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  • Writer's pictureJessyca Stoepker

It's been a year since I've graduated college. Here's what I've learned so far.

Sometimes I really miss college--the roommate bonding, the clubbing on the weekends, the relief of finishing a giant research paper right before the deadline. After smiling at all the photos from this year's graduates (including some dear friends), I can't help but think about all the tips and "by-the-ways" I wish I could tell them.

That's a major reason for this blog post, but I'm also using this time to reflect (as one does when writing anything!).

So, to celebrate 12+ months post-graduation, here are 12 things I've learned so far.

1. At least half the skills I use on a day-to-day basis were not learned in a classroom.

They were learned through internships, work experiences, volunteering, community events, and independent research. A lot of these are "soft skills," like how to speak well, form a valid argument, or interact with a client on social media.

Others are more of a general awareness of the world that you can't obtain in a lecture hall: the sad differences between inner-city public schools and other schools, the intimacy between a dementia patient and a caregiver, what a food desert really looks like.

Sometimes you don't even realize what you've learned until six months later, when you have the answer to someone's question based on your experience.

2. Flexibility is among my top 3 priorities in a career.

A good paycheck is great, but I would gladly take a moderate pay cut if it meant that I could keep my schedule flexible.

I for one am not a typical 9-5 gal. Clocking in to a job stresses me out, and so does not having the flexibility I need to take care of my other responsibilities: doctor's appointments, therapy, setting up a bank account, fixing my car about once a month. I also have random energy spikes and dips throughout the day, which sometimes makes a regular day of office work seem impossible.

But since I work occasional nights and weekends with volunteer groups and events, I can come in late or leave early to make up for the odd hours. I'll have meetings during the day that break up the monotony, and I can also work from home. I realize not everyone's work environment can operate this way, but thank goodness mine does!

3. I am the youngest person in the room 95% of the time, and I've learned to like it.

I was a little unsettled when I first realized this fact. I wondered if anyone would take me seriously, or if they thought I was too young to understand.

It's been quite the opposite, actually. Since my field (and regional area) has been led by an aging population, my coworkers were happy to have a "fresh new face" and "new pair of eyes" join them. While I love hearing all of their stories, they love hearing about where I'm going to travel next and what new things are happening in my life. I guess it's refreshing for them to see the different energy.

Trust me, so many people will think you're a wiz if you get a bachelor's degree. I am praised for my computer skills (which are not that amazing...but I'll take it!) and how well I treat clients and volunteers. I think this is because--as one of the last cohorts of Gen Y, with influences of Gen Z--my peers and I are very service-oriented, understanding, and quick to catch on. And we were able to grow up with technology at our fingertips.

And since I'm the youngest, I'm treated like the baby of my work family--so basically, I'm spoiled. Here's an example: for my birthday, they had a "veggie" cake decorated for me, with streamers and balloons in my office and loudly singing me "happy birthday."

4. That being said, friendship can form between anyone of any age.

Still, sometimes I feel like my voice isn't heard. Sometimes I feel alone, and sometimes I feel preyed upon. It can be hard to feel comfortable in an environment with such a large age difference.

Despite these struggles, I've been extremely lucky to find wonderful people to spend time with. Like I mentioned previously, I feel cared for and cherished by most people here. My work best friend is about 70 years old, and we go to festivals and wine tastings together all the time. Other senior volunteers have suggested the best hiking trails and the best camera lenses I should buy. Most of my time now is spent with retirees, and my days are still full of laughter and jokes.

5. You aren't in semesters anymore. You can set realistic deadlines.

This was a hurdle I didn't even realize I had to jump over. For months, I was working so fast for an imaginary November deadline that I randomly set for myself, threatening burnout. It took a while before I recognized that I was still in "semester mode," and that I needed to take things slower. The world wasn't going to end if I delayed the unveiling of that software.

Once I stopped taking work home with me every day and started taking more time for myself, everything went so much better.

6. Procrastination doesn't just happen in school.

However, taking things slow can still turn into procrastinating if I'm not careful. And I'm not the only one: I've seen instances were colleagues and acquaintances couldn't follow through with a project because they kept putting things off.

It's usually masked with a vague email, "Sorry for the delay. Our office has been hectic these past few weeks." You're granted 3 or 4 of those a year until you lose your credibility--use them wisely!

7. You have a surprising amount of free range with your job description and duties.

I have a lot more influence than I thought I would, and I find myself calling the shots quite frequently.

Because of this freedom, I was able to conduct a 2-week lecture and cooking class session with a school down the road. While it directly related to our mission, it was definitely a side project that would not have been done if I wasn't there to do it. I also accepted an intern from the health department, and she helped me with taste-testings and nutrition education in our pantry. Again, I made the call to do it, and that wouldn't have happened if my passion for the subject wasn't there.

Of course, clear everything with your boss first--but don't be afraid to push boundaries!

8. You have to learn how to make your favorite food at home.

I love Thai, but I couldn't afford to get takeout twice a week. Finding curry paste at Meijer and meal prepping at home solved that problem. It's not 100% the same, but it satisfies the craving!

9. You have to force yourself to do fun things on the weekend, or you'll have no friends outside of work...

Even if you just take yourself out on a date--go get sushi and a glass of wine, and write in your notebook at a bar--you're still getting yourself out there. That's exactly what I did on a whim one night, and the waitress (definitely out of pity) treated me so well and gave me her number to hang out sometime. We're still friends!

10. ...but keep in mind, you do NOT have the stamina you used to have in college.

I think this might go without saying, but your body changes quickly after graduating. Four hours of sleep sophomore year was NORMAL. Now, four hours of sleep feels like DEATH. Don't drink the whole bottle of wine by yourself, unless you expect to stay in bed the next day. And your diet? My freshman year, I ate so much, I can't image how awful I would feel if I ate it that regularly. It really starts to dramatically affect your energy, mood, and (of course) your appearance much faster.

11. Networking seriously gets you so far in life, especially in a smaller city.

Those after-hour events? Go to one or two. Those conferences or quarterly business expos? Go, even if you only stick around for 20 minutes. You'd be surprised by what 1 or 2 connections can contribute to your career.

Networking isn't even limited to your job, either. The only reason I have my current apartment downtown--with a view of the bay and a monthly rate less than $1k--is because my boss knew somebody who knew somebody.

12. The best people in life love to learn.

My boss: visits museums and art exhibits, listens to NPR, researches Hemingway's history and lineage, spends weekends perfecting different recipes.

My work best friend: always reads the newspaper, fell in love with Humans of New York, takes Spanish classes, signs up for workshops, loves listening to stories.

My college best friends: read essay collections, aim for grad school, learn to pole dance, keep up-to-date with the news, attend seminars for the heck of it, immerse themselves in a foreign culture.

Find these kinds of people. Befriend these kinds of people. They will make you better as a person.

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