5 Things They Didn’t Tell You About Life After Graduation

I started typing this list the summer after I graduated from the University of Mary Washington, in May 2014. Back then, it was full of melodramatic tropes along the lines of, “You will never be as free as you are now, with all your dreams ahead of you!” Or, “Your life will never be as fun as it was when you were pulling all-nighters at the library with your friends, hyped up on 7 cups of coffee and Red Bull!” But that’s not true. I still have plenty of dreams, and I only had a handful of fun all-nighters in the library in college.

For the most part, my all-nighters were just that: long nights of essay-writing, textbook-reading, formula-memorizing nightmares, in which I was hyped up on pure sugar (I hadn’t yet developed a taste for coffee, and relied on Dr. Pepper and M&M’s to keep me awake) and my friends were nowhere to be found and were possibly off getting tattoos. They, presumably, had not procrastinated on their theses like I did (to be fair, I had THREE theses to contend with).

College was undoubtedly wonderful. I often miss parts of it, but I don’t ever find myself wishing I was still there. But now, three years out and at the age of 25, I’m in that odd in-between stage. Not a college student, not yet a full-grown adult (eat your heart out, Britney Spears).

The first year out of college can be a bit of a shock, but in a way, you’re still cushioned by a safety net. You still have the same friends who you can text (“Ugh, I just wish I could have late-night Vocelli’s pizza right now, you know?”), the campus homecoming events, and that shared sense of “we’re all figuring it out together and tweeting about it aggressively.” But three years down the road is different. Three years down the road, I can still remember what it’s like to pull one of those all-nighters, but my life has undeniably changed. So I might be generalizing here, but these are the 5 Things They Didn’t Tell You About Life After Graduation (and I really wish they had):

1. Money is everything

Ok, not everything. But when I first graduated, I proudly proclaimed to my parents: “I don’t need money to be happy!” They were engineering and business majors, what did they know? (A lot. They know a lot.) I was ready to pack up my bags and jump on the next Working Holiday Visa to Ireland, Australia, or New Zealand, and figure out my job when I got there. I assured my mom that I could probably support myself as a temp office worker during the day, and a waitress at night. “Maybe some tutoring in Italian language on the side!” I said excitedly. For some reason, this patient woman let me continue to research this lifestyle option for months. To be fair, lots of people successfully lead this kind of lifestyle! But it’s important to note that I had convinced myself this would be my livelihood in a foreign country, despite having absolutely zero office temp or waitressing experience.

Looking and acting professional at a professional event.
For me, money wasn’t a concern like it is now. After all, immediately after graduation, my incredibly generous parents accepted their not-yet-employed daughter back into their home, no questions asked, until I figured out what I was going to do. I had very little concept of rent costs, insurance costs, or even grocery costs (I like expensive cheese, ok?). For me, the adventure was the important part, and money would work itself out later.

For you college students and recent grads who actually had to deal with real life before they got a Big Kid Job, you already know the struggles of money. You know what it’s like to be out here onyour own with real life costs and that student loan debt looming over your shoulder, and you’re probably rolling your eyes at me. Look, I was blissfully unaware then, but now, having spent my first 6 months in D.C. as a struggling intern and the past two years working at a nonprofit organization, I know money is important.

I admit it – 2014 Danielle was kind of an idiot. I like fancy food, I love to travel, and I have a bad habit of impulse-buying beautiful journals and then never writing in them. To compensate, I end up eating cans of beans for dinner and trying to flirt with men so they’ll buy my drinks for me (I’m terrible at flirting, so this very rarely works).

Being three years out of college has taught me the importance of balance. Knowing when something is important to spend money on and when it isn’t. How to combine your passions and your need for a steady paycheck. I’m still figuring it out (I have had a Postmates delivery robot bring Popeyes to my office three too many times), but I’ve finally had to admit that I would be a terrible waitress. I can’t balance more than two plates at a time, and I run into tables and walls regularly.

2. You have to feed yourself

My dad is an incredible cook. Since I was a little kid, he has always been the one in the kitchen, masterfully whipping up something that had caught his eye in a Bon Appetit  magazine, or any of his famous pastas. I’d help, of course, but a sous-chef is not the same as a head chef.  I lived in southern Italy as a child, where fresh buffalo mozzarella reigned supreme, and plump tomatoes burst off the vine. In summary: I have spent a great deal of my life surrounded by really good food, all of it made by someone other than myself.

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My Dad’s famous summer pesto
I can’t say that the University of Mary Washington’s food was anything close to my dad’s amazing cooking, but hey – it was made for me. At dining halls, I didn’t have to worry about whether or not I had remembered to buy yogurt for the week, or if I’d have enough time to cook dinner before that meeting tonight. Dinner was cooked! It was waiting for me in large vats of lukewarm, lumpy mashed potatoes alongside something that I think was supposed to be meatloaf. It wasn’t life-changing food by any means, but it was there and someone else was cooking it. 

Now…I have to cook for myself. And I’ve realized that despite my passion for charcuterie, my snobbiness about “authentic Neapolitan pizza,” and a pretty decent knowledge of all the hip places to eat in the district, my actual skills in the kitchen are pretty basic. I’m a whiz at pasta, and I have a tendency to make a full pound of it after I’ve had a few drinks (it doesn’t matter if I’m alone or have friends, I must make a full pound of pasta for some inexplicable reason). I can make maybe…5 or 6 other things, which are pretty good. Good, not stellar. I like the food I cook (because I’m cooking it for myself) but I’m definitely not planning a lavish dinner party anytime soon.  

After a long, long day at the office, when you’re so worn out from stress and exhaustion and the never-ending to-do list running through your head as you metro home, you suddenly realize: I still have to feed myself. If I don’t drag myself out of bed, still wearing my work clothes and makeup, and force myself to go into the kitchen and turn those vegetables into something that looks like dinner, I won’t eat. No one is coming to feed me. I’LL STARVE.

As a result, I tend to eat a lot of ramen. No, not that fancy, $15-per-bowl with homemade, pickled onions-ramen that you got in the “up and coming” part of town. I’m talking .99 cent ramen that I bought in a 12-pack from Safeway just in case of “an emergency.” That emergency is me being too lazy to actually feed myself anything nutritious, and is probably why at my last appointment, my doctor looked at me and said, “Your test results show that you’re very healthy…except your sodium levels are a little high.” I neglected to inform her that I regularly eat noodles out of a styrofoam cup with 960 mg of salt per serving.

On the upside, I’m learning to cook and I love it! I’m nowhere near my dad’s skills and I don’t know if I ever will be, but I’ve found that after a day of staring at a screen, I like taking a break from the ever-present glow of my iPhone and actually making something with my hands. It feels good to create something tangible that tastes good, fills you up, and ensures that you don’t find yourself ordering delivery Thai food late at night because you forgot to make time to buy groceries. Again.

 

Even better? You no longer have to scramble at the end of the semester, rationing out your meal plan to make sure you can make it through exam week. Now, we call that “the week before payday.”

3. Your friends won’t stay the same

If you had the most badass, ride-or-die, cohesive friend groups in college that have somehow miraculously managed to stay intact three years after graduation: congratulations. You’re one of the lucky ones. Balancing friendships after college can be hard, and people inevitably grow apart.

My friends in college were a diverse bunch! I had my group of gal pals, the friends I made when living at the International Living Community – a.k.a., Framar House – and the people I befriended in clubs, dining halls, or because we shared a love of the same academic subject (or Harry Potter book). They were (and still are) all wonderful people, and they made my four years at Mary Washington absolutely incredible.

 

That being said, things are different once you no longer live on a campus. Gone are the days when almost every single one of your friends lived within 1.5 miles of you, and you could grab dinner with any of them, on any day of the week. It takes dedication and hard work to keep some of these friendships alive, and the truth is: not all of them survive. Friends grow, they change, their lives become different. They find boyfriends, girlfriends, fiancees, husbands, wives. Friends get dogs, which is wonderful, and you should exploit those friendships as much as possible so you can pet those dogs. But the truth of it is: friends grow apart. Your very best friends will move across the country, or across the world, and you’ll have to rely on the sole power of social media to keep in touch.

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Life out here, three years down the road, is not the same as college, and it can be lonely. You have to learn how to be alone, and that’s okay. There is honestly nothing better than sitting by yourself on a park bench with a book, or going on a solo hike and not having to make light chit-chat with someone when you’re completely out of breath after reaching the summit.

I’ve found that I’m not the only one who feels this way. D.C. is a city of transplants from the U.S. and all over the world, and so I get the feeling that there are a lot of people here who are still figuring out how to call this place “home.” I’ve started a kind of direct approach: I chat to someone in a bar, realize that they’re a relatively interesting, cool person who will withstand me gushing about how much I love dogs and isn’t afraid of eating carbs. I talk about how even though I’ve been living here for 2+ years, everything still feels so new, and it’s hard to meet people and just make friends. When they say, “I know, me too!” I fully embrace my creepiness and tell them that we should be friends and hang out immediately. Like, what are you doing next Thursday? Pull out your calendar. Let’s make plans.

Does this sound aggressive? Well guess what – this has worked on a number of occasions, and I have at least 3 pretty solid friendships that began with me rather intensely leaning in and saying something along the lines of, “Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy, but here’s my number – so call me maybe and we can go to that really awesome happy hour with free guacamole or check out this nifty after-hours museum party I heard about.”

Pseudo-adults, young adults, young professionals – we’re all the same. We’re all trying to figure out how to pretend to be grown ups, letting go of some friends and trying to find new ones. The best way to get through it all is to be sincere, outgoing, and willing to look like a crazy person when asking a complete stranger to be your new best friend. I have made amazing friends since graduation – the kind of friends who will, without a doubt, be there right beside me in a rocking chair, just as wrinkly and cranky as me as we scream at the neighborhood children for running across my lawn. It’s not as easy to make these friends – you have to try a little harder to make plans, and you don’t have the luxury of eating at the same dining hall as them every night – but they have been wonderful all the same. They, too, will move. Grow apart. Travel to different states, different countries. But it’s all a part of that post-grad, always-moving life.

 

 

And those friendships from college? If they’re a real friend, it won’t matter if they live over a thousand miles away. Put in some time to keep in touch, be sure to ask about their family, and try to visit them every now and then. Strong friendships can withstand a little distance.

4. It’s cool to care

In college, I cared about academics. I worked extremely hard all four years in college and have the results to prove it. It did not come easy: my math and science courses were definitely an attempt by the university to literally kill me, and writing a full thesis in a foreign language about the ramifications of rebel groups in Italy in World War II made me want to rip my hair out. I spent many Saturday nights in my apartment in pajamas, slaving over footnotes and annotations.

And I loved it! I still do. I love learning, and pushing myself, and getting into intellectual discussions with my peers and professors. I very rarely skipped class and I all-too-eagerly attended after-hours lectures on history, art, and writing. Although this is definitely an accepted way to cruise through college, there’s always that lingering pressure to be cool. I didn’t party that much, and thus, didn’t feel like I fit in with a lot of my peers – and sometimes, even my friends – who were binge-drinking and raging all weekend.

Three years post-graduation, people still binge-drink and rage all weekend. But guess what? Living in the capital of the United States, where some of the greatest minds live in just 68.34 square miles, means that I am surrounded by innovative art, weekend-long embassy events, a thriving culinary scene, activism, and people who care. People who are so passionate about their work and the causes they stand for that they have decided to build their lives around it.

 

 I am endlessly lucky to live a life in which it is now cool to care. It’s okay to turn down a party because you’re volunteering at the crack of dawn the next morning. It’s cool that you won’t be at the happy hour because you’re attending a social media workshop in the former residence of the Spanish Ambassador. It’s fun to go to after-hours museum parties, where you can combine cocktails and a love for history exhibits. And hopefully, if you land a good job, you’ll be surrounded by coworkers who are very much the same. You won’t have a boss who brags about how he skimmed by on that one class by reading SparkNotes and using someone else’s essay. You will be working with people who love the same things you do, and are trying to make the world better for it. You’ll realize that you weren’t the only one staying home on a Saturday night – all those people are here, right beside you, creating beautiful art and making big changes in the world.

 

5. Nobody has it all figured out (and if they say they do – they’re lying)

Social media is the worst. I work in social media and communications, and I love it, but social media is the worst. According to social media, everyone on my news feed has completely figured out their lives, and is going on vacation to far-off locales every other weekend. They also eat out a lot. Have you noticed that? How is everyone eating out all the time? Who is secretly funding your tapas diet? Tapas ain’t cheap. I know this. I eat a lot of tapas, and thus, have not been able to afford a new purse in six years.  

Your early-to-mid-twenties are a horribly confusing time. You can be perfectly happy with your single life, celebrating the fact that you don’t have to put up with infuriating pet names like “babe,” or with someone who gets pouty because you stayed out all night with your gal pals, but then you see it: seven consecutive engagement photos, all in a row, on Instagram. And you don’t want to be engaged, but you immediately wonder – Oh God. Is this what we’re all doing? Are we supposed to be getting engaged? The engaged people seem to always have their shit together. Their outfits always match the background of their photo perfectly. How do they do that? I’m mostly interested in the perfect outfits – the ring is superfluous to me.

Worse than that are the people that are somehow traveling the world but also getting paid to do it. Or the friends who live in a much cheaper city than you, and can afford hardwood floors, exposed brick walls, and vaulted ceilings in their new apartment. Or the people that graduated and just immediately knew what career path they wanted – and landed the dream job. I’m endlessly perplexed by these people. Before graduation, I had many career aspirations: dolphin trainer, veterinarian, full-time explorer, famous author a la J.K. Rowling, dolphin trainer (again), a Spanish translator, an Italian translator, university employee, social media manager, and then that whole debacle with wanting to be a waitress and office temp in New Zealand.

Nowadays, I work in social media, marketing, and communications. I love it. I think my work allows me to be a modern-day storyteller, and I love sharing a mission and a message through my work. But the reality is, I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. There are hundreds of things I’d like to do, cities I’d like to live in, and dogs I’d like to own before I die. When the rest of the world seems to be moving on without you at an alarming speed, your life suddenly pales in comparison. We’re always told we could be doing more, trying harder, swiping left for one more chance at the perfect first date. Life feels both inexplicably short and long at the same time.

It took me way too long to realize that no one has it all figured out. And if they tell you they do, they’re lying to you because they don’t want  to admit how much they regret their Masters in Basket-Weaving even though, at the time, starting an artisanal basket-weaving business in Vermont with their matching-plaid fiancee seemed like a really good idea. I am happy for the people who are happy – the people who are making strides to improve their lives, and explore the world, and love the ones they love. I want to see my friends succeed. But it’s so important not to compare yourself to them, and to think that just because someone posted a seemingly-perfect picture on Instagram, that they must know what they’re doing. 

You have to step back and take a second to look at your friends, family, the roof over your head, the trees lining your street, and realize: you might not be exactly where you want to be, but right here isn’t so bad either.

No one knows what they’re doing, and that’s the beauty of it. It’s okay to be lost and confused and broke. Three years after graduation, I am still figuring it all out, and I feel only slightly less lost, confused, and broke as 2014 Danielle did, right after graduation. But I have so much more time to become the Secretary-General of the United Nations while owning my own pet-sitting business (no cats allowed) and eating extremely expensive pasta every night. We’ll all get to where we’re going – the important thing is to not worry about it so much in the meantime.

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A classic example of social media looking better than reality: I was surrounded by bees and absolutely terrified.

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