Kristin Pearson graduated from Oklahoma Baptist University in December 2010, took one day off for Christmas and started to work the next day. She had high expectations for the next phase of her life-getting a high-paying job in her field of study and finally becoming a full-fledged adult.
But the reality of her new responsibilities and the long, unscripted road ahead left her feeling unexpectedly deflated.
"Life's just not what you expect when you get out," she said.
As graduation ceremonies wind down this month and students leave the place they have called home for the past few years to venture out into "the real world," they leave behind the familiar and wade into uncharted waters. Most fare well, but some college career counselors worry about those who lack the fundamental life skills necessary to navigate a new course on their own. Faced with conferring diplomas on students who don't know how to behave in job interviews, decipher the confusing labyrinth of corporate human resources or deal with the emotional strain of separation from childhood, counselors have started offering seminars to teach graduates everything they didn't learn in class but still need to know.
Pearson, 23, found getting used to a new schedule and its demands on her life the most challenging part of her transition from college student to working professional.
"I thought it would be easierâ€¦getting a job and moving up from there," she said.
Moving on from college does not mean moving out on their own for many graduates, including Pearson. Saddled with a $40,000 student loan debt, getting her own place was not an option. So, she moved back home. Though very grateful for the rent-free accommodations, living with her parents was not part of her post-graduation aspirations.
Many students, like Pearson, have unrealistic expectations for what the future holds, mainly because they're going off script for the first time, said Stephanie Miller, director of Career Services at Oklahoma Baptist University, in Shawnee, Okla..
"From kindergarten through 22 or 23 years old, your life has been planned," she said.
Students take classes. Then they take finals. After that, a new semester beings. Every four months or so, they repeat the first two steps. And they always have an end game-getting a degree. In a full-time job with no end game in sight, Pearson said she feels she has less control over her life.
Despite her struggles, Pearson has done well compared to her own transition story, Miller said. She recalled feeling depressed for about six months after striking out alone following graduation:
When they graduate, students leave their "community" on the college campus and have to make new connections-social, professional, and spiritual.
"I think the transition is harder after college than after high school. Everybody's in the same boat when you're a freshman." Miller said.
In addition to emotional and social challenges, counselors find some students lack the skills necessary for landing their first job and living on their own. A few don't know how to balance a check book. They don't understand the concept of a credit report or how their irresponsible spending habits could haunt them. They have no inclination to develop interpersonal skills that will be to their advantage in future careers.
At Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, Tex., counselors offer "Life after SMU" workshops to help teach students about the overwhelming and almost always confusing domain of corporate Human Resources, said Marva McGrew, SMU associate director of Career Services. Counselors give prospective graduates primers on how to wade through the nuances of a new job-What is a benefits package? What's a 401K? How do I deal with personality clashes and avoid company politics?
At OBU, counselors try to give students enough guidance to be informative without actually doing the work for them because sometimes the lessons taught at the school of hard knocks are the ones students are most likely to remember, Miller said.
At George Fox University, in Newburg, Ore., counselors invite students to participate in an Etiquette Dinner, a fairly common practice on university campuses, said Bonnie Jerke, the school's director of Career Services. The event is designed to teach students proper etiquette, professionalism, and networking in a formal dining setting, in preparation for job interviews or future work environments.
"Here's the clincher," Jerke said. "There are students who say, 'What does etiquette have to do with being professional?'"
Although formal etiquette, proper dress and decorum don't come naturally to some college students, Jerke tries to convince them understanding how to behave properly will serve them well. Otherwise, they may be sent home before a job interview even begins because they are not properly dressed, Jerke said, recounting an embarrassing situation one of her students actually experienced.
Because today's students rely so much on technology for communication, face-to-face encounters can prove awkward. Without practice, they stumble through interviews.
"When a student doesn't know how to sell themselves they sell themselves short," Jerke said.
Pearson didn't have that problem. Before graduation, she had two job offers to consider. Although her current position is not her dream job, it is a means to an end game-another position more suited to her degree and interests.
In the meantime, Pearson is preparing for another transition. Her student loans should be paid off by summer's end, and Pearson anticipates moving to a place of her own before the new year. While she feels like she is "just getting settled in" 18 months after graduation, Pearson admits to being ready for the new transition. And this time she has no preconceived ideas about what lies ahead.