On any college campus, I guarantee you’ll find more than a few students who can’t describe their ideal future.
According to Fritz Grupe, founder of MyMajors, 80 percent of college-bound students enter college as “undecided,” and of those who do declare a major, 50 percent change it at least once.
Today, the struggle behind declaring a major exposes our uncertainty toward serious decisions and realistic future plans. The problem is: we should have started planning, working — doing almost anything useful — long ago.
For me, the first three years of college seemed like a random collection of classes and many, many moments of soul-searching, asking myself how I wanted to spend my life.
I came into Pitt with the intentions of majoring in biology, learning Chinese and graduating with a job at a Chinese company. After my first college-level chemistry class, I remembered I didn’t actually enjoy math and science as much as I tried to convince myself I did.
I had to reevaluate my entire collegiate plan, which was unrealistic and gave into my parents’ pressure. I often look back and wish I had spent more time setting both professional and academic goals, ones that held true to who I actually was. But no one had ever asked me to seriously consider these things.
As a rising senior in college, adulthood and all of its newfound freedom, independence and responsibilities slapped me in the face. I feel unprepared, but I don’t feel alone. According to Achieve, an independent education reform organization, about 83 percent of high school graduates felt gaps related to how high school prepared them for life after graduation.
Perhaps these gaps in career readiness happen because, for teenagers, adulthood is so far away one moment and at our doorstep the next. It just hasn’t knocked yet.
According to the same survey from Achieve, seven in 10 recent high school graduates said they would have taken more challenging courses if they’d known the expectations of college and the working world. But, like many of us, they realized too late the importance of learning to embrace upcoming challenges and obligations.
This summer, while working for the Neighborhood Learning Alliance, a Pittsburgh-community nonprofit organization, I had the opportunity to lead weekly job trainings for a classroom of low-income, high school-aged youth. In the roughly three-hour sessions, I wanted to do something for these kids that no one had ever done for me — explain the realities of college, impending adulthood and the importance of taking the initiative.
I needed to tell teens and young adults no one is here to coddle them anymore — the effort you put in equals the results you receive. In front of a classroom of disinterested and inexperienced youth, I felt like the furthest thing from a teacher, but I knew I had something important to say.
These job trainings presented children with the opportunity for real-world learning, something 90 percent of academic survey respondents suggested was important to deterring uncertainties surrounding college and work.
This data suggests that not enough high schoolers were pushed outside of their comfort zone and charged with the responsibility to take control of their own future. A few of the students stared at me incredulously and asked, “How old are you?”
I explained to the unaware and unsuspecting teenagers before me that I was 20 but often felt like a 15-year-old. I sensed their resistance to learning from someone barely older than them but reaffirmed to myself that what I had to say was meaningful and significant — before they knew it, these kids would be my age, hurtling toward responsibility.
In essence, I told them that being an adult blows, but only you can make it suck less. Even small things, such as saving a certain percentage of your paycheck or dabbling in extracurricular activities, can give you a significant advantage over your peers and make you feel more prepared for what lies ahead.
I asked a few of the kids if they had a backup plan, just in case playing in the NFL or “marrying rich” didn’t quite work out. Almost all of them shrugged.
Even though I was unbelievably anxious to stand in front of a classroom of teenagers, if there was anything this summer job had taught me, it was that I should jump at any opportunity that arose, even if I was scared or unwilling. I wasn’t going to prepare myself for post-college reality if I didn’t look beyond my current horizon.
As a senior in my final months of college, I try to tell others what I didn’t know.
I reach out to my young friends and stress the importance of even the slightest amount of preparation — if not just for a miniscule peace of mind that you’re doing something worthwhile. Explore diverse employment opportunities — ones that allow you to explore areas you might not have originally considered.
The way I see it, there’s a past, present and future version of yourself. And even as enjoyable or tempting it may be to slack off in the present, sooner or later you will be that once future version of yourself. Little things now can equal big things later on.
Setting goals wasn’t just the name of one of my subpar PowerPoint presentations this summer. Planning milestones shapes a better future, one that you organize for yourself because you recognize the inevitability of time and its implications — before it’s too late.
Write to Miriam at firstname.lastname@example.org