College is great for many things––being exposed to new ideas, meeting people from different backgrounds, living in sweatpants without shame. But it may not always prepare you for the skills you might need to excel personally and professionally.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, over 20 million students attended American colleges and universities last year. And college enrollment is expected to be at an all time high from fall 2020 through fall 2026, with enrollment projected to increase 13 percent over that period. While it’s wonderful so many people have access to higher education, many may not fully understand how to move forward once their diploma is in hand.
With that in mind, we asked people about what they would tell a younger version of themselves on their graduation day. Here’s what they said. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Start contributing to 401ks. Doing this in your 20s will add up so quickly and put you in at an advantage in your 30s, even if you only contribute $25 a month. It can take a bit to become comfortable with finance, but becoming proficient at managing your money gives you power and an amazing sense of security in the long term. Open your bills right away and pay them off. Also seek multiple streams of income. Extra money here or there helps.
Your interests will change over time, professionally and personally. You'll have a lot of opportunities and face some challenges. Remember that you're capable and curious. Take those opportunities and don't be afraid of the challenges. Read and write more than you think you should, for yourself and for others. Also, your friends and family will be there for you. You're surrounded by their love. Give it back, over and over again. Your connections are your greatest gifts. Yes, it's a big world: you make it small in the best ways.
If you're in a city, always make sure to have an emergency subway card, so you're not stuck walking three miles to the nearest station with a ticket kiosk. And network the hell out of the new place you're in. If you've started a new job, make an effort to meet people who work in different departments. If you're at school, show up to different events and say hi to people. And don't let your old connections fade away. Stay in touch with them too.
Take this next chunk of time and try lots of different kinds of work, not just different jobs or companies. Look out for mentors and methods. Both can be shed over time if they come up short or when they're no longer valuable for what you're doing. And don't look for the "one true method." Look for lots of useful ways of thinking and doing and don't fall too deeply in love with just one. Sometimes you will be absolutely sure you know where things are headed. Don't be fooled; you don't. Expect the world is going to change and keep changing, and don't anchor yourself to the way it all looks to you right now. Also, on your 43rd birthday, you will have some really good donuts. So you’ve got that going for you.
Your first paycheck as a college graduate: don't spend that money on a $15 margarita and a Sisqo CD. Have the foresight to say no to yourself, to your friends, and the gourmet burrito place around the corner from your apartment. Being in debt comes with guilt and shame. Even though the future is murky and still a riddle, know that you will always need money. Budgets aren't sexy but neither is walking three miles to work because you can't afford gas. Start good––hell, even OK––financial habits now for a comfortable, stable future.
As much as you love the University you attended, it was the networking, relationships, and mentors that pushed you to be where you are now. That diploma you worked so hard for now is collecting dust. You could have gone anywhere else and as long as you were in the city, in the scene, you would have made it out just fine. As the first person in your family to go to college in the United States, you got wrapped up in the names and history of the places you wanted to study at so much that you forgot it's about you and what you make of where you're at. Don't get me wrong –– the classes you took and endless nights you had are still very much worth the loans you took out. But remember no piece of paper can dictate your future; only you can.
Stop being so afraid to fuck up. It's preventing you from committing to things you care about, and it's persuading you to half-ass things you don't. Go full-force into the things you're too embarrassed to admit you love out of fear that they won't be received well or turn out how you envision them. They won't, they never do, and that's part of it. Your hobbies seem inconsequential because they take time and people will tell you they're not advancing your career. Tell them to stuff it. That spirit is the first thing you'll miss when you get older. Don’t sacrifice your creativity because you're afraid it won't amount to anything.
College does not define you. You don’t need to have a solid idea of who you are and who you are going to be, and you probably never will. You will always be evolving and no matter how many people tell you that “your college years are the most important years of your life," don’t listen to that bullshit. College helps point you in the right direction, but once you can check school off of your list of looming burdens, you make room for something new, something that will probably change you and mold you. Also, save money, damnit.
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