5 Tips For Winning At Life After College

Few people are as sensitive to seasonal change as we are here in Michigan. It sometimes feels as though we could endure both the polar vortex and those scorching hot summer day all in the same week. Nevertheless, we’re accustomed to change regardless of whether we’re prepared for it or not.

Similarly, as an early to middle age twenty-something, our seasons of life can – and often do – change just as abruptly as the change in our Michigan weather.

As graduation from high school opens the door to the new and exciting world of “The College Experience”, graduation from college brings forth new challenges, a new working environment, and new responsibilities – the only difference is that graduation into the working world does not come with a Freshman Transitions leader.

College graduation is a beautiful thing. Finally, after being locked down for the past 4-5 years, it is time to take the skills and relationships you’ve built and put them to work crafting a future that is both successful and community oriented. Everyone that graduates from Grand Valley State University has the capacity to strive for personal success while also making an impact on their community. No matter what your industry is, your geographical location may be, or your social status is it is always important to remember the value of we versus me.

But enough listening to me preach about things you already know. What I really want to do is dive into the five lessons I’ve learned to help college graduates transition into “Corporate America”.

The Top 5

Photo Courtesy of Flikr – Sophia Jones

Treat Every Day Like Your First

It’s easy to get complacent in any environment, especially if you’ve been in that same environment for several years. Why do you think senioritis exists? In the working world there is no such thing as senioritis. In order to be the best at what you do and to continue to perform at the highest level for your company, treat every day as if it’s your first. Never stop learning, always ask questions, and remember that there is always someone waiting in line for your position

Learn the Dress Code

More likely than not, any professional career choice is going to have a dress code other than sweatpants and leggings. Sweats are cozy and it’s how graduates have been working and doing school for years, but making the adjustment to wardrobe that is workplace appropriate can be a challenge. Unfortunately, it can be much easier to be workplace inappropriate for women than for men.

Take time to learn how to dress appropriately and still feel as cozy as the living room sofa.


Conquer “The Age Gap”

For several years, college grads are surrounded by hundreds, even thousands, of young twenty-something’s who are at similar stages in life. Some are in committed relations, others are far from it, but for the most part are all experiencing life at the same pace. In the workplace, this may or may not be the case. Depending on the industry and type of job, it’s possible to be the youngest employee by close to a decade.

But it’s okay! With a dedicated, professional attitude it is possible to conquer the Age Gap and earn the respect of fellow professionals.

Never, Ever, Ever Burn Bridges

We’ve all heard the saying, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”

While this is still a pretty important approach to networking, I would argue the most important approach is considering who knows you? The reality to this question is that the answer is everyone!

In the workplace, building a reputation as reliable, knowledgeable, and hard working can pave your way to a successful career.

Now, it is unrealistic to expect that anyone and everyone you meet will be your best friend, but it is important to distinguish between a friendship and a working relationship. You never know which connections made, both inside and outside of your organization, could turn out to be the gatekeeper for the next step in your career.

This is why I always say, never burn a bridge you cannot repair!

Its Okay To Move On

A career is often a product of several different job titles coupled with life experiences that enable us to combine 1) our skills with 2) our interests and 3) our passions.

This is different from a job.

Graduation from college opens a door to a whole new beginning. The days of working for the same company for 40+ years have come and gone, so it is important to keep long term goals in mind at all times.  It is okay to move on from one job opportunity to the next in order to meet your personal career goals.


Emerging Leaders 2012



The ELS Experience

It’s been almost a year since I completed the Emerging Leaders Series 2012, a professional development program under the Center for Community Leadership within the Grand Rapids Are Chamber of Commerce.  The ELS program is designed for the up and coming young professional who wants to grow professionally and develop a grassroots sense of leadership and community involvement. Now believe me when I say that I never would have expected myself to enjoy a program such as this. As much as I do not particularly love responsibility (but who really does), I seem to do my best work when the heat is turned up and I am just about as uncomfortable as humanly possible.

That being said, I continue to reference experiences and lessons learned from the ELS program in my professional world as well as on a more personal level.  Here are some reasons why YOU should join the Emerging Leaders.

Professional Development

Because of the way the ELS program is designed, the city of Grand Rapids becomes the classroom and you are never in the same place twice. Places we traveled to include the Grand Rapids Public Museum to learn about the history of the city of Grand Rapids and how it has developed into what it is today, to Steelcase to learn about new and innovative ways organizations are designing a workplace culture that is beneficial to employee work habits. In addition to on-site learning, key community leaders visit and provide insight into how they achieved success. For me, I was able to relate most to Deb Bailey’s illustration of a career as something that is created rather than one that is decided.

I was the only member still in college, but by having these conversations with key community leaders I was able to relate to the experiences they’ve had and was able to apply them to my own situation.


When 30 driven, young professionals are placed in a room together for 12 weeks the only direction to go is up. On the very first session we were put through an icebreaker/team building session, but due to the outgoing and committed personalities of everyone in the room it was far from your typical icebreaker.  More importantly, these individuals represent some of the largest and most influential employers in the area so you never know who is going to end up where.

“It’s not what you know, it’s not who you know, but it’s who knows you.”


One of the unique qualities of the ELS program is its emphasis on innovative community initiatives that help address of the city’s most pressing issues; child hunger, affordable housing, impoverished families etc. These programs would not be possible if it were not for the support of local leaders and the leaders of the future (shocking why we would be introduced to these).

I had the opportunity to meet with organizers from Kids Food Basket, Inner City Christian Federation, and United Way to learn about what they are doing in the community. Having grown up in Grand Rapids, it was a surprise to learn about these organizations and all that they are doing in the community. It helps provide some perspective on what it means to have a community responsibility.

Non-profit Certification

Philanthropy in Grand Rapids is like filmmaking in Hollywood. It’s the one thing that truly has made the city as successful and enjoyable as it is today – except maybe beer but that is for a different day. We have the privilege of being under the direction of many successful and outrageously wealthy individuals to want nothing more than to see their city succeed. One result of this philanthropic culture is the birth of a nonprofit sector that is among the most productive in the country.

The exposure to the nonprofit sector through the ELS program gave me the opportunity to experience the needs of my city. For someone who grew up in this community, it was not uncommon for members of my class to say “we have this need here?” The nonprofit board certification element of the ELS program gave me yet another avenue to focus my efforts on, and moving forward gave me an additional lens by which to see the world. It will be a skill that will prove to be useful as I grow to be a decision maker in my community.