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Interview with a Recent College Grad: Rebecca Olsen

A lot has changed in the world and for college students since I went to college long ago. Even over the course of three decades of teaching college students, I’ve observed that students today attend college for different reasons, face different obstacles in working toward their degrees, and enter a very different work world than they did when I first began teaching.

I thought it would be helpful for we who are teaching these students to learn from one who has graduated recently, to learn what life has been like post-graduation and how they reflect now on their college years.

Rebecca Olsen took several of my classes and also assisted me as a student worker. She was in many ways a typical student—and by that I mean that life during and after college was different from what once might have been typical. Her reflections below will, I pray, make me a better professor for students that follow.  -KSP

What college did you attend and how did you progress through your degree?

I attended Liberty University. My original major was English. At the end of my junior year, I changed to interdisciplinary studies with cognates in English and religion. An interdisciplinary degree offered me more flexibility, since I’d struggled with some of the requirements of a B.A in English, and it gave me the opportunity to study my faith, which I’d become increasingly interested in while at Liberty.

When I started college in 2015, I brought in nine AP credits from high school. When I first started, I loved that I jumped straight into higher level classes, but I noticed that my essays needed a lot more work on skills that would have been covered in those introductory English courses I had skipped. Sometimes I felt I was playing catch up in those upper-level courses with students a year or two older than me. There were definitely pros and cons to bringing those credits in. I walked for graduation in spring of 2019 with five outstanding credits, and finally received my diploma in 2020.

What was your post-college work life like?

A friend helped me get a job as a copywriter for a marketing agency about three months after graduation. Working was different than I expected. I thought that I wanted to write professionally because I liked it so much in school but being a marketing copywriter was a far cry from writing essays. Most of my work was bland and didn’t require the critical thinking that I’d enjoyed so much in my English classes.

I’m on my third post-college job now and while I’m most comfortable here, I haven’t enjoyed any of my jobs as much as I liked being a student. I expected to find this amazing job that I was passionate about and was super fulfilling, but I have yet to experience that, so that’s disappointing.

What was the biggest transition or change for you in moving from college life to post-college life?

One big transition has been the lack of control over my schedule. As a college student, you get to pick which classes you take and when. My part-time job also had flexible hours, where I could pick when I wanted to work. Now, I work an office job that’s very structured and doesn’t have nearly as many breaks as college allows. And ten vacation days a year is a lot less than having months off just for summer.

The other big change is in the amount of personal responsibility I have. In college, I shared cleaning with roommates, I ate in the dining hall, and I didn’t have to do much shopping. Now, I’m living on my own, and I have to keep up with all of that on an almost daily basis. It sounds silly because I should have expected this, but I guess I just didn’t realize how time-consuming it was to have to take care of everything yourself.

In what ways was your college experience typical? In what way was it different from that of most of your peers?

I’d say it was fairly typical. I (mostly) went to class, had a part-time job, stayed up way too late at night, and made amazing friends. Attending a Christian university—with required religious classes, curfew and room checks, lack of drinking and partying, and regular convocations—made it a different experience from that of my friends who went to public, secular universities. They had more freedom, but I didn’t feel like I missed anything important.

Something becoming increasingly typical in college students regardless of what kind of school they attend is mental health problems, and I’m no exception. I started experiencing panic attacks and minor issues with anxiety during my freshman year and by my senior year, it had gotten so bad that I sought professional help. Medication, counseling, and my university’s disability office got me through the last few months of being a residential student, along with some very kind professors and caring roommates.

The only real difference I noticed in my experience compared to the experience of my Liberty peers is that I didn’t get engaged or even meet my significant other there. Getting a “ring by spring” is a semi-serious joke on campus and I saw it first hand. Out of my six close friends from college, half are married to people they met at Liberty. My twin sister also married the boyfriend she started dating there. I’m not upset that I didn’t get that proverbial ring, but it is a noticeable difference in experience.

What were the most significant things you learned in college (whether in or out of the classroom) that help you now?

Learning how to advocate for myself and my health when I began to struggle mentally is a big thing. I used to think that I had to just suffer through and deal with struggles on my own, but the disability office taught me how to ask for help and the accommodations that I need.

I also made some mistakes in my college job that I learned from, like the importance of asking questions and not making assumptions. I ask a lot of questions now, even if there’s just a sliver of doubt in my mind, because I want to do things correctly. I don’t assume. I was afraid to ask questions because I thought I might look dumb for not knowing. But learning that it’s okay to ask questions, and making a practice of asking questions, has helped me grow in confidence and helped me learn more than I would if I just made assumptions all the time.

Inside the classroom, I learned how to think critically, which is an important skill for everyone to have. I also took a class on how to pitch and write articles for publication, which I still do periodically. My English classes really helped me develop my written communication skills, which has been very important for jobs and for life in general. And I learned how to study, which is quite helpful at the moment because I’m studying for my insurance license.

If you could go back and change anything about your college experience, what would you change?

Sometimes I wish I hadn’t gone to college at all or that I’d gone to a public school or picked a more practical major. I pay more for my student loans per month than I pay for my rent and utilities. Having that debt hanging over my head puts a lot of pressure on me and holds me back. My friends who went to public colleges or went straight into learning a trade have little to no debt and most of the same opportunities that I do. And while I loved what I studied when I was in that academic bubble, most employers want something specific that fits in their box for a certain role. I’m really not sure if I’d change any of those things though. I did the best I could at the time. I made amazing friends and got a degree that I’m proud of. I could never regret those things.

Is there anything you think college professors should do or do better to help prepare their students for post-college life?

Help them see outside of the academic bubble. In the real world, there are no grades. Few things are done based on theories or ideas. The world is harsh and practical, so teach them how to transfer the skills from your classroom to the world outside of academia. Writing an essay on Tess of the D’Urbervilles has yet to be applicable to a job. But knowing how to communicate well has yet to fail me. Memorizing artists and dates for my art history class has been completely useless. But knowing how to appreciate art has made going to museums more fun. No one taught me how to transfer those skills into my adult life. I had to figure that out myself.

How do your faith and spiritual life now compare to what they were when you were a student?

Attending a Christian university, where I had convocation multiple times a week, Campus Community every Wednesday night, prayer groups, and religious classes, is a lot like going to a really long church camp. You could show up every week for special music and special teaching and leave on the crest of a spiritual wave that was mostly created by atmosphere.

Faith in the real world isn’t like that. It requires work and discipline to maintain a close relationship with God, which I never really developed. I grew up in a home where going to church was easy because the whole family was going. Now I’m living on my own and floundering a bit. Other people always put in the work for me, to create that atmosphere and help connect me to God. That’s not an option anymore. I have to do it.

Maybe that wouldn’t be so difficult, or it wouldn’t be so much work, if I wasn’t grieving. My mom died nine months after I walked for graduation. She had been chronically ill, and when she worsened, I believed more in her miraculous healing than I’ve ever believed in anything. And I felt like that was my part of the deal. My faith was the size of a mustard seed. That’s all God said He required. But He didn’t hold up His end of the deal. He didn’t heal her. I got angry and prideful. I thought God was wrong, that I knew better than Him, because I would have saved her.

But it came full circle, somehow. The Holy Spirit wouldn’t leave me alone. I know God loves me. He loves me enough to forgive me even when I don’t deserve it, to pursue me when I’m running away, which I did for a while.

I’m still reconciling my faith and my grief, but I’m not angry anymore. It’s humbling, that God still wants me despite everything. And I think that’s a good base to start rebuilding my faith on.

Karen Swallow Prior

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Karen Swallow Prior, Ph. D., is Research Professor of English and Christianity and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

4 Comments

  • Corky Strickland says:

    Except for the statements about the prevalence of mental illness, Ms. Olsen’s experience sounds nearly identical to the experiences of my contemporaries who graduated in 1980: the challenges of moving from school to work, loss of the immense flexibility of student life, and the never-ending challenge of suddenly realizing that taking care of oneself and securing one’s own food, shelter, and clothing is more difficult than anticipated. That has been part of growing up for generations.

  • A refreshing essay. I hope many scholars take the time to read it and think about it. I hope that university administrators think through the issues raised, as they reflect on the strategies and design of the university operations. I left academia in 2002 to join the fast-paced, multi-sector world of DC. The past 20 years have reinforced in me a belief that the universities are missing the target when it comes to preparing students for work and independent living. Christian universities could lead a better vision, with the humility to serve students well.

  • John Morgan Hunt says:

    It’s an important essay for all of us. It is really easy to loose sight of what life after college means. I sense a growing gap between what the academic side of college offers and why students come. I’ve been pushing my college’s marketing person to poke at “Why do they come?”

  • Timothy Shultz says:

    Fantastic article. I graduated from a Christian college in 1983. I have worked with my 3 children as they assessed college and made their choices. Yes. Things have become quite different concerning college than in the 80s. God bless this articulate young lady.