03 June 2020

To the Graduates: A time capsule of life and advice

From a time when we could attend commencements in person and get sunburned. Photo by the author.

"Bloom where you're planted."
// attributed to St. Frances of Sales, Bishop of Geneva (1567-1622)

Graduation ceremonies were pretty different this year. Instead of baking under the sun or freezing in the rain, friends and family members sat in front of their computers, dressed in their caps and gowns. Their names were not mispronounced in front of their classmates and colleagues. Speeches were shorter than usual, since giving (or watching) Zoom speeches can be ... well, you know. Acting as dean, my cousin moved the tassel of his daughter’s mortarboard from one side to the other. She and many others have graduated, but this year's milestone was muted by pandemic, injustice, and unrest.

In these strange times, I offer the words of friends who, four years ago, shared glimpses of their college lives with me. For various reasons, those words had been forgotten and unread until now -- but I am so glad I rediscovered this treasure trove. Although these friends wrote during pre-pandemic times, their stories remain relevant. They spoke of uncertainty and disillusionment. They spoke of hope, and even assurance, in the midst of the expanse of life ahead of them.

Here I have included a curated portion of their responses, which are lightly edited but still speak for themselves. I only regret that, for attention span's sake, I am not able to include more of the words and stories I received. (I originally asked sixteen questions.) Some of the participants permitted me to use their first names or first initials, while others chose to remain anonymous. See the bottom of the post for some more information about them.

Whether you are in the class of 2020, the class of 2016, or are simply going through a transition, I invite you to explore this time capsule with me.

And in the time-honored tradition of graduation songs that stir up memories and nostalgia, I've included some musical accompaniment for this look to the past, in order to look forward.


In days of yore

Song: "We are Young" by fun., featuring Janelle MonĂ¡e

What were you like in college?

“Anxious and unsure of myself.”

“Simultaneously sensitive while being a bit rough around the edges.” – Diana

“Both confident and not, adventurous yet timid, fearful yet without fear.” – Emily

“Unaware, but confident and excited.” – Jen

“I thrived in college and thought it would probably [be] the highlight of my entire life. However, I did not develop many close friendships during college as I spread my time across multiple activities and people groups.” – Annie

“Idealistic, academic, focused, and in love.” // Rachel

“Logical, driven, nerdy.” – Al

“Two words: Driven and confused. I was a good student and a hard worker recognized by many leadership in the college. But the college’s religious tradition was quite different from what I believed. This caused a great conflict within me.”

“Overall, I was fairly unhappy, as I was overworked, did not sleep enough, and tried to give to everyone who asked me, which was a recipe for burn out.”

“It was entertainment from a cynical perspective. Keep in mind I had two tours of [Vietnam] under my belt before I was old enough to legally drink or vote. I couldn’t relate to their world and they couldn't understand mine.” – Harvey

The time between

Song: "Memories" by Maroon 5

What have been some notable milestones in your life since then?

I was intrigued by what people considered to be “milestones.” Perhaps because I had originally phrased my question with some suggestions, most people mentioned their moves, career pivots, promotions, higher education, and marriages, alongside the excerpts below:

“Learning to better understand myself and the shortcomings of my personality has been significant. Confronting destructive patterns of behavior that have come from my upbringing has been an ongoing journey.”

"If I’m in a box when it comes to thinking, then it is one without corners. My successes have been fun because they all happened because I didn’t play by the rules. … We learn more from failures than successes.” // Harvey

“Changed jobs a few times, including working as an EMT, which was the best job I’ll ever have. Almost went to seminary and became a pastor, but then had a quarter life crisis and didn't.” – James

“Moving to the suburbs for my husband to continue his education has been a difficult transition. Here, I am confronted with sexism, racism, classism, much more frequently than in the city.”

At the end of college (or when you were younger), what did you think you would be doing or would have accomplished by this point in your life?

“I actually had a life plan written out in the middle of college. I think by now I was supposed to be leaving the Navy and starting work at the Irvine Company [a real estate developer].” – James (a lawyer)

“I thought I would invent some new technology. Definitely computer related.” – Al (no longer an engineer)

“I probably thought I would be working at a firm with ample opportunities to travel. Or possibly living abroad somewhere cool.” – Emily (back in a familiar city)

“I believed I would have 10 kids.” (no children)

“I thought I would still be teaching high school, would have moved back to the Midwest, and would be married with children.” (a neurosurgeon)

“I am doing exactly what I thought I would be doing when I was 15 years old. It’s both more and less exciting than I thought it would be.” // Rachel (a scientist with a black belt)

"I'll actually be about a year behind my reach goal." – Alex (studying theology)

“I really didn’t know, except that I wanted to be a writer in some way and wasn’t sure what I would do to support the writing … I guess I may have expected to have kids by this point, since the cultures I grew up in really emphasized that.” – Hannah (writer and editor)

“I thought I would have my faith figured out to an extent that I continually experienced joy, peace, and love.” (still on the journey)

“I have always assumed that I would never get old. So far, so good.” – Harvey (turned 68)

Words of wisdom without an expiration date

Song: "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" by Green Day

If you were to write a letter to your younger self, what would you include?
What is one piece of helpful advice that you have received?

“Trust your instincts.” – Jen

"Self-care is not selfish. It is taking care of the only gift we have to give."

"Don't worry too much about what others think of you."

"Struggle well. Life is hard, so you struggle. It's okay not to be okay, but suffer well in the middle of troubles."

“The choices are memories or regrets. I’m an atheist so I believe this [life] is it. The only thing left behind will be the memories. I want them to be many and spectacular. The most important thing is faith. It is the greatest gift we can give another. When we believe in them, we multiply their abilities. I'm on constant alert for moments when I can use that faith in another to make them better than they thought possible.” – Harvey

"Wait on the Lord."

“I’m realizing that sometimes life will be disappointing and sometimes I will be disappointing.” – Alex

“There would be several times when everything I expected to do or focus on would seem to fall apart and I’d need to recreate a sense of where to head in life, or invite God and others to help me recreate it. And that all of that would turn out great every time, after a lot of struggle and reimagining.” – Hannah

“Dear Graduate – I see you there standing in your cap and gown, engagement ring sparkling in the June sunshine. You are proud of your accomplishment and excited for what’s ahead, but you also feel like you’re about to jump off a cliff. The pre-planned portion of your life is over. You are so afraid of making the wrong decisions and setting off on the wrong path. It’s almost holding you back from getting started in the first place. 
Don’t be afraid. The decisions you make now won’t determine the trajectory of your life forever. You’re not going to mess everything up by trying. Throughout your twenties, you will be presented with opportunities and challenges you couldn’t even imagine now. Your goals and dreams will change. You will be amazed to see how God directs and shapes your life story and will realize that it’s not all up to you anyway. 
So go ahead and jump in. Work hard, love boldly, and enjoy this life you’ve been given. Don’t wait until you’ve figured out the end of the story before you actually start living it.” // Annie

“Talk to other people and learn from people who are where you want to be [or have] found success in areas you are interested in. Build upon your strengths! Find your unique way to add value to your company, family, team, and community.” – Al

“Don’t go deep into debt!”

“I have a Notepad document somewhere where I wrote out about twenty-six pieces of advice. To quote just a few:
  • (11) Sometimes the people you’ve done the most for are the same people who call you a terrible person (which isn’t an argument against doing stuff for people but merely a warning to be ready and not surprised when this happens).
  • (15) Correcting other people’s factual mistakes in conversation is almost always unnecessary.
  • (25) The two biggest problems in the developed world are boredom and a lack of empathy, so learn how to not do stupid things because you’re bored or because you’re not thinking enough of others.” – James

“You sometimes feel ‘other,’ and yet you create spaces of light for yourself and for others. Although life doesn’t take you where you expect it might, you will still have a very full and lush life.” – E

"This isn't by any means the most helpful, but it's the only pithy one I can remember, and it's pretty good: "Slow is smooth and smooth is fast." It was said in the EMT context (think, driving an ambulance, lifting a gurney, etc.) but applies in many ways." – J

"You don't have to finish everything you started or planned. Some things are not worth the effort; just ask for the discernment to know what really matters at what cost." – Diana

"Write your thank you notes and acknowledgements first."

“I would tell myself to have more confidence in my abilities, particularly as a people leader. … I always felt like people thought I was much better at things than I really was (I believe this is called impostor syndrome). It was only as a postdoc that I finally took a position of leadership with my peers for the first time since fifth grade. I wish I had pushed myself sooner to get out there and not been so swayed by the feedback that I was too ‘intense’ or ‘bossy.’” – Rachel

Further inspiration

Song: "Unwritten" by Natasha Bedingfield, a popular tune when I graduated college.

Many people cited friends, spouses, parents, mentors, coworkers, and specific professors as their inspirations. To avoid strangers internet-stalking these loved ones, here are some of the public figures, books, and other characters they have turned to:

All Your Worth by Elizabeth Warren & Amelia Warren Tyagi
Bernie Sanders
C.S. Lewis
Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger
Dorothy L. Sayers
Elder Zosima from Brothers KaramazovFather Bienvenu from Les MiserablesFreakonomics (the book and podcast)
Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Maggie Stiefvater
"Patient Trust" by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning
Ruth from the Bible
Saint Augustine
Sheryl Sandburg
Tim Keller
"What is true and good and beautiful in creation: beautiful music, walks in nature, well-crafted stories, rich friendships. The list goes on." // Annie


Song: "Farewell to Bayside" from the 90's TV show Saved by the Bell

A million thanks to those who took the time to share their wisdom and wit with me! I'm sorry it's taken me so long to release your words into the world.

In case you are curious, dear reader, here is some additional information about those that responded to my questions in 2016:
  • They all attended college in some form, from junior college to distance learning courses to Ivy League-level institutions. Not everyone graduated.
  • Most of them grew up on the coasts of the US, but some were born or spent significant time in familiar or hostile countries.
  • Their majors spanned the sciences to humanities to the school of life.
  • In 2016, most respondents had been out of college for 6-10 years. For others, their college years were a more distant memory (15-20+ years).
  • People went on to graduate school, work in ministry, become master metalsmiths or wordsmiths or designers, love children, live overseas, and move back home. Some became more self-aware or more cynical, while others professed to staying the same as their younger selves.

When I first had the idea for "To the Graduates," I was simply curious about people's college experiences and how they had changed since those formative years. I wanted to gather advice for the undergraduate women I advised a resident tutor, particularly those from the class of 2016 who were first years when the Tall Man joined me in the all-women's dorm and confused all the parents. This little project began as an email blast to some friends but, ultimately, remains a love letter to all the ladies I mentored and baked with, who sat on my couch and used up the tissue box, who dutifully laughed at the Tall Man's corny jokes and watched Cool Runnings for the first time. They were the ones who worked far into the night on their problem sets (p-sets), decorated our whiteboard with doodles of Baymax, and whose glamour shots I took for Ring Delivery (an MIT tradition where sophomores receive their class rings, the Brass Rat) and senior ball.

They all have their own advice to give this new generation of graduates -- and I'm feeling nostalgic and proud all over again.

// Emily

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