Former senior staff writer Amy Zahn explains why losing yourself for a while post-graduation may be pivotal in finding your direction in life.
Jimmy Lai/HIGHLANDER

On June 10, 2015, I was victorious. A university graduate. Successful. Erudite. Learned.

On June 11, I was 21 years old, jobless and living with my parents. I had no selfies on my phone to document the previous day’s official transition into unemployment, nor did I make a single post on social media to commemorate it.

I rolled over in bed that day, hoping to see the bright side of my new life. It couldn’t be all bad, could it? I got my wish when the midday sun shot through the curtains and blinded me. I was too glum to care much for irony, and too listless to get up and shut them.

Anyone who looked at my Facebook page wouldn’t have known that I had just passed a huge, socially important milestone, and the state of my career made sure that my mood didn’t know it, either.

In some ways, it felt like the last four years had never even happened.

My predicament wasn’t a surprise, exactly. I had spent much of my time at UCR floundering, not knowing what I would do with my life once graduation hit, and lying in my childhood bedroom with a bag of Cheetos for company made me feel like my apprehension had been well-placed.

Chester Cheetah stared back at me, or at least I think he did. The sunglasses made it hard to tell. I wondered if he had always known he wanted to appear on bags of Cheetos for a living, or if he was also a lost, jobless college grad once. In my despondent state of mind, I didn’t care that cheetahs don’t go to college.

I knew I had taken a sizable risk switching careers well into my last year at UCR, and journalism, the field I had far-off dreams of breaking into, was being inundated by a fresh batch of college grads — ones who likely didn’t stumble upon the industry six months before walking across the stage.

So, with no direction, no job prospects and no earthly idea of how to achieve my goals, I started doing as a university graduate what most people do during their first and second years of college: I Googled the heck out of every possible combination of “journalism,” “internships” and “entry level.”

Most internships were reserved for current students, I would quickly learn, and the ones that weren’t didn’t call me back — well, most of them didn’t. I did get a couple of replies that seemed confused about why I had wasted my time applying at all.

“Are you aware that the position is in Grand Rapids, Michigan?” read one response, as though I hadn’t bothered to read the title of the publication I was applying to. I replied that I was, eager to lap up any attention from any employer, but I never heard from them again.

The months were ticking by. I was painfully aware that with each day that passed, I was a day further removed from a time when I occupied an acceptable, productive role in the world. “Student” was fine. “Unemployed basement dweller” was not. (OK, I didn’t actually live in a basement, but that’s mostly because my house didn’t have one.)

The career steps I did take during this time, like landing some freelance article-writing gigs for a few publications, felt miniscule compared to what “everyone else” was doing.

I woke up every morning and went to bed every night as the barely-employed 22 year old college grad asking her dad if she could borrow the car.

“Everyone else” came in the form of my mom’s friends’ kids and the successful, accomplished people on Facebook, all of whom were off doing impressive-sounding things in impressive-sounding cities. The baby boomers in the comments sections didn’t help, either, with their proud proclamations about the mortgages and 2.5 kids they all apparently had by the time they were my age. Us millennials and our darn avocado toast.

Before long, I began to realize that my life wasn’t going to come together the way I wanted it to anytime soon, so I tried to better myself in other ways.

I started making regular visits to the library and gym to pass the time in between writing articles. I tried to hone my sewing skills. I made half an apron and then forgot about it, until pretty much just now. I thought maybe I’d try out “The Casual Vacancy” by J.K. Rowling, something I felt to be a long-overdue obligation as a lifelong Harry Potter fan, but it sat untouched in a corner of my room for months before I resigned myself to returning it to the library. (That was a fun $32.10 in overdue fines.) I got pretty good at baking and decorating cakes. I did a bit of traveling.

It had been over a year now since graduation, and still, it felt like nothing had changed. I woke up every morning and went to bed every night as the barely-employed 22 year old college grad asking her dad if she could borrow the car.

I was losing hope that I would ever end up where I wanted to be. I was on my second rewatch of “Friends,” and I was still only freelancing. A full-time job seemed all but unattainable to me, so I decided to dust the Cheeto powder off my hands and apply to graduate school, my grandest stab yet at the journalism career I wanted.

The entire six months I spent writing personal statements and inhaling GRE vocabulary flashcards, I figured I wouldn’t get in, that I couldn’t possibly be qualified.

Long story short, I still live with my parents and I’m still just a freelancer, but now I make a mean vanilla almond cake and I’ve been to a 788 square mile island-nation called Mauritius. I finished “The Casual Vacancy.” I learned an awful lot about the relative merits of Italian, French and Swiss meringue buttercream frostings, and that if you leave your chocolate ganache on the stove for a second too long, it’ll curdle. (There’s an easy fix — just stir in some hot milk.) I lost 35 pounds, a milestone threatened only by my newfound baking hobby. I became a co-producer of an independent documentary and learned how to use words like “quotidian” in a sentence.

I got into grad school.

Two years of being hopelessly, utterly lost culminated into who I am right now — a college graduate who’s off to NYU in a couple of months to start her dream career.

If you’re graduating this month and you know exactly where you’re going, you should be proud. Savor that. If you’re more like how I was and you feel directionless and lost, savor that, too. Take this chance to carve out your own direction, and don’t worry if your timeline doesn’t match up with what “everyone else” is doing.

Get into scuba diving or something. Learn to farm potatoes, I don’t know. Just do something, and even when the days start to blend together and you’re feeling hopeless, remember that all the little things you do will add up. When you look back, you’ll be a different person than you were when you left school. You’ll be better.

So go, walk across that stage. Take the fake diploma the chancellor hands you and snap 57 selfies with it. It doesn’t matter what happens next, because you’ll get there.

You did it.

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