Things I wish I knew before, during, and after college.

With my senior year having come to a close this past May, I realize it only makes sense to reflect on my college experience in a way that could be useful to others. There were a lot of ways I could’ve gone about making this list but I decided to break it into 3 sections: the bulk of college, the end of college, and what happens after. I’ve also decided to leave out some obvious–but important–advice: ex. advice on selecting a major, reminders to take advantage of the free gym, etc.

Instead, I wanted this to be a list of the most important ideas I carried with me throughout college. I had some of these in mind when I started, in the fall of 2012, but most of them I learned from experience. And all of them are things I wish I had known earlier. But ain’t that always the case.

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College ~ Freshman to Junior year

1. Your GPA matters, sort of. Just do your best and take care of your physical/mental health.

In my experience, I’ve found that people who tell you “your GPA doesn’t matter” usually have low GPAs. Does everyone need to be on the dean’s list? No. But for a sticker price of over $100,000 you should probably be working hard. And to go beyond the “get your money’s worth” mindset, you should’ve come to college because you love learning or–more specifically–are passionate about a career in your field. If neither of those are true why are you enrolling in the first place.

In short, do your best and solid grades will follow. In the end a “good” GPA is a nice feather in your cap: something you can add to your resume and a way to qualify for awards/honors while you are on campus. But nothing is worth killing yourself over.

Take care of your mind and body above everything else. It took me too long to learn this. Skip class occasionally and responsibly as a way to replenish your mental health. If you’re working hard who cares if you get a B or an A. The few extra points to your GPA isn’t always worth the amount of effort it will take. Be realistic with yourself and, above all, be kind to yourself.

2. Keep your extracurriculars within reason.

Get involved on campus but don’t get too involved. Where’s the line? Look at your calendar and imagine something unexpected coming up. If you’re panicking, you are too involved. Pick what you care about most. If you still feel the need to be in a lot of orgs only take 1-2 leadership positions. Extracurriculars become a lot more stressful when you’re running meetings instead of just attending them, even if they’re “not that hard.”

3. (From one POC to others:) Get involved with a race-related cultural organization on campus.

While being involved in race-related cultural organizations can certainly benefit all students (allies are important) I highlight people of color because I am one, so I can only speak from my perspective.

For a long time I didn’t, personally, feel the need to be involved in race-related cultural organizations. I wasn’t involved in the Latin American org at my high school so when I got to college I didn’t get involved in our Latin American org either.

But having attended a predominately white private college in small town Iowa has its downfalls. And one of them was my school’s inability to deal with race issues in a way that made me feel respected, supported, and heard. I’ve mentioned this before when I talked about how Cornell College fails students of color, a post written in response to the phrase “Build a wall” having been painted on our community announcement kiosks.

This occurred during the end of my Senior year. I felt stressed, hurt, and isolated. As a Latina, that’s when I realized the importance of having close friends who are also Latinx. This is not to discount the support of my white friends or other POC, but when incidents that target your specific racial group occur part of healing is having safe spaces with that specific racial group.

If I could go back I would definitely join this organization (and others) so I could get more support and offer more support to others.

4. *Wine Wednesday or any tradition with friends goes a long way.

I started doing Wine Wednesdays my senior year, after a semester off campus Chicago. Every Wednesday me and 2 of my best friends would drink a glass of wine together while catching up, watching movies/tv, or playing videogames. Wednesdays were actually one of our busiest days of the week with some of us doing workstudy or having org meetings but we always made time for this. Whether you do this, or make your own tradition, it was really nice to have a set date with friends–especially in the middle of week (which can be a stressful time). It was a weekly reminder of what’s really important in life: spending time with people who make you happy.

*Please do not participate in Wine Wednesday if you are under the drinking age. It is illegal and any wine you get while under the drinking age is bound to taste awful so please just don’t.

5. Start working in/towards your field while you’re in college. If you go to college in an area you plan to live in you basically start your career before you graduate.

Pretty self explanatory. While student-teaching automatically gives me some time in the field, I always looked for summer jobs related to education or (my other major) English. It really helped build my resume which I desperately needed since I still don’t have any full-time work history and finding a job after graduating is hard enough.

6. At the end of junior year (or 1st semester, senior year) quit almost all your organizations and leadership positions.

It doesn’t make sense to be focussing your energies intensely on campus organizations when you’re on your way out the door. If you have an incredibly relevant leadership position (ex. Editor of the school paper and you’re going into journalism) then keep that, but drop everything else.

College ~ Senior year

1. Apply for some jobs/programs 2nd semester of senior year but don’t go crazy. You have plenty of time after college to have adult angst, what’s the rush?

Exactly how it sounds. In fact, many people don’t look for jobs at all until they graduate. The only reason I advise against this is that some positions/programs run on specific timelines, so it can be worth a few google searches on your end. Plus it’d be great to have a job lined up for after graduation, or at least some leads.

2. Have money saved up or shop the summer before senior year because everything seems to require “nice” clothes. 

Between special events, celebrations amongst friends, senior reception, college awards night(s), and graduation, you’re going to need to look nice. A lot. And if you’re like me and hate wearing the same dress over and over again you’re going to want to invest in a few snazzy things.

3. Second semester is the apocalypse semester: everything is made up and the points don’t matter. You will never live this life style ever again so spend time with your friends and enjoy everything college has to offer while you still can. 

This is where that good GPA comes in handy. It takes the pressure off being perfect senior year. Oddly enough I still did really well in all my classes. I’m still not sure if I had gotten better at being a student or if I was just working way too hard the first 3.5 years… Anyway, senior year was great! I said yes to every invite out and spent as much time with my friends as humanly possible. I only had one org meeting a week and my work-study so life was pretty simple.

I spent my last few months enjoying the “free” (albeit repetitive) dining hall food, working out a bunch, going into town as often as possible, and always having plans with friends. Meanwhile, all my freshman, sophomore, and junior friends were always stressed about something and I was just chilling. It was incredible and I totally earned it.

Post Graduation ~ First 6 months

1.Celebrate the achievement

You did it! A lot of people don’t. So celebrate that. Go out to dinner, have a party, do something!

2. Know what you want and actually go for it

If you want to work at a museum apply to museums. If there are no museums around your small home town move to where there are museums. I know that’s easier said then done but it beats working somewhere that has nothing to do with your field. Which brings me to my next point:

3. Don’t take a crummy job out of fear (this early in the game).

Your loans kick in 6 months after you graduate; yes you might need to settle when you’re a month away from these bills but why settle early? As someone with a maxed credit card or two I understand the stress. And being broke in “the real world” feels a lot worse than being broke on campus.

But its been almost 2 months since I graduated and I’m already seeing peers working at retail stores or getting involved in pyramid schemes (No joke). And I’m like it’s been 2 MONTHS.

I understand everyone’s financial and post-grad “housing” situation is different but if you’re like me and are lucky enough to start out in your family’s house, rent free, until you get a job then you have no reason to panic so early on. A lot of people get a whatever job “just to make some extra money” during their job search but then they stop searching for a job. Because who wants to sent our resumes and cover letters after an 8 hour shift? Eventually bills kick in, maybe they get a car, and now they feel stuck at their job.

Be patient and have faith in yourself.

4. Apply for jobs and keep copies of all your resumes/cover letters/application answers.

Recycle, recycle, recycle. I swear some of the applications I’ve done are so involved I feel like applying to schools all over again.

5. Tell everyone, in your social circle(s), what you’re doing

Telling people your goals makes them feel “more real.” Plus, getting friends and family on Facebook, Twitter, etc to associate you with X career can help send leads your way.

6. Don’t make applying for jobs a job in itself

I had a really hard time with this. I would wake up and spend hours on craigslist, indeed, and other job search engines. Then I would have dozens of tabs of potential jobs. Then I would read through the qualifications of each and delete any I was unqualified for. From there I would pick ones I’d actually like to have. From there I would start to apply.

It was exhausting. Plus working so hard on job apps made me feel discouraged that I wasn’t getting any offers (but I’m working so hard!” I’d think to myself). It wasn’t the healthiest approach to job hunting and my brother would tell me not to make applying for jobs a job itself.

He reminded me the time between college and my first full-time job is the last time (until I retire) that I can not have a job and still be completely okay. That really put things in perspective.

7. Take days off

I know this sounds silly because every day is a day off when you’re seeking employment but seriously, take days off. Have days where you don’t look for jobs at all. Take breaks between the interviews. Or you’ll burn out before you even start. And really that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned over these past few years:

mental and physical health are my number 1 priorities. When those are in order everything else seems to fall into place.

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