After four years of hard work, Devon earned a mechanical engineering degree from a competitive university, accepted a great job offer, and moved to a top location for 20-somethings. He had a girlfriend he adored, supportive parents, and a strong church community. On paper, his life looked great. In reality, six months after graduation, Devon was more than overwhelmed:
It’s just been the biggest beast I’ve ever had to go up against. I’m writing with tears flowing, emotions overwhelming me. . . . I am blessed beyond belief with caring parents, an incredible girlfriend, the best friends, a church community, and a small group of guys. Even with all of this great support, my first job and everything that comes with it has been more than overwhelming at times. . . . It’s like nothing I’ve been through.
Devon isn’t alone in feeling this way. In fact, even for the best, brightest, and most prepared students, the transition out of college is still one of the most difficult changes they will face up to this point in their lives. In my role as a college minister, it’s not uncommon for me to hear from former students with questions like, “Why does the first year out have to be so hard?” Or, “Is it normal that I want to pack my bags and ask my parents to pick me up and take me home?”
Being in transition is tough! Simply trying to make it in the world when we’re going through one of the most difficult in-between times can cause any of us to want to phone a parent or friend for a life-flight rescue out of it. When so many aspects of life shift at once, it can feel overwhelming to know how to pursue faithfulness, and exhausting to try.
I’ve watched many alumni struggle in their first stretch out of college, and I’ve also lived the challenge during my own rocky transition. Entering the “real world” came as a shock to the system in ways no one had prepared me to consider. I wrestled with loneliness, career indecision, and basic budgeting. On a deeper level, I struggled with questions of faith, doubt, and identity. I was used to playing the role of a student, and I didn’t know how to measure success in a system that wasn’t set up like college. Simply put, I struggled to make life work in many areas, and—for a time—I thought I was the only one who felt this way.
Both my personal and professional experience have taught me that the transition comes with challenges, but it will be even more difficult for those who are not prepared. While we cannot remove all of the obstacles, those who work with students can help by closing the gap between students’ expectations and the reality they will likely face. We can offer resources, opportunities, and support during college to prepare students for life beyond it.
As churches, campus ministries, and colleges begin to do their part, students must also do theirs. Because the transition is so multifaceted, students must think about readiness beyond a checklist of a few key items needed to graduate, such as a resume, job offer, or diploma, important as those are. Students can—and should—leverage their entire college experience to prepare for what comes next.
Students who realize that transition is more than just a job offer or paycheck in hand may agree with this senior who says, “College [professors, advisors, etc.] stresses the importance of preparing for graduation and the job, but they cover none of the topics that concern me most.” About 12 years ago, my colleagues and I noticed we needed to do more to address students’ most pressing issues. Our solution led to the launch of a senior-year experience called Senior EXIT, a ministry that prepares students at Penn State for the transition into the next phase. Through this program we address both the philosophical and the practical realities of post-college life. We help seniors “pack their bags” with the resources they will need to faithfully navigate the changes, challenges, and choices of the first year out. Our hope is not only to prepare students to successfully exit college, but also to see them flourish in the months and years that follow.