Tonawanda News

May 17, 2014

DUVALL: What a college grad doesn't know

By Eric DuVall
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — College students across Western New York walked across a stage this weekend and were handed a blank sheet of paper. (Your real diploma comes in the mail a few weeks later, if I recall.) It's a fitting metaphor.

Yes, your life is a blank canvas, college grad. But you probably didn't need English 101 to see that obvious comparison. 

It's not blank, your diploma. It's empty. As in, it's up to you now to make it worth something.

There are a few things I wish someone had told me when I graduated. The first is, yes, those loans are real and you will have to pay them back. And it sucks. For a long time.

I'd also have appreciated someone telling me how little I would use the vast majority of my classroom education. I learned lots of stuff I'm glad I know — and that has almost no practical application in my working life.

What I didn't know then, which I've learned since, is the real lessons you hopefully learned during your time in college are about things like work ethic, commitment, working cooperatively with others, time management, critical thinking and how to function on very little sleep or while hung over.

OK, maybe the last one is more apropos to me because I'm a journalist. Whatever. It's a useful life skill for others as well, I'm sure. 

Seriously, though, your GPA means nothing to people once you take that last walk. I can't honestly tell you the last time I bothered to look at what a candidate for a job here clocked in at. I don't remember my college GPA or my SAT score. I've never once been asked. I was a reasonably good student who excelled in the subjects I liked and made do with the ones I didn't. That's about all I remember of my actual academic record.

The things I lean on from my time in college are far less tangible. I remember the late nights in our student newspaper office, eyes red-rimmed from a lack of sleep, staring into a computer monitor or trying to focus on the last 30 pages of the book I had to read for class the next morning. I remember wanting desperately to sleep but instead I pushed through, did the work and felt better for it.

I remember the experience gained leading a college paper, figuring out how to motivate people who were just as tired and cranky as me, willing them to get their work done on time. I remember what it was like when our meager paychecks were withheld because our advertising revenue was in the tank and how I had to squash a small rebellion in the basement of the student center when I told everyone they weren't going to get their $40 that Friday.

I remember waiting tables four nights a week after school to help pay the bills, stressing out about how there weren't enough hours in the day to get everything done.

I learned how to work under professors I disliked who were arrogant or unreasonably demanding — good practice for life in a professional setting both in dealing with unruly bosses or as an example of what not to be when you get to be the boss.

I learned how to work with people I didn't know or care to know. There were lots of team projects along the way and figuring how you fit into a group, what you bring, how much, if at all, you should rely on others is important. There are always underachievers and group leaders. Knowing how not to be the former and how to become the latter is an incredibly valuable life skill that will make you more money if you master it.

Most of all, I learned the real secret to success, if there is one, is that people who are well liked and whose intellect and performance are respected are the ones who get ahead.

Celebrate your commencement, college graduates. You deserve it. But know this: Most of what you learned isn't worth a damn and earning your degree is only the cover charge for becoming an adult.

It seems incredibly unfair to have to tell you this just when you probably feel like you've crossed the finish line but here's the god's honest truth: You haven't even started the race.

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at eric.duvall@tonawanda-news.com or follow him on Twitter, @EricRDuVall.