The first years after college can be some of the hardest to navigate. We recently sat down with Erica Young Reitz, author of a new book out from InterVarsity Presscalled After College: Navigating Transitions, Relationships, and Faith, to find out more about the book, the post-college terrain, and perspectives and practices that can ease the transition. Erica is also the director of Senior EXIT, a one-year experience that prepares graduating seniors for the transition to life after college—which means she has watched a lot of students navigate the decisions that come with being a graduate. And she wants you to know that though these years will likely be challenging, there is also much life in this season.
Why did you write After College?
I had a professor in college who said we write what we need to. If you would have told me a decade ago, “You’re going to write a book about people transitioning out of college,” I’m not sure that I would have believed you. But as my career has unfolded, I’ve seen a real gap in the literature on this topic of transitioning out of college. As I’ve worked with college seniors over the last 10 years, helping to prepare them for the next phase of life, it became the thing that I needed to write. People need this resource.
Were there one or two experiences of hearing from former students that stand out to you, or did the book really come more out of your own experiences when you were in your twenties?
I remember hearing from a former president of our student ministry organization who was floundering after college in certain ways—making good choices but really struggling. That, along with other conversations with recent alumni who were struggling, became the impetus to start Senior EXIT. When I had the opportunity to do my master’s research on higher education, the EXIT program was in full swing, people were curious about the program, and then I was reflecting on my own experience. So I think all of that combined, both the professional and the personal, my own stories and other stories, was what catalyzed the writing.
What was the hardest part of your own transition from college to post-college life?
The hardest part of my transition was probably the loneliness and the isolation. I knew one other person in my town—she was my roommate at the time, but she was dating someone, so they obviously spent a lot of time together. After having such rich community in college I was not prepared to be home alone so many Friday and Saturday nights; I didn’t realize how challenging it would be to find and form rich community after college. I was committed to finding a local church and plugging in beyond Sunday mornings, but it just took time. That was one of many challenges, but probably the biggest one.
And then to make things even more exciting, I had my heart broken right out of college. That was the most significant loss I’d ever experienced up until that point. I faced so many losses after leaving school—the loss of rich community, the loss of my identity as a student. Having this major loss on top of all of that was so much to process at once. And there was no one to process with. I still had my friends from undergrad, who I did reach out to a good bit, but in only reaching out to them, I was failing to transition. I needed those touch points with good friends, but I wish I would have trusted God for more opportunities where I was living. I leaned so heavily on people from my undergrad that it almost stunted my transition.
All of us face transitions in our lives before we leave college—including the transition into college life. Why do you think the early twenties (especially the post-college years) are so challenging?
I think there are two main reasons for that. For one thing, there’s often a huge gap between what we expect is going to happen and what actually happens. The greatest source of disappointment is an unmet expectation. I think we’re often disappointed by expectations that we don’t even realize we have, whether it’s thriving in our career, or crushing it in relationships or at work. When those things don’t happen, it can send us into a downward spiral.
Also, there’s so much about life during your early twenties that shifts all at once. In other transitions, things are changing, but often there are things staying the same, too. But when we leave college everything is shifting at once: our finances, our friendships, our future career, even our opportunities for fun—all of that is in flux.
What are some common myths or misperceptions about the post-college years?
People think it’s going to be easy—that we’re going to know exactly what we want to do for a living and that we’ll get to do that thing right away. I think that’s a big lie. I think we live in a culture where we’re taught that things like finding a great job fit or good friends should happen instantly, easily, organically, and I just don’t think that’s how it works. I know that’s not how it works. For most people, it’s just so stinkin’ slow.
We’re always wanting to get on to the next thing, as if it’s this linear progression. I think we believe the lie that we’re not moving forward in life if we’re not on to the next thing. I had a student who recently made the decision to defer grad school. She said to her roommate, “Am I going to be behind if I defer grad school?” Her roommate said, “Behind what?” as if there’s this milestone that we have to meet next.
I am not advocating wandering through our twenties, but I think it’s a lie that everything is going to click and happen easily. More and more, a four-year degree isn’t always translating directly into a viable vocation right after college, so I think it can leave us feeling really directionless and confused about what we’re supposed to do for paid work. And then add to that the confusion about our calling. There seems to be this idea that we’re supposed to figure that out in the first few years after college. It could take till we’re 35 before we start to feel like we’ve found our niche. And even then we’ll probably question whether we’ve found our calling!
I also think it’s easy to sort of project onto our friends that they’re all moving ahead in some way. Even if they would say they’re struggling with the same things as us, it doesn’t take much to see things in other people’s lives that look like forward movement—but we can’t see those same kinds of things in our own lives. So then we panic.
Yes, I think that’s another misconception—that everyone else has this figured out and I’m the only one who doesn’t. We’re all figuring it out, desperate for grace.
What are one or two practices or principles from your book that you have seen make a difference in how former students of yours have adjusted to—and even thrived in—the post-college transition?
I think related to the question you just asked, the students who have the smoothest transitions or who I sense are really thriving are those who are taking a deep breath and saying, “It’s okay. I’m going to figure this out.” But in the meantime, they’re taking small steps of faithfulness that lead to the big thing they want revealed.
I remember a student who realized [what she went to school for] was not what she wanted to do for a career. Instead of freaking out and going into a downward spiral over it, she took her time, asked some good questions, and did some occupational interviews and job shadowing. All of that led to her having more discernment about what she actually wanted to do and she eventually found a great job. So, I think just taking a moment—not a decade, but a moment—to say, “It’s going to be okay, and I don’t have to have it all figured out right this instant” makes a big difference.
I would say that there are also two key practices that make a difference: (1) finding a church and choosing to commit to that community within three to four months after moving to a new location, and (2) living on a budget. And not just making a budget but actually living on a budget. I have an alum who said she wanted to pay off all her student loan debt by the time she was 25; she made an aggressive plan and stuck to it. She recently sent me a text telling me that she made her last payment. She just celebrated her 25th birthday. So it can be done. That’s inspiring to me.
Before graduation there is often a sort of glow associated with the post-college years, but then it can end up being really hard. And when you’re in the midst of the challenges, you can miss seeing some of the opportunities that are actually there as well. What do you think are the unique opportunities of the post-college years?
I love that Emily Dickinson quote, “I dwell in possibility.” I feel like there are so many possibilities in your early twenties.
It really is a time like no other time. While it might be tiring and exhausting to make life work, it’s also a time when there’s so much learning to be done. We like to say, “the twenties are for training”; there are so many experiences to be had, especially if we don’t get married right away or have kids right away. There are few other times when you have the freedom to give two years of your life to go overseas and serve, or join a church plant, or any number of big or small things. There’s nothing to tie you down. I think those opportunities are really exciting.
Talk a little bit about how your relationship with God changed once you graduated from college. What aspects of his character have been particularly important to you?
As I mentioned earlier, probably the most significant thing that happened in that first year post college was having my heart broken. I remember that being a time where I knew I would either turn my back on God, or run to him for dear life. By the grace of God I chose to cling to Christ. It was a time of really deepening my relationship with God, especially because I didn’t have close friends nearby. I hear a lot of alums talk about that—that it can be this really sweet time with Jesus when we don’t have a lot of other friends.
I also remember reading the Word voraciously during that season because it was daily bread for me; the psalms were really significant to me in that season—David crying out in difficulty and being honest about his heart before the Lord. I feel like my relationship was really honest with God, and I really saw him provide through the Word, and through other people as well.
There can be so much distress for anyone in that first stretch out of college, so it really can be a point of deciding if we are going to go deeper in our faith or run from it in a different direction. What an incredible opportunity if we choose to go deeper and come out the other side.
You’re still in touch with a lot of former students. What inspires you about their lives?
I’m inspired by students who are willing to follow God at every turn and obey him. I think about a student who turned down a job offer from Google because he sensed that God was calling him to Orlando, Florida—without a job offer. He was in an internship at Disney and didn’t have another offer but just sensed God speak specifically, “This is where I want you,” and he obeyed.
Most people in their early twenties, unless you’re Mark Zuckerberg, are not going to do something grand. But I admire those small steps of faithfulness, because really the most radical thing we can do is obey Jesus at every turn. So when I see that happening, it inspires me. It’s a student paying off her debt. It’s students who choose to not move in together, even though they’re engaged and it would be cheaper, because they want to pursue holiness. Those things inspire me.
Anything else you want to add about the book or your hopes for it?
I hope it’s the book that I wish I could have had when I graduated from college. That’s part of why I wrote it; I desperately needed someone to say, “It’s going to be okay, and here are some things that can help.” I was motivated by my own pain in my early twenties but also by countless stories of so many others who feel that they’re alone during this time, and who are not sure how to put one foot in front of the other to pursue faithfulness after college. My biggest hope as this book goes forth is that it can truly be encouragement that a life of faithfulness is possible and that we’re not alone.