Graduating from college? Some advice from 4 recent grads (and one not so recent)
Congratulations, Class of 2022! All of us here at America are thinking of you and your families in these happy days and wishing you the absolute best.
We also asked four of our staff members who, like you, graduated during the pandemic (plus one old guy who graduated long before), to reflect on what advice they wish someone had given them as they were graduating. We hope their words may be useful to you as you leave one world behind and enter another.
‘Say Yes’: Grad advice from someone who has no business giving anyone advice because she almost burnt the house down while making toast the other day.
–Keara Hanlon, Boston College ‘21
“Don’t take pictures in that direction,” our guide warns me, gesturing with a light nod. “That’s the cartel.”
I allow my camera to fall slack around my neck. My Apple watch buzzes with a notification from “Momma Hanlon”: “Text me when you’re back on U.S. soil.”
How did I end up here?, I think to myself. This was not in my job description.
In short, I am here because I had said “yes.” Would I like to move to New York City and join the America Media staff as a Joseph A. O’Hare Postgraduate Media Fellow? Yes. How about joining the video team? Yes. Want to film a documentary in Arizona and Mexico? Sure!
A trail of yeses, and now I am standing with my feet firmly planted in the sand of the Sonoran Desert, south of the border we had just walked across. I try not to stare as we pass the cartel, because staring is rude, and also because it seems like a bad idea to stare at the cartel.
Try to say “yes.” Say “yes” even when it’s scary. Say “yes” even when you’re not sure if you know what you’re doing. Say “yes” even when it would be easier to say “no."
Not all of my yeses were easy. Anxiety crept into my psyche in college and had followed me into my post-graduate life. The night before I started at America Media, I didn’t sleep a wink. The first week I spent in the office I couldn’t eat much more than a few Ritz crackers on a nervous stomach.
And still, somehow, by December I found myself almost 2,500 miles from home, camera in hand, trusty Ritz crackers still crunching in my back pocket.
The trip was a triumph for me. Not just because of all of the wonderful people I met or the new parts of the world I got to explore, but because there was a time when I would have been nervous just stepping foot outside my dorm room, let alone across a border.
At that time, the temptation to stick in my comfort zone and say “no” to an opportunity like this one might have won out. And that would have been O.K. But finding a way to push through the anxiety and open myself up to saying “yes” (through therapy and medication, and not without difficulty) has been full of blessings.
So try to say “yes.” Say “yes” even when it’s scary. Say “yes” even when you’re not sure if you know what you’re doing. Say “yes” even when it would be easier to say “no.” Let your feet take you across the borders of your comfort zone even when your stomach is turning and your head is spinning. You’re a lot more firmly planted than you think.
Four years is enough.
–Molly Cahill, Boston College ’20
If you had given me this advice when I was in college, I would have been so mad at you. In fact, somebody did, and I did not like it one bit.
At the end of my first year, a professor told my class that our Jesuit school sought to hold us, not to cling to us. We should approach our experience there with a kind of Ignatian detachment, she said. We should experience all our university had to offer—academically, socially and spiritually. The school would become not just the place where we went to class but also where we lived and where we got to know some of the most important people in our lives.
Then, she said, one day we would have to leave. We could visit, but never again would the college be the place where we could make a home and stay.
Looking back, I know that sometimes I clung to my college experience rather than gently holding it and letting it hold me.
At this point in my freshman year, I was actually starting to feel settled at school. The thought of leaving the place where I was already experiencing such love and growth made me feel sick.
Looking back, I know that sometimes I clung to my college experience rather than gently holding it and letting it hold me. The thought of letting go of something great seemed like a stupid thing to do. If something is wonderful, shouldn’t you hold onto it at all costs?
Ultimately, though, I had no choice. In March 2020, Covid-19 kicked me out the door. In the midst of tearful goodbyes, I had to pack up my room and drive away—all by 8 p.m. on Sunday.
I tried to cling harder than ever. “We’ll be here until 8 on the dot,” my roommates and I said. “They can drag us out if they have to!”
Life is going to be imperfect. It is going to be unfair. Pop the champagne and celebrate what you can.
No matter how hard you try to cling to whatever these four years have been to you, you’ll have to let go. Someone else will move into your room, and your professors’ classes will be filled with strangers’ faces.
But when you go out into the “real world,” the harder you cling to your college experience, the more impossible it will be to fall in love with your new life. (Trust me.)
Four years was enough to give you friends and memories you don’t have to lose. Have faith that in your post-grad life, gifts like that will come again. Pack up your room, hug your friends and head off to find your new gifts.
Always look on the bright side of life.
–Sarah Vincent, Loyola University Chicago ’21
Graduation is a bittersweet time for anyone, for those who graduate during Covid more than most. It is a big life transition, and it is made even harder when you feel like you didn’t get a full college experience because of the pandemic.
The last year and a half of my time at college was remote. I took all my classes online, nearly a thousand miles away from campus and all of my friends. On top of it all, my graduation was virtual, too—I graduated from college sitting on the couch, feeling somewhat ridiculous in my regalia. It was hard, both then and now, to come to terms with losing half of my time at college to the pandemic. It is a struggle that is going to continue for successive years of graduates as the pandemic redefines our new normal.
I had two and a half amazing years at college. Even though I wanted more, that is still something to celebrate.
But despite the hardship, you have to look for the bright side and celebrate it anyway. I would not have identified as an optimist before Covid; I’m still not sure I do now. But what I do know is that focusing on what you have lost is probably the best way to not recognize what you have. I had two and a half amazing years at college. Even though I wanted more, that is still something to celebrate.
Life is going to be imperfect. It is going to be unfair. Pop the champagne and celebrate what you can. It is O.K. to spend some time looking back and wishing things were different; it is hard to let go of that disappointment. But don’t forget the joy that you have had, and don’t lose sight of the excitement for your future. Celebrate how far you have come since you first set foot on campus, not knowing that it would become your home. Celebrate that you loved something so much that you are sad to lose it. These are things no pandemic can take from you. And whether in person or virtual, that is what graduation is really about.
Don’t look back.
–Doug Girardot, Boston College ’21
You, dear spring-semester senior, know well that once you cross the stage at commencement and barter an awkward handshake for a blank scroll of parchment, the life you have known for the last four years will end quicker than you can say “student loan forgiveness.” But at the same time, until you live through it, it is impossible to realize just how fast things change.
Even if you don’t move to a different city and away from pretty much all your friends like I did, work schedules and other commitments make it harder to keep in touch even with your closest friends. Sooner than you would like, you end up longing for the days when you could wander into the common room or even the library, knowing that there would be at least one familiar face to greet you.
Stop gazing into the past—or, if you do choose to, at least limit yourself to brief glimpses of sweet remembrances, not wistful melancholy.
Stop right there. Stop gazing into the past—or, if you do choose to, at least limit yourself to brief glimpses of sweet remembrances, not wistful melancholy.
I have a philosophically dubious claim to make that is nonetheless practical: The past no longer exists. We had our past, but we only have our present. (Yes, this is coming from someone who studied history.) Instead of yearning for the way things were, apply your focus to making new friends and holding onto the old. It is easy to treat relationships as an afterthought in the midst of a new career or venture, but fight the impulse to cordon yourself off.
I also have even more practical advice: Drink, revel and be merry the night before graduation, by all means...but don’t overdo it. You get precisely one undergraduate commencement ceremony in your entire life. I can’t promise it’ll be fun, but it is a special day for your family and—difficult though it may be to fathom in the moment—for you. Don’t let grumpiness and nausea ruin it.
Ignore the ravioli.
–Jim McDermott, S.J., Marquette University ’91
As a Gen X kid, I often find myself going back to the original “Star Wars” trilogy for wisdom. One scene in particular from the first film speaks to me: Luke Skywalker has just lost the only parents he’s ever known, and Ben Kenobi is trying to take Luke’s mind off things by teaching him how to connect with the Force.Luke stands in the main cabin of the Millennium Falcon, failing to block laser beams from a little floating Death Star ball with his lightsaber. Ben tells him to pull down the blast shield on his helmet, which leaves him unable to see anything. It makes no sense. But bizarrely, it is only when his eyes are closed that Luke is finally able to connect with the Force.
In my experience, life is often like sitting at a dinner table next to a baby in a high chair with a big bowl of ravioli: It just won’t stop throwing stuff at you. Thankfully, pasta is much less lethal than laser beams. But if you aren’t careful, you can spend so much time dodging and reacting, you lose touch with any sense of what is going on within you.
In the first book of Kings, God comes to Elijah not in the storm or the earthquake but in a “still small voice” (19:12). I think our deepest and truest selves are like that, a quiet voice deep within. But the only way to hear them is to step back, shut our eyes to the world and its constant demands, and listen.
So when you can, when you need to, ignore the ravioli. (Honestly, it is not going anywhere anyway.) The wisdom and courage you’re looking for are right there inside you.