Aug 22, 2016
After College: Chapter 1
Erica Young Reitz shares the first chapter from her important new book After College: Navigating Transitions, Relationships, and Faith.
“The first year out was one of the hardest years of my life,” reports Curt. He moved to inner-city Baltimore for a job with Teach for America, a position that stretched him in ways his college classes and student teaching stint did not. Curt also left campus at the height of his social game with a strong support network. President of his Christian fellowship group, he had countless friends, an active community life and college ministers who invested in him. Then he moved to a city where he knew no one. In addition to the adjustment to an unknown place, he faced significant challenges in his family life that year. Everything seemed to hit him at once.
Another alum, Kate, describes her first year this way: “It’s much rougher than I thought. . . . I thought things would just play out, and they didn’t. I don’t have friends, I don’t have a job and I hang out with my parents every night!” Upon graduation Kate could not find a job, so she chose to move back home with her parents. She struggled to find friends with similar values, to connect to a vibrant church, to make ends meet financially and to keep proper perspective.
My own experiences as a graduate validate what Curt and Kate say about their first few months out of school. I moved to a small town called State College in what felt like the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania. Though referred to by locals as the “Happy Valley,” it felt more valley than happy. I struggled to find my place and purpose in a new location; there were dismal days that made me feel anxious, lonely and depressed (the often gray sky didn’t help). On my worst days I used to get up and go through the motions of a morning routine only to find myself paralyzed by feelings of despair. Is this what life after college is like? Did I make a mistake in moving here?
I share these stories because they represent a narrative I encounter again and again: life after college comes with challenges. If your transition is easier than you expected, give thanks. But if it’s not, you’re not alone! Sometimes it’s hard because we’re not prepared, but it’s also hard because we’re going through a major transition. Perhaps you cannot imagine any hitches in your first strides out of school. For many alumni that initial stretch offers a welcome change to the confines of college. Making money, living on your own, doing work in a field you love—it feels like the best of times. But even so, you will inevitably hit a bump in the road—a heartbreak, rejection from a job or promotion you want, financial struggle, relational conflict.
Life after college is a sweet time, but not necessarily because it lacks obstacles. Thriving in the next phase is not so much about avoiding challenges as about learning how to navigate them. And it’s about managing our expectations within them. Though many recent graduates feel unprepared, there are also those who enter the transition with a robust worldview and realistic expectations. They prepare for potential obstacles and gain tools necessary for navigating change. They still find that life after college is hard at times. But also very good!
Jackie shares that her transition went more smoothly than she envisioned. She credits her success to her own preparedness as well as her patience with the transition. Without skyscraper expectations for everything to go perfectly, Jackie was able to keep sane and let things unfold in time. Instead of stressing because the field that she’d trained for (occupational therapy) was not what she wanted to do, she chose to trust God, take her time with the questions that surfaced and invite others to help her discern her career path. This process led to a jobshadowing opportunity with a physician assistant. After that, Jackie landed a nursing assistant job that would expose her to a variety of areas within the field and allow her to further clarify her vocation. In Jackie’s words, “It’s a confusing time, but the biggest thing that kept me calm was realizing I don’t have to be rushed as I figure things out.”When we keep a level head and manage our expectations, we position ourselves for a more successful transition. If we assume we may hit a bump, rather than being surprised when we do, we will likely move over it with hope and grace instead of allowing our disappointment to send us into a downward spiral.
One of the biggest challenges of Christian life is aligning our beliefs with our behaviors. Many of us flounder because we’re not sure how to manage unmet expectations or we choose actions (or inactions) that send us down unhealthy paths. We may wake up one day to realize I don’t even know how I got here. Countless little decisions (or indecisions) add up to a life we never meant to live. Stephanie admits, “I crashed and burned right after college.” She struggled to set boundaries in a social service job with endless client needs; she wasn’t sure how to be an effective employee and she didn’t know how to ask for help. When she found a church, she failed to plug in beyond Sunday morning. Because there were few people in a similar life stage and the church was a forty-five-minute drive away, it felt like too much effort to do more, especially in the midst of her exhausting schedule. Stephanie reflects, “So much is handed to you when you’re in college. If you want to be a Christian, you simply show up to a certain hall at certain time. After college, you have to go after everything, and I didn’t know how.”
A challenging first year led to an even worse second. To supplement her income, Stephanie started bartending a block away from home and moved in with a friend from work—someone who was not a healthy influence. Working at the bar made it easy to start drinking— at first to relieve stress, then as a lifestyle. The bar became Stephanie’s primary place of connection. She says, “When I realized I wasn’t making friends and connecting in an adult way, I was desperate and lonely.” Patterns from her past resurfaced as she slipped into drinking and hooking up. After two years of burnout and bad choices, Stephanie realized, “I was soulless and dead inside. . . . This was not the life I intended to live.”
Because she started with a college education and a job offer, Stephanie thought she should “have it all together”—as if having her ducks in a row marked the arrival into adulthood. But there were so many things she wasn’t prepared for, and she didn’t know where to turn. In her words, “I failed because I had this misconception that I should have my life in order, love my job, and have a great community. But when I didn’t have it all figured out, I didn’t know where to ask for help . . . or even that I could.”
Trying to prove to others that we’ve “arrived” is not the goal. These years are about making choices that will help us successfully emerge into adulthood. The risk of floundering is real. We can guard against it by preparing for challenges, asking for help and choosing intentional actions. Though the landscape is thick with temptations, a life of flourishing in the next phase is possible. There are many struggle stories, but also many success stories!
-From Chapter 1, “Go to an Unknown Land: Trusting a Familiar God for Unfamiliar Times” of After College: Navigating Transitions, Relationships, and Faith
You can read more about post-college transitions on Erica’s new website.