-term significance. It is dangerous. Our amazement at the intellectual capacity of our children and our propensity to treat them as trained seals obscures the reality that we are dealing with young people, whether 9, 13, 19 or 22, who are emotionally and socially not prepared for the world we want them to enter.

Take your time. Make sure your first adult choices are good ones. They are not permanent. Think of them as guideposts for the next round. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Above all, relax and remember that it is your life you are living.

* * * * * * * * * *

How do you know where you will end up in 10 or 20 years? Well, you don't. But hopefully the place you find yourself, whether in the White House or an African village, in Bethesda or in Timbuktu, will be the place you want to be. In our best moments, we all want to make a difference in lives of other people. But you cannot make a difference unless you are passionate about how you choose to live your life. Not just the work you do, but the books you read, the music you play and listen to, the athletic challenges to establish yourself, the friends you make and value, the organic baby arugula you buy . . . the whole thing. In the end, be happy that you made the right choice for yourself, not just the right choice for others. Take a chance on your dreams, and you may find the view from the other side more beautiful than you could have ever imagined.


Jeremy said...

I know this runs counter to what you said, but I was driving home today thinking about what was different after graduation and I realized that graduating from college is the cut-off point for losing your innocence. If you haven't lost it already, it's time to get out from under your parents and be responsible for all of your own affairs.

That's not a bad thing. It happens to everyone. What really sucks is that I don't have a job and I'm going to live with my parents until I find one.

My innocence is dying an agonizingly slow and painful death instead of drifting away peacefully in its sleep.

Olga said...

Hi - I had you as an undergrad and I stumbled across this via a friend. I just wanted to say thanks for your (hilarious) words, open-mindedness and encouragement.

Erin "Sully" O'Sullivan said...

I sit here now with a beer in my hand, doing various press things (to use the high-powered, technical DC term)for the climate bill debate, with no clue as to whether it's making me happy or driving me nuts. It's good to know that there is a "grown up" out there saying that's okay. (However dubious the merits of that "grown-up" may be.)

I hope you're having as good a time playing with minds of your current students as you did with us!

Daniel said...

I remember the day when I realized that I wanted out of politics, campaigns and the bulls*** that goes with it.
Even from a non-political family, I was pressured to achieve and pursue this interest as my career. I took two semesters off of college to work on campaigns, spent a year with a Federal campaign committee to realize how far idealism got me, but how it would keep me from going further.
I challenged myself to take at least a gap year before starting graduate school. I took a job with a public radio station in Fort Lauderdale and turn in my server book and apron. 40 hours a week is a long time when there is only about 4 hours of work to be done. The backbiting and gossiping amongst the office of 8 made life so much more enjoyable too...I lasted three months.
In January I began taking prerequisites for a Masters in Economics. A world away from the "applied" political science education of American University and into the theoretical world of Heterodox economics, where I am beginning to understand why I'll probably end up in welfare line, the classlessness of Communists, that I shouldn't drink and derive, that Pi should get rational, economists do it with models and always attempt for perfect curves.
I am currently being recruited for a pretty awesome job in DC, and I'm hesitant, reluctant even to begin discussions with them. I remember what it is like to assume I did not have friends and in this position, I would probably be well served to know I don't have friends.
On the flip-side, in the Midwest, I'm viewed as strange for having intelligence and attempting to even have conversations with people. I'm perceived as sitting on an Ivory Tower looking at them; in a way I suppose they're correct, as soon as I mention "Political Science" or "Economics" I see eyes glaze over.