It has been more than a year since I graduated from college and received my bachelor’s in journalism from California State University, Dominguez Hills.
In May of last year, I was getting ready to walk the very first stage since my high school graduation, and It did not feel real to me. As I entered the graduation ceremony alongside my peers, I remember thinking of my high school self, the one who could not imagine walking into any college graduation, much less my own.
“OMG, it’s happening!” I recall telling my friend over and over again as I would hear the names of fellow students called as they announced to be graduates. It’s almost as if I had to say it out loud to really believe it was happening for me.
College was not easy for me. It took five years, and attendance to two community colleges in East Los Angeles and South LA, many sleepless nights, and many challenges in between to be able to walk that stage, but I’m so glad I did it. I’m so happy I persevered and believed in myself.
The goal of graduating from college is not just mine. It has been the effort of my parents, who immigrated to the U.S. in search of a better life for me. It’s the effort of the younger generations in my family, because they have inspired me without even knowing it.
And as much as I learned while attending college, there are many more things that I learned a year after graduating. These are things that I’m still learning and processes that I’m still learning to trust. These are just my learnings and observations post-graduation; they are not meant to be followed as a guide because we are all different. But I hope you find a little bit of truth or maybe a sentence or two of inspiration from a first-generation Latina.
Post-graduation burnout is real
After more than a year after graduating from college, there are times when I wake up in the middle of the night, and for two or three seconds, just as I open my eyes, I think I’ve missed a college class assignment. Or, I’ll wake up thinking that I’m late for school or that I fell asleep while doing homework. By the fourth second, I usually realize that I’m no longer in school and that I do not have class. My chest suddenly feels less tight, and I feel better just knowing that I can wake up and go to work. If your last year in college was as tiring, hard and demanding as mine, there will be times when pre-graduation burnout and stress will still make their way into post-graduation life. During college, as stressed and mentally burned out as I was, I never sought any help or support. I just got through it and did my best to finish. I wish I would have sought help because I think that would have prevented me from having times when I feel like I’m still fighting my way through school. Mentally, I still think I’m healing. I still feel like I’m recovering from the extreme burnout year that I had, and the feeling of exhaustion still shows up from time to time. Now, when I feel burnt out, I start shutting down. My fight-or-flight response does not work as well as it once did. About 65% of Latino college students have mental health issues that go untreated, as they are less likely than their white peers to engage with campus mental health services, according to a new study from researchers at the University of California, Riverside. If you are still in college and notice your mental health decaying, seek support. If you are a graduate, and you have ongoing mental health issues left behind from school, it is not too late to seek help and mental health services in your area. The California Department of Education provides strategies, resources and training in psychological and mental health issues, including coping with tragedy, crisis intervention and prevention, school psychology and suicide prevention. To learn more about these services, click HERE.
You matter because of who you are, not because of your degree
One of the greatest things that I have learned since graduating is that people matter for who they are, not because of their degrees, their jobs or the professional titles they hold. I know that going to college is such a big privilege, especially coming from a low-income, first-generation Latino community like the one I grew up in. And although I’m grateful for being a college graduate, I know that a degree does not make you or break you. I always thought that being a college graduate was the biggest, best thing I could be, but the truth is that being a good, honest and kind person is worth much more than a degree. It’s important to celebrate an accomplishment as big as graduating, it truly is. But, I have learned that I matter because of who I am as a person.
Theory is cool, but theory without practice ain’t sh*t
Throughout my college education, I learned a lot. In my time at the community college level and at California State University, Dominguez Hills, where I graduated, I took more than 45 classes. In my last two years, I took all my core classes, which were only journalism courses, and that is when I learned all the things I thought there was to learn about journalism. As I got my first journalism job, I realized the textbooks and theories would only help me so much. It did not take long for me to remember the quote from the revolutionary Fred Hampton, the American civil rights leader and deputy chairman of the Black Panther Party’s Illinois chapter. He once said, “Theory is cool, but theory without practice ain’t sh*t.” In no time, I realized that my first two weeks in my reporter job would teach me more than one year in my journalism class. As a recent graduate, I knew it was time to put into practice everything I had read and all the notes I had taken. Although learning the theory of reporting and journalism is important, I learned that I would only get comfortable doing my job if I put myself out of my comfort zone and put the textbook’s words into real-life scenarios.
Graduating from college will help younger generations in your family determine what is accomplishable
When I was in my senior year of high school, I never thought I would actually go to college. Sure, I applied for four-year universities and got accepted to three of the four universities in California, but I never thought I would actually go. I missed the May 1st deadline, which is the deadline for prospective first-year students to accept offers of admission and send in enrollment deposits to their chosen schools. College was not something we talked about at home. My mother has worked since the age of 12, and she was an immigrant from Mexico who, even though she wanted to, did not understand the education system. I had no idea how I would pay for college as an undocumented student who did not qualify for FAFSA, how I would leave behind my home, or how I would even sign up for classes. All of that was unknown territory. But after some time, I decided I would figure it out, and the fall after my high school graduation, I applied for East Los Angeles Community College. Five really long years later, I graduated with a bachelor’s degree, being the first in my family to do so. In 2021, about a quarter of Latinos ages 25 to 29 (23%) earned a bachelor’s degree, up from 14% in 2010, according to the latest statistics published by the Pew Research Center. Latino college graduates are increasing year by year, and if you are a first-generation graduate, you are painting the path that would make it easier for your younger cousins, siblings and even your old children to follow. Do not underestimate the influence your decision to attend college and obtain a degree has on younger generations. The day after my graduation, my eight-year-old cousin asked me how many more years she needed to have a graduation like mine, to receive a college diploma. I told her I could not give her an exact time, as everyone takes different times and has their own journey. “It took me five years, maybe you will do it in four or three,“ I told her. I’ve seen her a couple of times since then, and she brings up the subject of college every time. She said she cannot wait to be a veterinarian, and I’m as excited as she is because I know I will be able to mentor her, answer the questions she might have about attending college, and help her apply for financial aid simply because I have gone through the process already. I’m glad college is being talked about at home, within our families. That is the legacy first-generation college students leave behind.
Networking is vital and the connections and friendships you make as a college student may open doors for you later
I heard this so many times from professors, counselors and advisors. They told me college was important, not only because of what you learned in your classes and the diploma of recognition you received at your graduation, but also because of the people you would meet and the connections you would make. It is important to take his advice seriously. I obtained my first out-of-college job after a previous internship coordinator told me to interview and apply for this job. He remembered me and my work from that internship. I also obtained that internship thanks to a friend who told me about it and who had done her senior internship a year prior with that specific media publication. She had recommended me and put in a good word for me. I met that friend when we both worked at my college newspaper, which I joined the second semester after I had transferred. I did not come into that club thinking about who I should make connections with. It was not something forced. Instead, I told myself I would be open to making new friends and would also challenge myself to say ‘yes’ more and get out of my comfort zone. This is how I connected with people, this is how I networked. I also try and stay in touch with my classmates and professors, not only because they are also in the same job field, but because I know I can ask for support or mentorship if I ever need it.
Life can feel like a never-ending routine, learn to find joy in little things
After college, your days start feeling a little different. You no longer have five classes to keep you busy, you’re not involved in any school clubs or extracurricular activities, and you do not see your college friends and roommates as much, if ever. If you go directly into a job, you will be working long days, with some time off that you must divide between family, friends and caring for yourself. You will take on responsibilities that might challenge you, and your days will be different from those in college. You will start to feel the weight of being an adult, and it might feel like the routine of work is never-ending. That is why it is important to care for yourself both mentally and emotionally, and to find joy in the small (yet significant) things in life. Maybe you work all day, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. But, you will still have time to stop by your favorite eatery or bar to get a drink after work. Or, maybe you take the time to call your best friend, or you make a dinner date with your significant other. We oftentimes wait for the big things in our lives to bring us joy, like a wedding, a trip abroad or winning the lottery, but there is joy in the things that happen in between, before, during or after a long day of work. The joy is there, waiting for you to embrace it.
Imposter Syndrome is real and may not go away
Nothing has challenged me more after college than imposter syndrome. As the term has gained popularity in the last couple of years, imposter syndrome has been a universally experienced phenomenon for decades, especially in the Latino community. For me, imposter syndrome has shown up in my life as intense feelings of self-doubt and of not belonging. Feeling like this, regularly, can severely affect mental health. Initially, I believed that getting my college diploma and being a first-generation college student would ease these feelings, but I was wrong. The feeling of not being good enough or not belonging felt stronger after graduating college and beginning to enter the workforce. Even though I am 25 years old, I often give the appearance of being much younger. As a reporter who oftentimes needs to conduct interviews, attend press conferences and ask important questions to community organizers, political leaders, or scholars, on certain occasions, I doubt myself. Although I know how to do my job, I worry about how I might be perceived. Would people think I’m too young or inexperienced? Will people take me seriously? Most of the time, these rapid thoughts are often internalized and I start feeling like, maybe, I just do not belong. My age is not the only reason I feel this way. As a dark-skinned, brown immigrant Latina, not seeing people who looked like you do your job, lead your city, or get hired at your dream job makes it difficult to feel confident about yourself and as you belong. With that being said, I do not believe we should put the entire onus on the person who is experiencing imposter syndrome to fix it. As a society, we should be creating diverse spaces and representative of the communities we serve. We must work to build a society that is against systemic prejudice and that destroys the conditions that make people of color believe they are less than, because we are not. For me, I have learned that, although it is not easy, imposter syndrome can be overcome. For some of us, it might be a daily battle until one day it does not have the same negative impact on us. I have learned to be patient with myself, even when negative thoughts enter my mind. I know these are not the real things that I think about myself; they are thoughts that I have internalized from the society that I live in and the conditions that I grew up in, and those things are not my fault. I have also learned to let go of perfectionism and celebrate your victories, no matter what they are. No victory is ever too small. I used to think of my success as luck, right timing or others’ hard work, when in fact, it was my own knowledge and dedication that landed me that victory.
You will always be a student, one way or another
Graduating from college is not the end of your learning journey. Post-graduation life has taught me that I will always be a student, not just in my own career field but in life in general.
I have realized that studying and taking notes are not only practices meant for school. I have found myself looking over my old notes, reviewing them, and writing new ones. I still feel like a student, but now it is up to me to learn new journalism practices and be up-to-date with the things that impact my work and career. The difference is that now I need to learn on my own time. I have also learned that even the most experienced professionals do not know everything, and they too are ongoing students. As a student, I have learned that it is OK to ask questions and seek support from mentors and supervisors. Not knowing does not mean you are incapable or that you do not know what you are doing; it means that you are eager to learn and that you want to perform your best, and that is rather admirable.
It is OK if you are a young, inexperienced, recent college graduate, there are employers who still want to hire you
In college, we often hear that the job market is competitive and that we need to be the best, most outstanding, experienced employee to stand out and get hired. That narrative often leads us to believe that we are not fit for the job, that we are not ready to take on a professional career, and that we need to prepare more before applying for the job we want. What I have learned since graduating is that it’s OK if you are still learning and it’s OK if your resume is a one-page document and not four of five. The reality is that companies and employers are still willing to hire you, teach you the ways of the prospective company, or mentor you. Recent college graduates are expected to enter a very promising job market, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). In a recent study, the NACE found that employers plan to hire 14.7% more 2023 graduates compared to the class of 2022. Nearly half of employers surveyed think that the class of 2023 is entering a very good to excellent job market. So, apply for that job and go in for that interview. Do not wait for the ‘right time,” because only by doing the job and starting off somewhere are you going to accumulate experience. Employers are willing to teach you, prepare you, and support you because someone did it for them. Do not let yourself be the first person to say “no” to what can be a promising future in your dream career.
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