How to Graduate From College

I recently graduated from college with an extremely marketable BA degree in Race and Ethnicity. Like the end of any chapter, finishing school beckons celebration, platitudes, and reflection. The following piece is my attempt to add to the noise. (This blog post was originally posted on the Blog Daily Herald under the title "How To Graduate From College". You can read the original here.) 

It's only been a few months since this piece was first written, but after re-reading it, I'm already wondering how much I'll waver away from these thoughts as more and more things garner my attention (my job, HBO, etc). My hope is not too far.

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If my mom were writing this, it would be much shorter: sleep eight hours a night, study hard, be pre-med, go to church every Sunday. She’s reading this right now so I’m going to say that I did all of that (she’s in for a rude awakening when she finds out she’ll be attending the ethnic studies commencement and not neuroscience). And more or less, it worked; here I am in the waning days of my life at Brown.

But as I prepare for Commencement, I’m realizing that all the advice I’ve ever received about “how to graduate” has been about how to get to the point where you’re shaking hands, moving the tassel, and holding the degree. Here are seven things I’ve been thinking about on how to transition into everything it means to not be a student.*

*Disclaimer: I’m not sure these steps are 100% correct. I’m not even sure they’re 10% correct. I’ve never graduated from college (yet).

1) Be incredibly ambitious. Be incredibly active. And be humble.
Back when he still had hair, Steve Jobs once said, “Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you.”

So what makes an Average Joe into a Steve Jobs? I think it’s ambition and activity. They’re two separate things but they work together. And fortunately for us, unlike smarts, we can control our ambition and activity. Ambition is reaching for something you don’t have and may never have. Activity is the mechanism by which you get to find out how close or far you actually are.

Humility, as I understand it, is a sense of all that you do not know. This is actually a gift in disguise. Knowing that you don’t know gives you ambition. It keeps you active.

2) Actively cultivate friendships.
Unless you’re incredibly lucky, you’re not going to live with all the people you’ve grown to love at Brown after you graduate. And if you’re like me, you’re going to hoard your vacation days like GCB guest passes, which means the chances of your vacation overlapping with your friends’ are not favorable. But just because you’re in different locations staring at a computer screen doesn’t mean you can’t maintain your friendships.

Our relationships with friends are like the relationships we have with work. You have to dedicate enough time and energy to achieve a result you’re happy with. Friendship is like that A you worked really hard to get in orgo. The only difference is that with friendship, once you have it, you have to keep working at it.

3) Welcome criticism.
Maybe you already have a story about this (I have thirty-three). Your work is going to get judged whether you want it to or not. But what would it accomplish if everything you put out into the world was agreed upon by everyone?

I’m sure someone out there is going to have a problem with something I’ve written. People may even sound off in the comments. But I hope they do, because the means by which they’re able to criticize are the same means by which I’m able to communicate.

There are two types of criticism: constructive and vindictive. We’d love for all the criticism we receive to be constructive. But somewhere along the line, people are going to talk some serious shit. Brush the dirt off your shoulder and keep doing your thing, but don’t forget to check and make sure there’s not something to be learned first.

4) Don’t hold back.
More importantly, don’t let fear of criticism prevent you from doing something. At Brown, I was fortunate enough to be a co-founder of Brown for Financial Aid, which has started some important conversations about Brown this semester. Before starting the project I didn’t even know the language of financial aid. But the truth is that if I had waited until I was 100% sure of everything, then I may never have decided to work on the project in the first place.

The other beautiful truth is that you’ve probably already jumped into something that you weren’t completely ready for. And you’re more than likely going to face a scenario where you’ll have to do it again (May 27th anyone?). When that moment comes, just don’t forget that you’ve already been there; you are where you are right now because you went there.

5) Set your own metrics.
From here on out, nothing you produce will be given a letter grade (although, let’s be real, half the classes I took weren’t given a letter grade — holla at ya boy, pass/fail). You’re your own evaluator and, chances are, you’re going to be more critical than any professor you’ve ever had. Sure, there will be external validations (i.e. awards), but those are the metrics of others. I’m not saying awards are bad, I’m just saying that all awards and external validations are based on someone else’s metrics and sometimes those might not align with the metrics of success that you live by. And if you’re lucky enough to know what your own metrics of success are (some of us are still figuring them out), then are all of those awards and validations really that important?

6) Say no to things you don’t want to do.
Remember that class you dropped sophomore fall even though you had already completed two-thirds of the semester? If you were able to say no to something you didn’t want to do as a student, then don’t forget that it’s still an option after college.

You can drop a class. But it doesn’t mean you’ll stop learning. You can also, especially when you’re young, quit your job. But it doesn’t mean you’ll stop working.

7) Assert that the four best years of your life weren’t in college.
You’ve heard this line from at least one post-graduate who ever flirted with a red Solo cup: “College was the best four years of my life.” This scenario is bad for two reasons. The first is that they believe they’ve lived a less fulfilling life than the years they spent in college, and maybe that’s true. The second reason is that they don’t believe they have the agency to create four incredible ass-kicking years starting right now. Worst of all, more often than not, when people say that college was the best four years of their life, they often have at least four more years left to live.

In science, measurements are often accompanied by estimates of their uncertainty. Uncertainty depends in part on the number of samples taken: an increase in sample size decreases uncertainty. This is what aging does for us. Looking back at my past four years, each one brought me slightly more awareness, slightly more enlightenment, and slightly more openness. College doesn’t have to be the best four years of your life if you don’t want it to be. In fact, shouldn’t we all be striving to make college theworst four years of our lives? I’m hoping that’s the case for all of us. And not because we’ll be more financially independent, or because we’ll marry the loves of our lives, or because we’ll do all the things we set out to do the day after we graduate from college, but because there can’t possibly be anywhere better to be than where we are right now.

So, Brown, Imma let you finish, but the next four years are going to be the best of all time. Until, of course, the next four.