by Janna M. Hall
You did it! After four years of late-night library study sessions, dreadful class schedules, cramming for exams, and staring blankly at computer screens trying to write that 10-page paper, you’ve finally walked across that stage. For some students, graduation day felt like it would never come. For others, simply making it to college was an accomplishment. But regardless of which category you fall in, and whether higher education is a family tradition or you’re a first-generation college student, making it through some of the toughest years of young adulthood is worthy of celebration.
For four years –and sometimes longer –students are tasked with earning a GPA that would land them a dream job. Professors teach the importance of remaining involved on campus through organizations, fraternities, and sororities in order to gain leadership experience that makes them marketable to future employers. Upon enrollment, you’re equipped with an advisor from whence you get guidance on how to make the best decisions for your academic future. But when the dust settles, real life doesn’t come with assigned advisors and professors who instill wisdom in their students three times a week. After the confetti falls, the balloons deflate, and the graduation BBQ ends, graduates are faced with the sobering life question: What’s next? We’re here to help.
Get a mentor.
While academic advisors and professors are no longer an option, post-grad life means exposure to more men and women in the workforce who can provide excellent counsel as you decide on what comes next. For the first time in your life, your decisions are based on your own free will, not based on what grade you’ll get in the end. And let’s face it – how many people are really equipped to figure out life on their own after 21 years of depending on older, wiser people to call the shots? Having a mentor puts you in the driver’s seat of your own life, while making more educated guesses along the path to success. Unsure of which career to embark on? Find someone whose level of success you’d like to reach and pick their brain about how they found their niche. Curious about how to make connections in your field or land your dream job? Mentors can direct you to proper networking events, help you pitch yourself to potential employers, share their connections, and even prep you for interviews. Mentors offer valuable insight on everything from business lunch etiquette to negotiating a salary, and while you have to own your own successes and failures, having someone to impart their wisdom helps minimize bumps in the road.
“A great mentor will see talents and abilities in you that you don’t see in yourself, and they will help bring those things out of you,” says Van-Neisha Johnson, Family & Consumer Science Teacher at Armstrong High School. “Be eager to LEARN, Be eager to LISTEN, and be willing to accept an extra pair of hands that will help you get to where you want to go!”
Value experience over money.
“No experience is wasted…Everything in life is happening to grow you up, to fill you up, to help you to become more of who you were created to be.” –Oprah Winfrey
In college, students are often pushed to pursue the degree that offers the best salary in the end. And with the reality of student loan debt knocking on your bank account’s door shortly after graduation, it’s easy to have your eye on the ultimate goal and overlook what it’ll take to get there. Placing a paycheck above everything else, though, is a sure way to cheat yourself out of invaluable lessons and experience that come from positions that don’t pay top dollar…yet. Internships provide excellent opportunities to work closely with people who are where you aspire to be, and oftentimes, you’ll learn firsthand what it takes to acquire that long-term success. Don’t despise small beginnings, the old adage goes. And although you have your eye on the almighty dollar, those small beginnings – fetching coffee, filing paperwork, shadowing managers – builds character and industry knowledge that make you attractive to future employers. If you’re unsure of the industry you want to conquer, seek out administrative positions – positions where you acquire skill that’ll make you an asset at any office or firm.
Okay, it’s a bit of a bummer, right? To leave school, the place where you read what felt like millions of books by force, and suddenly begin reading voluntarily. It seems like self-inflicted torture. But here’s where reading truly is fundamental. The key is to read for purpose, not pleasure, and equip yourself with tools you didn’t learn in school.
“While in academia, you’re constantly being reminded of the importance of staying a step ahead of your competitors,” says George Wythe High School English Department Chair, Jimmette Jones. “Such a tip becomes increasingly essential when transitioning to the workforce. One of the key ways to ensure your preparedness is through the use of reading. Never lose the ability to be teachable, coachable, and trainable.”
Seek out memoirs of men and women you admire, and get inspired by their story. Whether it’s President Barack Obama or your favorite musician, you’ll be surprised at the lessons you learn when you delve deeper into who they were before you knew their name. Oftentimes, you’ll learn lessons of perseverance, triumph, and defeat. Other times, you’ll learn how to avoid making the same mistakes they made and have an even bigger impact than you ever imagined. If you’re sure of your desired career, research books that provide pro-tips on excelling in that field. Think of your favorite brands –more often than not, their CEO has either written a book or shares books that have shaped their future. So do your research! The mentor you’ve chosen can share their experiences, yes, but the marvelous thing about picking up a book is that you’re exposed to the experiences of people deemed “untouchable.”
Tasteful Tweets and Pleasant Posts, Please.
Living in the digital age, nearly everyone has a social media account, spending hours a day sharing videos, funny memes, and their unsolicited opinions. Unfortunately, employers also spend their time on social media, only they’re seeking out the accounts of potential employees. They observe the photos you’re tagged in online, posts you write on Twitter, and what you publish on Instagram, looking for clues on the type of person they may be adding to their team. Knowing this, make all public profiles professional while also adding your own personal flair that shows your unique qualities. Refrain from using profanity, keep your photos clean and tasteful, and ask that friends who post photos from a wild night out un-tag you. You’re looking for a job, here! Your personal life should be private, and anything public should be a reflection of your best side. Take a hint from the many journalists, politicians, and executives who have lost their job due to controversial social media posts. You’re a reflection of the company you work for, and those companies want employees who can represent them at all times. To take it a step further, use social media platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn to market yourself to potential employers. It’s never too soon to create an online conversation with companies you have your eye on, and social media bridges the gap between the Human Resources department that handles your résumé and the person who you’ll actually work directly with.
Start building your network early on.
Welcome to the real world, where you actually have to start making effort to socialize with people outside of your social circle! It can be dreadful, yes, but so essential to your success. “The ability to network is an essential skill that is necessary for both short and long term success in your career. Connecting with other professionals can open up plenty of opportunities including mentorship, future employment, educational grants, and more,” says Ryan James, Economics Teacher for Richmond Public Schools. “In this generation, more and more people are earning college degrees and it is imperative to set yourself apart from the competition.”
To make networking more enjoyable and less awkwardly painful, join interest groups and attend social events happening in your city. The National Urban League’s Richmond chapter is an excellent opportunity to meet young black professionals from all industries, from teaching to technology. They meet monthly and even host events where non-members can fellowship and network with other urban professionals. With a small annual membership fee, you’ll get involved in educational, economic, and social justice issues in your community and learn how you can make an impact together. Most of all, it’s a fantastic way to meet like-minded young people who, like you, aren’t far removed from their college years. Navigating the corporate world isn’t easy, but having a solid support system comprised of people walking the same path makes it that much easier. Countless members of the National Urban League have helped fellow members extend their network even further, connect with others in their industry, and even acquire jobs.
Feeling the sense of post-collegiate confusion is normal, and stepping into true adulthood is scary for almost everyone. But it’s important to know that you’re not alone, and keys to success are right at your fingertips at every turn.
Photos: Dinwiddie County High School 2016 graduation by Ervin B. Clarke