Graduating with Hope and Fear: Six Tips for Students and Faculty During this Challenging and Exciting Time

By Cecilia M. Orphan, Co-Chair, Student Organizing Group and Ph.D. student, Higher Education, University of Pennsylvania

Ah, graduation season. This is supposed to be a time of great promise and hope in the lives of the 1,781,000 students graduating with bachelor’s degrees this year. Yet with the nation’s sluggish return to economic health and the high unemployment rates of young people (50% of people under 30 are unemployed!), many graduates are facing tough realities as they cross the stage and claim their diplomas. Subsequently, as Anya Kamentz found in her book Strapped: Why America’s 20 and 30 Somethings Can’t Get Ahead, many Millennials are delaying important milestones including marriage, children, and home ownership because they are not able to shoulder these costs in addition to the weight of student loan repayment.

This troubling economic and social picture may lead some to declare that undergraduate experiences should be focused on helping students develop job skills that will help them find employment after graduation. But this represents a false choice between providing students with professional or civic experiences. The civic skills developed through community engagement experiences are also important professional skills. These attributes include critical thinking, problem solving, communication, working with people from different backgrounds and ethnicities. So what does this mean for us?


For students, it means that your civic experiences are also important professional experiences. The trick is learning how to translate them into resume bullet points. Below are a few ideas of how you can do just that.

  • Be concrete when describing your experiences. Include hours worked, students served, dollars raised, projects overseen, etc. This is a good way to show future employers that you are goal-oriented and get results.
  • Think about how your experiences draw on marketable skills. Did you organize a political campaign to ban the use of plastic bags in your town? This required project management, political knowhow, negotiation and communication skills. Did you plan and run a day of service for your university? This demonstrates logistical and event planning skills. Did you tutor elementary school children? This shows leadership and teaching skills. Did you help your university incorporate social media tools into it civic engagement? This shows that you have Web 2.0 savvy that many organizations are looking for. Think strategically about how your experiences have prepared you for the professional world and find ways to tell this part of your story.
  • While it’s nice to show that you have heart by listing your service experiences on your resume, it’s also important to demonstrate your ability to make commitments, follow through on deadlines, and work well with others. Many civic experiences require all of these abilities. Find ways to demonstrate these skills in your resume and during your job interview.

Faculty and administrators

For faculty and administrators, the harsh demands being placed on graduating students also requires something of you.

  • First and foremost, don’t fall for the false dichotomy between civic v. professional experiences. Students need opportunities to develop themselves for their future both as citizens and employees. Civic engagement experiences provide an avenue for both goals to be achieved. Many students are unemployed or underemployed. Work in the community and political realms are often students’ only opportunities to develop important professional and civic skills. These experiences are proven to develop student efficacy and agency that will in turn help them promote themselves when it comes to looking and interviewing for jobs.
  • When you work to engage students, help them locate their own self-interest in the engagement. Yes, it’s a nice thing to do. Yes, it’s even the right thing to do. But it also might help them get a job. Cheer them as they face a daunting job market and enormous loads of student debt.
  • Finally, and most importantly, these civic experiences will stick with them and improve our democracy and economy. This view of the student experience is somewhat less daunting and more hopeful than the one painted by abysmal employment rates. We must protect and increase civic experiences of students to strengthen our economic and democratic futures.

I salute the faculty and teachers who have helped get students to graduation day. Without your mentorship, guidance and encouragement, many would not be walking across that stage. And I wholeheartedly tip my hat to this year’s graduating class. I know how hard you’ve worked and how hard you will continue to work to secure happiness and financial stability. Be strategic about telling your story. Celebrate your success and make big plans for your professional and civic life. The future of our economy and democracy rests in your hands.

Click here for more stories about the work of the Student Organizing Group.

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