My college senior called me the other day, and after jabbering on for a few minutes about what’s new at work and school, he became awkwardly quiet. Then he hesitantly blurted out, “Mom, I just feel… I mean I don’t know… I mean I’m almost done here, and like, NOW WHAT?”
But it wasn’t just what he said that made me feel sad, it was the way in which he said it- like he was completely ashamed and embarrassed to be asking that kind of question at his age. At his age? He’s a mere 21 years old, and that’s exactly why I felt sad that his tone reflected shame, because how in the world (and why does he think) he is supposed to have life all figured out at his age?
When did kids (and yes, although I firmly believe that 21 year olds are actual adults, and should be competent, self-sufficient, and doing very adult things – they’re really still just kids in so many ways) think they need their entire future mapped out at age 21, 25, or even 30 for that matter?
Why and where is this pressure coming from that is making them believe they need to have secured their futures as soon as they cross the college finish line?
Advice for College Seniors
So how did I answer his “Now what?” question? Well, I’m neither a therapist nor college career counselor, but with my 47 years of living on this Earth (and all the wisdom that has been well earned through the years) I think I gave him a pretty accurate and appropriate answer. I told him that not having life all figured out at age 21 is absolutely normal, and by no means do I or his father expect that he should be 100% certain of what his future holds.
I told him that he most likely has many years ahead of him that will feel exploratory in nature, where he may feel unsettled for long periods of time, and that, too is normal and part of the growing up process. And finally, I told him that for the rest of his life he may find himself asking, “Now what?” over and over and over again, and not to look at that as a bad thing, but to embrace it as a catalyst for change or inspiration.
Did I say the right things? According to one professional, I most certainly did.
Leslie Mille is the Associate Director of Florida State University’s Career Center, and on a daily basis sees and counsels students who are putting enormous amounts of pressure on themselves to have everything figured out by graduation day- if not well before. She states,
A lot of the pressure they’re feeling actually comes from social media. They’re seeing their graduating friends posting statuses about the new great job they just got offered, but all they’re seeing is the great stuff, because students aren’t sharing the bad stuff. They’re not seeing 100 of their friends sharing, ‘I’m graduating and I have no idea what I’m doing yet.’ They’re comparing themselves against each other more than any other generation. It’s an unhealthy competitive environment.
Mille and her co-workers at the career center are the perfect resource for students asking, “Now what?” and if your student is asking the same questions nearing graduation (or even before) their first stop should be their campus career center. They will be met with sincerity and compassion (and maybe a gentle kick in the pants, but in a good way) and be given an abundance of tips and guidelines for beginning to figure out their career journey.
We help students here to really think about what are their values, their interests, and their skills, and we want to give them control over what they would eventually like to do so they can figure it out on their own. A lot of students get the message that they need to have it all figured out, and that they need to have secured a job upon graduation, which actually more likely than not will not be the job they have for the rest of your life. Here at the career center they learn information seeking behavior so they have the power to find what they’re meant to do on their own. And also, we’re able to assure them and tell them it’s OK to NOT have it all figured out yet!
Mille also encourages students who just don’t know where to go after graduation to consider a post-graduate paid internship, which now that they have a degree, may be easier to find. The benefit of such an internship is it has an end date, so if the new graduate realizes that field or position is not for them, they can seamlessly exit without the job appearing to have been ‘quit.’
Think of post graduate internships as trials or practice work positions, but with the ability to leave on good terms. Mille says that often figuring out first what you don’t want to do, helps you figure out what you do want to do.
My son is a few months shy of being a college graduate, and he is finally realizing this is just the beginning of what his career path will hold, and that his path will have many winding roads and peaks and valleys, and most likely will not include not a lot of directions. He is thankfully coming to terms with the mystery and discomfort of that, and embracing the many epiphanies coming his way.
(Also, I may or may not have told him I’m pushing age 50 and I’m still asking, “Now what?!”)
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