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Graduation Stress

anxiety coping skills depression education graduation mental health resilience stress support May 19, 2022

Stressed about graduation? It's gonna be okay.

Written by David Zecua, a CSU Channel Islands Service Learning student.

Our semesters are quickly coming to an end and for many students, the end of the school year may be an exciting thing to look forward to and anticipate. It can also be stress- and anxiety-inducing for students having to deal with final exams or upcoming projects that are difficult or daunting, fear of not passing a particular class, and especially stress and anxiety for graduating students who are nervous about what the future will bring.

These worries and fears may hit home for college students who will be graduating and are uncertain about what they will do after. I understand your worries too well right now because I am currently at that point myself. If you are a college student reading this, you likely remember how you felt applying to different colleges and universities in high school, the feelings of excitement getting accepted into your desired schools, and moving on to the next step of your life - pursuing a degree. However, things are different now because you are getting past that next step that you envisioned in your mind in high school and it can be even more nerve-racking figuring out what you want to do after you graduate. Perhaps what you envisioned in high school has changed and now you may feel stuck. When we are growing up, we have ideas and dreams about what we want to be as an adult, but as we graduate college that choice truly becomes reality.

If you are a graduating college student, I want to say congratulations. As a graduating student myself, I realize that that is a significant accomplish in your life and it likely took hard work and effort to get where you are at today. We've gotten through all of the courses, persisted through the troubles and stresses of our semesters, all those nights stressing and working hard. I understand how you feel and it's satisfying to see some payoff of all that hard work.

However, with all that excitement from you, friends, and family, there is also the fear and uncertainty that looms about what to do next. It's okay to not be sure what you want to do next. This reality is more common amongst college students than is expected, and I know that we are not alone. According to Saloman, L. (2022), graduation anxiety is a natural reaction to uncertainty and being unsure about the future. It's human to be uncomfortable with uncertainty or novelty. And according to Peterson, T.J. (2022), factors that may induce graduation-related anxiety and possibly depression include fear of the future, the overwhelming sense of adult responsibilities without the structure of a syllabus, a sense of loss of mentors and people who supported you during college, separation anxiety about life before graduation, and dealing with others’ expectations about what you will do in the future.

To gain perspective on how students may feel about graduating and the future in general, I conducted interviews with some of my peers from CSU Channel Islands. The peers that I was able to interview were Sara, Abby, and Gabe. I conducted these interviews to create a post about graduation-related anxiety and stress.

Of the peers that I interviewed, Sara and Abby are graduating this Spring and Gabe will be graduating in the Fall. It was good to gain perspective from students who are not yet graduating this year to see how their feelings change with time as they get closer to graduation.

Upon asking my peers how they felt about graduating, they all had a positive outlook with each of them describing excitement about graduating and looking forward to “being done with school” (Gabe), “nice to finish school and figure out what I’m gonna do next” (Sara) and “finally making my goal of graduating from college come true” (Abby).

I then asked them if they ever feel pressure from family or friends when getting asked what they will do in the future after graduation, and if they feel certain about what they will do or what they will pursue after graduation.

Overall, there was some mixed response to pressure from families (nothing about friends) and there was a consensus of being uncertain about the future, but not too much worry about it as they all believe in themselves.

Sara described feeling pressure from family, specifically, “sibling rivalry,” where “the boys are the doctors and the girls need to prove themselves” stemming from family structure. She described feeling optimistic about the future even though she is uncertain of the future. She is open to possibilities as long as she doesn't have negative feelings about what she pursues and can take care for herself.

Abby described some pressure not necessarily from family but from herself in wanting to make her family proud and be successful while also focusing on her happiness and satisfaction in the process. She knows that her family will support her regardless. She also described not knowing what she wants to do after graduating, but that she has some ideas of what she wants to pursue like possibly applying for grad school because she loves learning, or possibly moving back home.

Gabe said that he doesn't feel pressure from friends or family because he doesn't doubt himself and knows that he can achieve his goals. He is also not fully certain on what to do pursue after graduation, but he isn't too worried about that because he mainly focuses on the present and his time left in school and he has some ideas in mind for what he will pursue after graduating.

I then asked them how recent world events such as COVID-19 or the Russia-Ukraine conflict and other crises have influenced their perception of graduation and the future.

Sara said that she isn't too concerned about such world events affecting the future. She believes that these issues will not be so disastrous and she believes that things will work out one way or another.

Abby said that world events don't have much influence about her perception of the future. It’s more so interpersonal connections and things in her life that may induce anxiety and stress.

Gabe said that inflation is his biggest concern as a world event that influences his perception of graduation and the future.

Finally, I asked them about their biggest fear, biggest hope, and the thing they most look forward to about graduation.

Sara described her biggest fear about graduation as not being able to take care of herself and to have to depend on others for living. She said her biggest hope and what she looks forward to most about graduation is to pursue the things that she has wanted to do outside of school.

Abby described her biggest fear about graduation as not knowing what is next because she has been in school for 18 years, so it will certainly be an interesting and potentially unsettling experience not being in school considering that “nothing is secure anymore.” She said her biggest hope and what she looks forward to most is to walk on the commencement stage and find her parents in the audience, get her degree and feeling the accomplishment of a lifelong goal.

Gabe said his biggest fear about graduation, aside from inflation, is potentially not having enjoyed college to the fullest when looking back. His biggest hope and what he looks forward to most is being able to pursue employment that he wouldn't be able to pursue without a college degree and eventually working his way into buying a house and doing well for himself.

Amongst the peers I interviewed, a common theme was “not knowing what to do in the future after graduation,” but for the most part they are hopeful that things will sort themselves out.

Again, it's okay to feel stressed about graduating. You are not alone in your situation, and there are ways to cope with it. Peterson, T.J. (2022) gives some suggestions such as to stay connected with your peers from college after graduation, maintain and identify new interests, forge a direction for your life in the months ahead, describe your goals, create a realistic budget, and create action steps for what to pursue next, such as looking for an apartment. Saloman, L. (2022) also suggests to “zoom in” rather than “zooming out” - focusing on each step in your future at a time rather than your whole future as it may lead to anxiety. There is a lot of uncertainty, but don't give up if something isn't going smoothly or you get rejected by an employer. Keep striving. Life is uncertain so don't beat yourself up too hard in the process. Overall it's reasonable to feel stressed about graduation because life is uncertain and nothing is guaranteed, but you can persevere through the uncertainty. Take it step by step in figuring out what to do after graduation and don't give up. You’ve got this!

Graduation is certainly something significant to celebrate and be excited about because all those years of studying are finally paying off. But it's also normal to have negative feelings towards graduation because the future can be so uncertain, especially when you don't know what to do. I hope you were able to gain some perspective on how graduating students may feel in real life. Your anxiety and stress related to graduating is normal and you aren't alone in your fears because I and many others can relate. If you are reading this, I wish you the best in your future. I believe in you and know you will be successful because you have already gotten so far at this point.