Dear Graduates: 10 Truths I Wish I Learned at Commencement


20170530 - 10 Truths I Wish I Learned at Commencement

10 years ago this month, I stood atop Harrington Gym’s upper level, watching down on friends graduating from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Despite the dreary and wet day visible out the windows behind me, there was hope, joy, and pride as graduates walked in from their journey across Earle bridge and the quad. Four years of an engineering education was a grueling adventure, but full of fun memories outside the lab and relationships deepened by hard work and hard play. .

Watching and listening to the proceedings, I realized that it would be me (hopefully on a sunnier day) in the cap and gown the following year. Fear rushed in of everything that was left to accomplish and that I’d leave behind after accepting my diploma. I decided to embrace the journey and every opportunity, to soak up experience of my last college summer and senior year.  It was my goal to live life to the fullest, to work hard, but equally important, play hard. I was an optimist then, without appreciation for what life can bring, whereas I am now an optimistic realist.

There is a lot I know now that I wish I knew back in 2008, or could start preparing for a year in advance for in 2007.  Many lessons I learned myself, and others I learned from the experiences of friends and acquaintances, and was thankful to not learn personally.   

  1. It’s an ambiguous world out there, without a clear set of directions. No, you can’t argue for your grade to be changed if you didn’t understand the assignment. You’ll be required to ask more questions and figure out more on your own than you might be used to. At the same time, spinning your wheels for too long can set you back. Learning how and when to ask questions and when it is right to research for yourself will be key.
  2. Everyone is replaceable. You don’t matter as much as you think you do at the beginning, and even as you progress. Your pedigree and grades are thrown out the window when you first start out, and you’re forced to start at ground zero again.  This may be an opportunity if you were not a strong student, or an opportunity to rise in a different way if college was a glowing success for you.
  3. Hard work alone does not guarantee success. You’ll see others without the skills, ethics, and personality advance when you don’t. This is a tough lesson, but sheds light on important self reflection and what you want in a job and employer, as well as what you should be providing as an employee. Perhaps you change your job, and perhaps you take a chance to strike out on your own.
  4. Sleep matters more than you think it does, particularly without the opportunity for mid-day naps. Dedicate the time to resting overnight. It’s for both your safety and your success. After graduation the need for late nights should subside.  5:00 AM becomes the time to wake up for the gym, instead of heading to bed at 2:00 AM.
  5. Your feelings will be hurt (too bad, it’s a tough world out there), and you will likely experience discrimination (this is unfortunate even in a tough world) if you are in an “underrepresented” group. Learning to take criticism helps you to gain insight into others’ perceptions of you, and since perception can be reality, reacting in the right way can help you develop your personal brand. As for discrimination, if speaking up in any way does not stop it from happening, it is time to leave or take different (perhaps legal, depending on your experience) action. Speaking up for yourselves and others will be important.  Finding mentors and peers with similar experiences and learning how they handle situations can help solve problems and also be cathartic.
  6. Feedback must be requested. The lack of consistently-given grades in the form of convenient feedback can set you back if you don’t ask for insight into progress. This is a thin line to follow, as you don’t want to pester constantly for critiques, but also need to be able to assess performance. Some companies have formal systems in place for formal and informal requests for feedback, and others may be rudimentary if have anything at all.  Finding yourself an incredible boss will make a difference in getting the right type and amount of feedback.
  7. Socializing and keeping in touch with friends will be difficult.  More effort is required to maintain relationships, especially across town and state lines. Until you develop great new communication practices, always have at least one roommate. Learn to pick up the phone to call and to answer, to have conversations more meaningful than short texts, and and to go beyond posting and liking on social media. You’ll be surprised by how much more connected you feel by getting off social media and reaching out more organically.
  8. Similarly, finding activities to get involved in that are meaningful to you to take up time and meet people are important to personal, career, and service aspects.  The social circle and extra curricular activities are harder to find and more expensive to participate in than student activity groups on campus. Think about where you can add value to others and where what you learn will add value to your career. Professional organizations can be great for meeting friends, future colleagues, and potential business partners.
  9. Your family will matter more to you than they ever have before.  Whether you spend more time with them via living at home or less time by moving across the country, the impact of family will be immense.  Parents suddenly are older than you realize, and siblings have matured and changed in your absence. Take advantage of having everyone around you, whether physically or in spirit. Life is short and so many are taken too young.
  10. Your first job isn’t the be all and end all. It is certainly a great foundation for the rest of your career, but your opportunities will depend on how you make the most of open doors, or opening doors, once you start your career. Job hunting can be frustrating and exhausting, but it can pay off in spades for you if you execute your search by selling your skills and backing up your promises. Failure or success if up to you. Change is now inevitable, but loyalty while you with your employer can help gain access to new and exciting career experiences.

Best of luck to graduates and those of you remembering your own graduations this month of May! What are the lessons you wish you knew upon the closure of college and the commencing of the rest of your life?