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Maneuvering the "what now?" conversation

It’s a time-honored, inevitable question that all recent graduates have heard at least 1,000 times:

“What are you going to do now?”

For some, the answer is easy: graduate school, a post-graduate internship, or an entry-level job. For others, like me, the answer to the question is more complicated than that. We’re on the job market, but the right opportunity hasn’t presented itself yet. That makes it hard to talk about when someone asks.

Sometimes, our first instinct is to read that question as an attack, like the person who asked is trying to trip you up. “I’m figuring it out,” we say, defensively avoiding the question. “A lot of other graduates don’t have jobs either.”

And we’re right — I am not the only jobless graduate out there. But the question was about me and what I’m doing.

I learned this lesson at my church on graduation Sunday. This service celebrates all the high school and college graduates, and we all stand in the front of the sanctuary to be congratulated by the congregation at the end of the service. I probably had the same conversation with over half of the men and women in our church.

It was frustrating at first, being asked the same question over and over again, and having to admit that I didn’t have it all figured out. “I am more than an unemployed college graduate,” I wanted to say.

It wasn’t until my Nana’s friend asked me the question that I really understood that the “What now” question comes from a place of genuine interest. I begrudgingly told her I didn’t have a job yet but I was looking, and her response surprised me. She mulled it over for a moment, then put her hand on my arm and said, “I’ll keep praying for you. Your time will come and I can’t wait to see the things you do. Your grandma is proud of you, and all of us are too.”

When those words sank in, answering the question became much easier. Instead of feeling inadequate and ashamed when I spoke with the next people in line, I started to feel more supported. I put my PR skills to work and started framing my “What now?” answer differently:

“I’m just looking for the right job opportunity,” I said. “My degrees are in public relations and political science, and I’m very interested in political communications. I would really like to be in Washington D.C, but I’m looking everywhere so I can find an entry-level job that will give me more work experience.”

I realized that first: you have to come to terms with where you are, and use it to your advantage. I am not the first person to graduate without a job, and I won’t be the last. The right opportunity will present itself. So, in my answer, I lead with the fact that I am job searching. This says “I’m not employed yet, but I won’t give up until I am.” Not only that, starting with where you are in the process might lead to someone giving you a heads up on a job opening.

Also, I wasn’t afraid to share my skills and interests. My answer to “what now?” includes what degrees I have and the field I would like to go into. This lets the person asking the question learn a little bit more about you, and provides you with a conversation starter about something you’re passionate about.

Finally, I gave people a taste of my hopes and dreams. I would love to work in Washington D.C. because I want to work in politics, and I think it’s important that people know that. That being said, it’s also important to include that my search is not limited to the D.C. area. I want a job that will give me good experience, and if it’s in D.C.? Great. And if it’s not? That’s okay too.

As a recent graduate, I’m in a transitional point in my life, and not having a job doesn’t make the transition any easier. But I can’t give up because my opportunity WILL come. Walt Disney said, “All our dreams can come true — if we have the courage to pursue them.”

So my fellow not-yet-employed graduates, when someone asks what you’re doing after college, don’t be afraid to say you’re still searching. And above all, don’t give up the search until you can answer the question the way you want to.

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