The Actual Real World Is Way More Dramatic than the Reality Series of the Same Name

Reflections from a college graduate one year out

I can still remember the feeling of numbness that hit me when I hung up the phone one afternoon last September.

I’d been slated to go to Vietnam for six months with a friend of mine, and there were 12 days before we were scheduled to take off. Problem was, most of those six months were still unplanned and important things like, oh, lodging and vaccinations and visa issues were still completely up in the air. I liked the idea of living in the moment and taking each day as an adventure, but not as much as I liked the idea of avoiding malaria or getting in trouble with Vietnamese government officials.

A friend with connections in Vietnam had been planning the trip, and with 12 days left, I figured he’d dropped the ball. I decided to make the phone call: I couldn’t go on that big of a trip with so little planned out and so little time left to fix it — I was out.

And just like that, all the uncertainty about post-graduate life that I’d seemingly avoided in my last months as a senior at Loyola Marymount kicked down the door of my life and apologized for being late. Vietnam had been my plan, and I was going to deal with all that real world stuff after it was over.

Fast forward about seven months, and all of that seems really far away. I work full-time as a reporter for a public radio station in Los Angeles, have my own apartment, and am feeling better about things than I have since I graduated. Maybe you’re in the same place as I was — or at least close to that — and if that’s true I’m sorry for what’s about to happen to your Vietnam trip. I also thought I could offer some insight.

Priority number one should be graduation. Not grades — graduation. Walking across that stage last May was, to be sickeningly cliché, one of the proudest moments of my life. The weeks leading up to that moment, with all the “lasts,” nostalgia, time with friends and rushing to get everything done, were perfect. Graduation was flawless. Your future plans/uncertain future will still be there after you graduate. And unless you’re going to law or medical school, stop caring about grades so much. You’ll remember all the important stuff a lot more clearly if you do.

There’s a fine line between complacency and beating yourself up. Eventually you’ll need to go to work or figure out your game plan for the next part of your life. You may not know what this is. That will suck, absolutely, but it is also OK. At first, you’ll probably be really motivated to apply to places for eight hours straight each day. That will end. And when it does end, there will be days where you just want to look at Internet memes all day. That’s OK, too. Don’t beat yourself up about the “time off” you give yourself from being unemployed — just don’t get complacent. People keep reminding me I’m incredibly fortunate to have gotten a job so soon after graduation, and I always think, “Four months of unemployment is fortunate?” But it is, and I’m so, so grateful. (But probably not as grateful as my parents.)

Network shamelessly. I heard an employment professional say something startling the other day. “It used to be what you did,” he said. “Then it was who you knew. Now it’s who knows you.” That’s absolutely the truth about getting a job in the modern employment landscape. The importance of networking can’t be overstated, which is hard for people who feel like networking is “using” people for their connections. There’s a way to make those seemingly superficial connections more authentic and meaningful: Promise yourself that when you’re well-established, you’ll pay it forward and give someone else a break or a chance that could get them on their feet. Contact the connections you have and make sure they know your situation and be honest about looking for a job — but be content with simply walking away with a new connection. You never know where they might take you.

Think incrementally. I don’t know what I wanted to do when I graduated, but “be a journalist who covers issues of health and quality of life in the communities of South Los Angeles” wasn’t really it. But that’s what I’m doing now, and it’s great. I also thought I wanted to live in Downtown Los Angeles, but then I found out that a studio there will run you $1,500 a month, not including, oh, doors, probably. So I live in a roomier apartment in Koreatown instead. Point is, there’s plenty of time for whatever grandiose plans I had in my head — the first order of business was to get a job and a place to live and, happily, both of those are now done.

Uncertainty can put you in a rough place. Be extra aware of that. I’ll be uncomfortably honest with this: Being in an uncertain place put me in a pretty bad mood a lot of the time. It made me want to be alone, to face my problems alone, to wallow in self-pity alone. I think that’s normal. But the bad part is that I acted on that feeling — I pushed my girlfriend away, I pushed my family away, I pushed any semblance of a spiritual life away. And those were the people who cared about me the most. It didn’t make sense and I still feel ashamed about it. Balance the time you spend being by yourself and being social, because when you’re in an unstable place, being alone can be one of the worst things ever. You never know how good you are at overthinking things into the worst possible scenarios until you’ve got all the time in the world to do it and a less-than-bright outlook on the future. Thankfully, the people in my life are kind, forgiving and understanding, so my girlfriend at the time is still my girlfriend today — and a wonderful one at that — even though I made it anything but easy on her. And as far as I know, my family hasn’t changed the locks, so they’ve forgiven me. And with me and God, I’m getting there. And I really think that’s OK.

Finally, congratulations to all of this year’s college graduates. Or, as a parent whose name will remain undisclosed once wrote to me when I graduated from high school — “Congrads!”