A couple of weeks ago, we had a breakfast for our department alumni as part of Homecoming. This is only the second year we’ve done this, and it has already become one of my favorite events. The breakfast officially runs for an hour, but I find myself staying on campus talking to former students for much longer than that. Despite my willingness to spend more time with them, there are still many I cannot find the time to talk to.
Of course, the most heartening part of the event is hearing about alumni doing well. They come back to talk about jobs they have (many of which they could never have imagined just a few years ago), families they are starting, classes they are teaching, or places they are living that they love.
This year was especially heartening, as I talked to one alum who graduated at the beginning of the economic downturn several years ago. I had received emails from some of her fellow graduates (but not her) who were angry when they graduated with an English degree and could not find a job that made use of what they had learned. Almost all of them now have good jobs and good lives, as best I can tell from Facebook (for those who don’t keep in regular touch).
Several other alumni talked along the same lines, as they found jobs that use their skills and interests, but in ways they wouldn’t have expected. The transition to those positions might have been challenging, as they did not match with any expected career path, but they ultimately have found their new jobs to be fulfilling.
Not surprisingly, though, most of the alumni who come to such events are the ones who are doing well. The ones I know about who have not found such employment or whose lives have taken unexpected turns that are definitely not positive usually stay at home and don’t keep in touch. When I did a survey of our alumni a few years ago, in fact, only one person wrote to say that he was currently unemployed, skewing the data in ways one would expect.
I remember a young woman I dated more than a decade ago just after she had graduated from college. Like some of our alumni, she was angry about where she found herself in life. She had pursued a major in another liberal arts field, but she was working at a call center for an insurance agency. Her comment was something along the lines of, “I did what everyone told me to do. I went to college and majored in something I loved, and look how that turned out.”
I understand that frustration even though my life didn’t take that path. As professors, we can’t forget that that result does happen, especially right after graduation. Almost nobody walks off campus into the job they always wanted (though we do have a few of those), and we need to be honest with our current students about that. It might not comfort them, but at least we’ll be telling them the truth.
We also need to talk about those students further down the line. That girlfriend has ended up with a good, meaningful job (or at least she was in one the last I heard) and a family. She seems to be happy, from all I know. She’s even still using her major, though perhaps not as she might have expected.
Our students can’t see their futures, but we can share glimpses of it with them. We don’t know which ones will end up where doing what, but we can draw on the years of graduates we know and talk about how they found their way to what they are now doing. We can try to provide them with a longer-range vision than they might have when they’re in the midst of a job they hate (or the lack of a job at all). We should not pretend that everything will work out (or that it will do so quickly), but we should tell them the stories of our past students and help our current students write stories for themselves that end well, if not as they expected.