Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

This one’s mostly for randomers, but it also speaks to close friends, well-wishers, and family.

Stop asking fresh graduates “what’s next?”

It’s a genuine question, but more than half the time, it is not the right question. There are only a few graduates who leave college assured and strong-footed about what lies ahead of them. A good number of graduates are wide-eyed, not so certain of where they are headed, probably enthusiastic about a few options which appeal to them, and more importantly, hopeful that the process of transition from college to the real world is not as ruthlessly sweeping as they imagine.

Therefore, it is necessary for all those seemingly or genuinely interested in the post-college lives of graduates to exercise emotional intelligence and emotional correctness as they probe and prod, seeking answers. This is especially important for those who ask without the intent to help, those who ask just to satisfy their curiosity. It is important to note that peak transitional stages of life are the most sensitive, and the people at these stages need help and support above all. One way to spark helpful conversations is by asking the right questions if at all questions need to be asked. A good question can steer an otherwise intense, anxious life phase towards a positive and intentional end. Therefore, I suggest that when approaching a graduate in relation to what’s to come after college, it is more advisable to start by asking “what’s first?” instead of “what’s next?”

What happens when you ask differently?

By asking “what’s first,” you give room for fresh graduates to sincerely state the things that matter to them primarily as they leave college. This eliminates, to an extent, grandiose expectations and imposed popular paths, making room for the graduate to share their sincere hopes and intentions as they step into the real world. This could lead some to express their need for introspection and reflection, a desire for a decision-making interlude. It could inspire others to share their burning desire to travel, explore and see the world for what it is, not what is said about it. It could also lead to conversations about someone’s interest in going straight into the workforce or proceeding to grad school. These are only a few out of many “first” options that fresh graduates could be deeply considering or starting out with as they navigate their place in today’s saturated world. It is necessary to be a listening ear to them as they think through these options, eventually trying them, possibly loving them, dismissing them, or even “this is what I want to do for the rest of my life-ing them.” But first, as they step out of college and make their “first” choices, whilst also navigating all-around applications, transition from the college bubble, and/or confusion, they need to feel at peace in themselves and their choices, and they deserve to feel secure and understood in the environments they find themselves in.

Some graduates go home to their parents after graduation. Some stick around with their friends. Others stay everywhere and nowhere, trying to fill the void from leaving college. Supporters can assist them by checking in on their living conditions, assisting them financially and perhaps — to a very specific “biased” end — giving them free food and sponsored night-outs if possible. It is also best to share with them, the opportunities that align with their “first” interests post-college, instead of bombarding them with an exclusive array of opportunities expected by society. For instance, if you know a fresh graduate whose first interest is to act, produce comedy skits, run a Youtube channel full time, or travel-blog, send them links to auditions, calls for collaborations, links to affordable cameras, sponsored flight deals and crowdsourcing articles, not links to graduate school applications.

As much as this sounds like another entitled millennial/Gen-Z rant, it is deeply steeped in the mental health, wellness and well-being of 21st-century graduates who have to grapple with heavy transitions, a bane of options — so much to explore yet so little to afford, close-minded stakeholders and a struggle to break out of “tried-and-tested” paths. The timing of settlement post-transition varies amongst individual fresh graduates. Whilst some people are swift passers-by, others take years to get over a life phase as disruptive and self-defining as college. Therefore, as fresh graduates faze out of their freshness, seek and find themselves in the real world, and try to find a filler for the “occupation” box on identity-forms, it is necessary to treat them with a bit more care and sensitivity, not pushing and pulling, but guiding, listening, sharing opportunities and connecting them to their first interests.  

Subscribe here for all the latest news on how you can keep Thriving.

More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis