Emerging leaders on the edge of the known to unknown…that optimistically describes college graduates. They know how to “do” college; they register for classes, stress about them, complete them, have as much social fun as possible along the way, and then continue the cycle into the next semester.

Navigating the major challenge after graduation – or helping someone navigate it

Yet I see a trend of stress that accommodates students about to graduate from college, regardless of the degree. From my students who are seniors about to receive their BA, or my students wrapping up their Masters Degree, and even those on the brink of adding PhD after their names with the conclusion of their doctoral degree, there is a common thread of stress. I’ve sensed the palpable stress and anxiety of individuals soon to graduate, but I hadn’t been able to put my finger on exactly what it was – until this week.

I recently met an exuberant, articulate, and well-spoken young woman who cracked out her Masters Degree right on the heels of her BA. As we visited over Starbucks, it struck me that she would be a great source of real-life input to my undergraduate seniors as they prepare to enter their career journeys in about a month when the graduation ceremony festivities are over.

Have you ever had a gut sense about someone? I believed in this young lady and had sensed that her character and quality of person were things I could trust in if I invited her to come in as a guest speaker. I had a hunch that even though I had just met her, that she would be able to relate to the stress that my seniors are facing much better than I could, simply due to the issue of recency – and offer valuable insight. I was right.

As she spoke to my class of a few juniors and a bunch of seniors about to graduate from Gonzaga University, I took notes. I learned what that major challenge and sometimes stumbling block can be for recent graduates seeking or find themselves in a new work environment and role after college.

“How many of you feel a sense of stress about the need to “prove” yourself after you graduate?” It looked like a “wave” as hands went up across the room.

My 25 year-old guest speaker continued and described the types of things that she sees in the eyes of recent graduates facing decisions of:

  • Grad school, or not? Now or later?
  • Ethics in the interview process – how many potential employers should you string along until you find the “right” job?
  • Should you “settle” for a job just to pay the bills when you know in your heart it is not the right fit?
  • What should you know before you take a job across the country for the “fun” of it?
  • At what point do you let a relationship dictate your job or location decisions?
  • How will people in your new city/state and those you will work with know you and all of your strengths?
  • How do you prove to yourself and to others (family, friends, new employers and new colleagues) that you do make wise decisions?
  • How do you prove that you are better than “good enough” when you land where you land for work after graduating?

Phew! After listening and seeing how these issues resonated with my class, I suddenly became especially glad with my age and that I am not faced with all of those concerns!

My guest speaker’s advice to people feeling the pressure to prove themselves after graduating? Listen to your authentic heart. And to quote Parker Palmer, “Let your life speak” (– which is also one of my favorite books of his by that title!). Just the fact that the issue of dealing with the internal desire to prove yourself after graduating had been named and can now be anticipated with a plan to work through it seemed to bring a sense of peace to my seniors.

My take away’s and learning that is ready to implement from this event are two-fold.

1.     If you are an employer, leader, boss, or even an employee where a recent grad comes to work, go out of your way to acknowledge and affirm the effort, performance, results, and potential that you observe in this individual. You can reduce this unspoken need to “prove” value in the workplace when youth and workforce inexperience may not always be seen as a most valuable asset.

2.     If you are a friend or family member of a soon-to-be or recent college graduate – inquire, listen, and affirm the courage in this person as he or she navigates many significant life decisions. How can you express respect and encouragement for who this person is today, as well as who this individual is choosing to become?