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When “the best four years of your life” are over: Feeling Down About Graduating From College

In the film “The Graduate”, Benjamin Braddock returns home to California after graduating from college. He has no clue what he wants to do and is slightly terrified that he is in the real world now. He knows all his parents’ friends will quiz him about graduate school or getting a job at his upcoming graduation party. Right before the party, Ben feels uncomfortable and anxious so he speaks with his father.

Mr. Braddock: What is it, Ben?  
Benjamin: I’m just…  
Mr. Braddock: Worried?  
Benjamin: Well…  
Mr. Braddock: About what?  
Benjamin: I guess about my future.  

Though the words were part of a screenplay and were said more than 40 years ago, they still resonate today with new graduates. If you can relate to Ben and his uneasiness about graduating, you are not alone, and HC is here to help.

Thinking about the Future

The uncertainty of the future after graduating can be nerve-wracking to some students. Caitlin Hardgrove, a senior at JMU, says she feels like she’s come to the edge of the cliff and has no clue where she’ll land. “I think what makes it so hard is that ever since I can remember, there was always some sort of “next step.” After elementary was middle, after middle was high school, after high school was college, and after college is…. I have no idea!” says Hardgrove. Avery Cook, a clinical social worker at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill says you should view the future with curiosity and as an adventure in order to take the pressure off.

Leaving Friends Behind

After graduation, many of your friends will continue their education, start jobs or return home.  
“One of the hardest parts about moving on after college is leaving your friends and your home for the last four years,” says Cara Sprunk, HC’s Managing Editor and a graduating senior at Cornell. With your friends off in every direction, “the idea of leaving good friends behind is very difficult because making friends in a new area is daunting,” says Cook. Since most of us have relied on our 16 years of schooling for friends, Cook says you will have to work to stay connected with your current friends. She also suggests trying to expand your social network. One way to make social connections is by joining professional groups — they can provide you with networking benefits and advice from older members who know what you are going through.  Reach out to your school’s alumni office to see if they have any groups set up in particular cities or for particular industries.

Perfectly Normal

All of your excited-yet-anxious feelings about graduating are completely normal, says Cook. “Graduation is a big change and any change can become stressful, positive or negative,” Cook says. This is definitely a time of mixed emotions and everyone responds differently to transitions. Cook says the varied emotions you will experience are similar to another big change you had four years ago: starting college. She says some students went out every night to celebrate their freedom and there were others who pined for high school and home. Overall, there is no “normal” way to feel.  While some of your friends may be itching to get out the college door, it’s perfectly ok if you’re feeling like you’d like to stay right where you are.

Focus on Yourself

Cook says one of the best things you can do during the transition from college is to really take care of yourself. You should be eating, sleeping and exercising regularly, and the routine will give you some stability if you do not know what’s next. Do whatever it may be that feels rejuvenating or rewarding to you. And if you’ve got time on your hands, try some volunteer work. Cook says feeding the need to be active and giving to others will make you feel better too.  As wonderful as college’s loose, unstructured schedule can be, it can also be incredibly relieving to return to a schedule that is more stable and structured.

No Job? No Problem.

Graduation may scare you because it means you’ll finally have to find a job. Cook says some students feel anxiety because they think they need to find a career that they will want to have for the next few decades. With this economy, it is very common that stress develops from job hunting because jobs can be scarce. “But you have to think what is interesting now and what is fulfilling now. If you do have some bigger goals, find some things that can help get you there,” Cook says. Start small and focus on finding an entry-level job that suits your needs now. Look to see if this job can help you move in the direction you eventually want to move in.  And don’t worry—you can always change directions later.

Moving Back In

Back when you first left home for college, you might have thought you’d never move back in full-time. But now instead of moving to a new city to start a job, many students are moving back in with Mom and Dad. Cook says it can be a hard move because some students feel they are moving backward. She says to sit down with your parents and discuss boundaries so you can have freedom while back at home. Just look on the bright side—you will not have pay rent and you live with the one landlord who will probably cook you dinner. Meanwhile, you can save up money from your job to spend when you do move out.

Whatever your feelings about graduating, there are many things you can do to look back fondly on your college years. Here are some of HC’s tips:

Take a Trip

There’s nothing like a good road trip to bond with your friends from college. My good friend, and fellow UNC-Chapel Hill grad, Gloria Holbrook and I have been planning a post-graduate trip for months. We promised each other that if we did not have jobs by my birthday in July, we would head down to Disney World and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Knowing that I’ll see my friend so soon after we get our diplomas gives me something to look forward to and makes job hunting more tolerable.

Remember the Good Times

Did you cover your dorm and apartment walls with photos in college? You can still look back on your favorite memories after college, but this time, try something more permanent like a scrapbook. Holbrook started working on hers a week after graduating. “I’m asking all my friends to e-mail me photos from their digital cameras so I can print them for my scrapbook,” Holbrook says. “Putting together a book will keep me busy this summer and by the end, I’ll have an incredible book to look at for years.” If you are not feeling crafty, pick out a cute ribbon bulletin board and fill it with photos from nights out and the graduation ceremony.

Keep up Communication

Despite modern technology, it can be all too easy to lose touch with great friends from college between texting and Tweeting. To stay in touch the old-fashioned way, send your friends cards with your address written on a Post-it. This will encourage them to write you a meaningful letter, and you and your friend can become pen pals, which can really strengthen your relationship. You can even print out a favorite photo of the two of you to put in the card so she can frame it. Follow my lead if you’ve got any far-away friends and send them a care package of things they’ll miss. My old roommate and fellow UNC-Chapel Hill graduate Caitlin Powell is working one last summer at a camp, and I plan on surprising her with a box of goodies to make s’mores. Sending out a letter or package is a tangible way to remember your friends.

Just because college is over doesn’t mean your life has to be. If you do feel overwhelmed about graduating, Cook says you should look on your health insurance website for a list of counselors and find someone who deals with transitions. Just remember there are plenty of people who have been in a cap and gown and have felt the same mixed emotions you are experiencing. Cry, smile and cheer with your friends at your graduation ceremony because over the past four years you worked hard for your degree and you earned it. Enjoy your gradation and good luck with whatever is next for you!  

Avery Cook, Clinical Social Worker, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Caitlin Hardgrove, HC Contributing Writer and senior at James Madison University
Cara Sprunk, HC Managing Editor and senior at Cornell University
Gloria Holbrook, senior, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Caitlin Powell, senior, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
The Graduate, IMDb.com

Jessica Stringer is a senior journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is originally from Woodbridge, VA. At UNC, she is the editorial director for Rival Magazine, a joint publication between UNC and Duke. She has previously written for the Daily Tar Heel, interned at DC Magazine and CNBC, and is a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma. Jessica fell in love with London during her semester abroad and dreams of moving across the pond. Some of her favorite things include coconut cupcakes, Carolina basketball, old Hollywood movies, and her Havanese puppy Max.
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