Advice for Graduates That I Wish I Had Received

Dear Dwonna:

Last week I graduated from high school, and I was wondering what advice you have for the class of 2014.


Ann B.


Dear Ann B:

My nephew graduated from high school two weeks ago, too, and I now have a new appreciation for parents who worry about their kids. I worry about what my nephew will do now that he is a “free” man because the world can be very unforgiving for those who don’t lay the groundwork for planning their future now.

I don’t remember feeling any such angst for myself when I graduated from high school 28 years ago. (Wow! Has it really been 28 years since the Moline High School Class of 1986 received our diplomas at Wharton Field House on 23rd Avenue?) In fact, I remember feeling excitement. I was excited that I was finally getting away from what I believed were controlling, overbearing, and plain ole’ mean parents to embark on my next adventure at the University of Iowa. I had a plan to study medicine or law—I had grown up watching “St. Elsewhere” and “L.A. Law”—and I was ready for the challenges that awaited me.

But, the world has changed a lot since 1986. There was no Facebook, no Snapchat, no Twitter, no Instagram, and so there was very little worry about competing with “friends” from high school. Though many of us promised to keep in touch after the all-night graduation party at the newly-remodeled YMCA, we did not. Thus, we did not know what each other was doing, and I was able to just “do my thing” that summer and at the University of Iowa without worrying and wondering what my friends from high school were doing and wondering if I was doing as much as they were. There was no need to try to “keep up with the Joneses” since I didn’t even know where they were.

For my graduation present, my parents gave me a set of navy blue American Tourister luggage, and they told me that whatever fit into it I could take with me to my dorm that August. I took classes that I thought were interesting, and after realizing that I wasn’t very good at chemistry, I decided that being a doctor wasn’t in my future. I loved reading and writing and arguing with people, so I majored in American Studies and minored in African American Studies because the professors in those disciplines taught me how to think—and not what to think—and how to make connections between the events of the past and of the present. Graduating from college was a no-brainer because my parents had drilled into my head that I would finish my undergraduate degree in four years, and I did.

However, my impending graduation from the University of Iowa caused me some angst since I didn’t really know what I would do with a bachelor’s degree in American Studies, so I decided I would do something practical and go into teaching. My mother had been a teacher and it seemed like a stable career that I might enjoy, so I applied to MAT programs so that I could get certified to teach. I received a full scholarship to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and after completing the master’s program, I began my teaching career in Fairfax County, Virginia, where I taught 9th-and 10th-grade English and also coached 9th-grade girls basketball and boys’ and girls’ track for three years. I left teaching and then spent the next seven years at the University of Texas where I finished my PhD in American Studies; I have been an English professor at Austin Peay since my graduation in 2001.

I write all of this to say that although it probably seemed like I had a plan for my life after high school, I don’t think I really did. Well, I didn’t. I was kind of a naïve 18-year-old black girl who didn’t yet realize that she didn’t have the requisite skills to be a doctor (well, at least not an M.D.), but I did have a goal for finishing college in four years. The University of Iowa was a great place to grow up, and I met wonderful people like my friend Brian who helped me stay relatively sane my first year of college by listening to me blabber on about the same boring stuff. I also had wonderful professors like Dr. Robert Weems and Dr. Mae Henderson who helped me select a major that was right for me. Seek out those people who will be honest with you to help you discover who are and what you might do with your life. Brutal honesty with the goal of helping be your best self beats a “yes” person who enables you to do little with your life.

If you don’t think you’re ready for college, get a job. I worked at Hardee’s for two years while I was in college, and nothing shored up my resolve to do well in college than working as a cashier at a fast-food restaurant. If a decent and/or well-paying job isn’t in your cards, join the military. You can see the world and get real-life skills that you can apply towards a college degree later. As Malcolm X once said, “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.”

Don’t get pregnant until you’re much older (and married), and don’t get anyone pregnant until you can adequately support a family. Don’t expect the government or your family to help you while you get it together; food stamps, Medicaid, and Section 8 housing vouchers are for people who really need them. Learn how to take care of yourself while you still can. Don’t get in trouble with the law, and pay your bills on time. You’ll be glad you have a good credit score when you’re ready to buy a car or a house.

One of the most important things to remember is to always have a plan for what you want to be doing when you’re in your 30s and 40s and beyond (even though those years seem so far away). Start saving for your retirement, even if it’s just a little bit each month. So much of what you do now will set the table for what happens to you 20 years from now. You will find that the years seem to go by much more quickly than they did when you were a teenager.

Remember to share what you have learned with those around you. Be a role model. Be compassionate to the homeless and the downtrodden. Be an inspiration. Be kind. Forgive yourself. Forgive others. As Maya Angelou said, “It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody.”

Do not measure your success by how big your house is or how expensive your car is. Instead, treasure your relationships, but don’t let your friends talk you into doing something stupid that could have lifetime consequences. If you must get a tattoo, get ones that you can easily cover. Without stating the obvious, neck and hand tattoos will limit your future job prospects because people will question your judgment. Yes, folks will judge you even if you really are a nice person who just so happens to have a tattoo on your forehead.

Do not think of your graduation as the end of your learning. Ask questions of yourself and to other people. As one Chinese proverbs says, “He who asks is a fool for five minutes, but he who does not ask remains a fool forever.” Keep learning. Keep thinking. Keep trying.

Travel to other parts of the country. Travel abroad. Always challenge yourself, and do something every day that scares you. As First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each expression in which we really stop to look fear in the face…we must do that which we think we cannot.”

Find a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.

Take good care of your body. Eat fresh fruits and vegetables everyday. Exercise for at least 30 minutes every day, and drink 64 ounces of water each day. Your body will thank you when you’re older.

Learn how to be alone without feeling lonely. If you don’t like your own company, how can you expect people to like you?

Do not let the behavior of others destroy your inner peace. A good yoga studio can be a wonderful sanctuary for when the world gets to be too much.

Don’t be a passive observer of your world. If you don’t like something, work to change it. Remember to take care of those who are unable to take care of themselves, and always defend the defenseless. Fight injustice wherever you see it. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Rescue a dog (or three, like I did) from an animal shelter, and you’ll always wonder which one rescued whom.

Stay off Facebook and other social media. If you cannot disconnect from these sites, be smart enough not to post pictures of yourself drinking and smoking and partying and dressing like a skank. You are leaving a digital footprint, and you must be careful. Do not use Facebook to judge yourself with your classmates but instead use it as an inspiration to being your best self. Use it to stay in touch with those people you do like.

You will get over the bad experiences, the mistakes you make, and the bad choices you sometimes engage in, so don’t spend a lot of time beating yourself up over them. (Thanks for reminding me of this, Shauna!) Learn something, and move on. As Maya Angelou said, “You did then what you knew how to do, and when you knew better, you did better.” Over time, these bad experiences will be like scars: you will still see them but you will accept them as part of your life.

Breakups can really suck, too, but you will survive them, and you will eventually look back on your past loves as part of your life experience, too. “You, yourself, as much as anybody in the universe, deserve your love and affection.”—Buddha. Remember this when you’re feeling down.

Finally, as Mark Twain said to his wife after telling her that he had declared bankruptcy, “Cheer up, the worst is yet to come.” Seriously, though, the world can be a scary place, but it will be less scary if you prepare for it by learning a trade or going to college and not doing stupid things that cannot be undone.

“Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.”—Mark Twain. Let Twain’s quote always be your guiding principle.

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