As they prepare for graduation this weekend, University of Minnesota seniors Addie Agboola and Malvikha Manoj are feeling a little anxious. Not about the ceremony; that should be enjoyable. They’re concerned about what comes after that: the rest of their lives.
They are hardly unique, experts say. While graduation, whether it’s from college or high school, can bring excitement, relief and the start of big new plans, for many graduates it also can bring up uncertainty, insecurities and a sense of loss.
“I would say at least three-quarters of the graduates that I work with are struggling with similar issues, fears about employment or family issues or moving or things like that,” said Haran Kingstan, Acacia Counseling and Wellness interim clinical director.
For students, no longer being a part of a school or campus community can be a big adjustment, said Yasmine Moideen, a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Shoreview. For most of their lives, school has been informing just about everything they do, from what time they get up in the morning to when they can take a trip to who their friends are.
“I think leaving that kind of situation can be daunting, can really feel like a loss for people to give up that kind of community and enter into the real world,” Moideen said.
Losing the structure and community of college life can lead to transitional anxiety.
“Transitional anxiety is not a diagnosis, we know that, but it’s almost human nature because human beings are built to feel comfortable with routine and habit and form patterns that take up less cognitive capacities so we’re able to attend to survival,” Kingstan said.
Agboola’s anxiety was heightened by a late change in her plans for the immediate future. A biology, society and environment major, she had planned to attend the U’s pharmacy school but now has decided to take a gap year to work as a pharmacy technician and travel.
“I had this plan in my mind of how everything was going to go, and I think that it’s stressful because you’re doing all these things you want to enjoy and soak up all the moments of [being an] undergrad, but also planning for the future,” she said.
Starting pharmacy school in the fall would have provided a sense of continuity.
“It’s not like you’re just jumping into one phase of your life. It’s really just a continuation, but it felt like I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Agboola said. “I understand that I’m only 22, but when you’re in those moments, it’s really hard to believe that you’re only 22 and that there’s so much more there.”
Ways to cope
One way to deal with the many changes that graduation brings, Moideen said, is maintaining routines, such as a sleep schedule or eating habits.
“I guess the thing that worries me is this lack of structure and how it can end up affecting sleeping, and eating and motivation,” she said.
Kingstan suggests staying in touch with former classmates. And don’t overlook making new connections, Moideen said, urging graduates to look for Meetups or professional societies for people with similar interests.
“It’s really important for people — especially, I think, young people — to have a sense of purpose and connection,” Moideen said.
Connecting is high on the list of things that Manoj is concerned about. A psychology major from Dubai, she said that returning to the city means integrating back into her former life.
“I think it’s kind of hard, at this point, to process it,” she said. “But I think one thing that has been helpful is just talking to my friends about it, who are also going to be going through this transition with me.”
Manoj and her friends have made some plans to stay in contact, an adjustment she also had to make with her friends in Dubai.
“I feel like it’s a lot of anxiety when thinking about, are you going to see this person ever again? Or are you going to still be friends a year from now?” Manoj said.
Help is available
Some schools, realizing the challenges that new graduates face, extend campus resources, such as career services or counseling, beyond commencement. The University of St. Thomas offers an online therapy program that is available to students after they graduate, along with career services, said Madonna McDermott, executive director of St. Thomas’ Health Services and Wellness Center.
“Like other moments of significant transition, graduating from college can produce a complex set of feelings and behaviors,” McDermott said.
Some schools have created resources specifically for graduating students. Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., offers seniors a support group that meets four times in the spring. The therapist-facilitated sessions provide seniors with a chance to see they’re not alone, group leader Jamie Sorrentino wrote in an e-mail.
“The idea for this group was driven by the large number of undergraduate students who would contact [Counseling and Psychological Services] in mid-spring semester due to their anxiety about graduating in May,” Sorrentino wrote. “Many of these fears and uncertainties are universal, and they are best addressed in a support group format.”
Kingstan, whose clinic regularly treats students, said she tries to work with clients to remove some of the pressure of graduation. This can mean reassuring students to be more compassionate toward themselves.
“This is kind of a trial-and-error period of everyone’s life where we’re supposed to make mistakes. And that’s supposed to be OK,” Kingstan said.
“There’s almost a grieving period that needs to happen because you are kind of saying goodbye to who you were as a college student and now you are launching into an emerging adult.”
Moideen said that graduates should remember that there are resources available beyond what the schools offer. There are multiple ways to find therapists if needed, she said.
Agboola warned her fellow seniors that they shouldn’t be pressured into feeling anxious. In changing her post-graduation plans, she came to realize that there’s no law mandating that graduates have their entire lives planned out the minute they’re handed a diploma.
Despite the pressure and anxiety that graduation can bring, Kingstan said she tries to validate the stressful feelings that come from the transition.
“Practice being open-minded, being flexible as much as possible and embracing the unknown,” she said. “And just reward yourself in a meaningful way for all of the hard work and the accomplishment.”
Imani Cruzen is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.