Let me begin by confessing that I look down on the concept of an "open letter" and generally dismiss their use in popular media. But since I have several graduating seniors and the group I am addressing is diverse and lovable, I have resigned myself to this trendy format in hopes of pitching the tent stakes wide.
I hope you are proud of yourselves.
No. Really. Don’t read that sentence in a Chandler-from-Friends voice. Really, truly. I hope you are very proud of yourselves.
I know some of you are coasting across the finish line on fumes but graduating from an undergraduate college program is no small thing. According to census data released in December of 2017, around one third of Americans 25 years or older have undergraduate degrees. While this is the highest number of college grads to date, it is still a relatively small and distinct group. Getting this far required commitment, hard work, and dedication. You stuck it out.
I also hope you are overwhelmed with gratitude. You might have had to earn scholarships, work extra jobs, or even become the first in your family to do this, but regardless of the challenges, your access to resources and opportunities contributed to you getting here. Two thirds of the American population over 25 aren’t just living without college degrees because they felt like opting out. Many of them lack the basic opportunities and supports that you have had access to.
I know this is a strange time. Some of you are heading into jobs or industries that you love. You might have known you wanted to be a teacher since you were 10 and now you are headed off with newly sharpened pencils into your first full-time teaching job. Some of you just figured out what kind of job you want and are throwing your hat into the ring to see if the industry is all you had hoped. Some of you have been dodging with ninja-like skill the questions about your future because, well, you just don’t know.
Here is one thing you should know: it’s okay. Whether you are heading into a job, grad school (or a job to pay for grad school), or just the great void that is staring back at you in silence, you are okay. I know we have been prepping you endlessly for this moment. I know we told you that now that you have endured 17 years of education you need to just run out into the work force and make us all proud. But you don’t actually have to flop into a six figure job with accolades that slap you right onto the glossy front page of next month’s alumni magazine.
Graduation is a huge milestone but it is also an artificial timeline.
Some of you don’t know what all-important thing you want to do next. Some of you are dating someone and you just aren’t sure if you want to marry them, but this timeline demands that you have it all figured out (and quick)! Please understand: you do not have to have it all figured out by graduation. You can take your time. Keep dating. Keep looking for jobs. Keep applying to grad school. If you want to stay closer to family or friends for a while until you find your bearings, that is okay.
Graduation can often feel like a deafening oven timer - the kind you wind up and set on the counter with their incessant tick-tick-tick-tick. You’ve completed all this education, but you have to have your big life plans sorted too. But if you don’t, let me assure you - you still have time.
You will need a place to live and a way to pay for that place (and for food and such). You will want to consider the people in your life. You will want to pray about these things. But you don’t have to endure the artificial message that keeps telling you that if you don’t have it all figured out then everyone will be disappointed in you.
It just isn’t true.
Find a job that pays you money. Find roommates. Get a mentor. Ask your parent and grandparents about what they were doing at your age. Keep a journal. Join a church, a small group, an afternoon yoga class, a book club. Get a pet, or maybe just a plant. Some of you don’t need to keep sentient beings alive yet. Find a place to volunteer on the weekends. Plan a trip. Get to know your neighbors.
But before you do - say goodbye.
You are leaving something special. It might have been really hard and crazy busy but you were here and you lived it for four (or so) years. So stay up late with friends. Visit a part of campus you have never been (for some of you, this place is the Library). Do something on your college bucket list. Make a mix tape.
When people still used CDs, I made a mixed playlist of all my favorite songs from college. I put them in very strategic order on a CD, I packed up my car after the graduation ceremony, and I listened to that sucker as I drove out the gates for the last time as a student.
Take lots of pictures and look back at all your old Snap Chats and Instagrams from the past four years. Read your old journals or old class papers from Freshman year (yikes!). Thank your professors and mentors. Thank the guy or gal who cleaned your residence hall. Start a new GroupMe with your closest friends. Forgive the ones who broke your heart.
It’s a new chapter.
Buy a new journal, a new outfit, budget software, and a sensible car. Read that book you haven’t had time to read. Read a new one every year. Learn a new hobby every so often. And if you can, I recommend going to a high school or college graduation each year for the next decade. Graduations are ceremonies when we are reminded that life is a gift, we should be generous, and we have so much to give. You should be reminded of that over and over so that you never settle for something too boring, too safe, or selfish.
Things are about to change and the next year will have its challenges, but don’t go at it alone or shrink in fear of it.
And be sure to text every once in a while. Some of us will miss having a front row seat to your messy, beautiful life.