Tomorrow is graduation at the University of Southern California and probably hundreds of other schools around the country. And while it should be a time of hope, a sense of accomplishment, and the excitement of getting a job and becoming independent, this year’s class is facing a tough job market—fewer jobs and more people competing for them. How prepared is this group of graduates to meet the challenges that await them? Sadly, and with apologies to the students who took their time in school seriously, I’m concerned that too many are not equipped with the skills they need for success.
I won’t go into a litany of things you should have learned in college. Others have done that recently (Stephens: To the Class of 2012 by WSJ columnist Bret Stephens and 10 things Your Commencement Speaker Won’t Tell You by Charles Wheelan, to name a couple). And it’s too late to tell you how you should have spent your time in college. You’ll learn that in the next couple years on your job performance evaluations if you’re lucky enough to get a job. No, I want to give you a snapshot of a student I had the pleasure of teaching in two classes who will never have a problem finding work and being successful at it.
Jennifer called me the summer before she began her degree program because she wanted to take entrepreneurship after she had completed her required courses, and she was hoping I would advise her on how to prepare for her entrepreneurship electives a year down the road. I felt like an archaeologist uncovering a treasured but lost artifact. That conversation lasted over an hour during which I responded to a barrage of questions about what it takes to achieve success and happiness in a career and in life. I must have lost 5 pounds during that call because I was walking around my office with the phone plastered to my ear, and the longer we talked the faster I walked. Jennifer was such a rare find that it reminded me once again that there was hope for the future.
Unlike, dare I say most students, Jennifer didn’t pick the easy path through college; no, she dug in and tackled hard projects, those that took her way out of her comfort zone. With a “take no prisoners” attitude, she always chose the smartest people to work with, people who challenged her to do even better. She had an enthusiasm for learning and for life that lit up the room when she walked in. All her classmates felt it, but most were intimidated and just wanted to make it through unscathed so they could get their degree and a job. Not Jennifer, she wasn’t going to waste a moment of college just getting by. With an infectiously positive attitude, she seemed to be in a race with herself to learn as much as she could and make connections with as many people as possible who could help her on her path. By comparison, most (but not all) of her classmates looked like slackers.
During her time at USC, she took on internships—each one developing a different skill. In her classes, she prepared as if her life depended on it and it showed in the insightful contributions she made to discussions. With an interest in all things global, she found opportunities to work, learn, and travel in the some of the most interesting places in the world.
What Jennifer did right during her college experience was to take charge of her learning. Unlike so many others, she never sat slumped at her desk waiting for the professor to dump knowledge into her brain. She enthusiastically and proactively sought knowledge and found compelling ways to apply it. I have no doubt that she influenced some of her classmates to step up their game. As a teacher, I see that the Jennifers of the world are few and far between, but the chance to find another Jennifer keeps me going.
So tomorrow when Jennifer receives her diploma, she will be cheered by all the people who know her because she represents why we all teach and why we can have hope for the future.