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The Senior Year Transition: How Are We Preparing our Students for Life After College?

My first year out [of college] was the toughest year of my life, a Penn State alum told me. He was a part of vibrant Christian fellowship throughout college, serving as a strong spiritual leader during his junior and senior years. Then he graduated and moved to an unfamiliar city. New location. New job. Real world.

Even for the best and brightest, the transition from college to life after college is arguably one of the most difficult transitions college students will face up to this point in their lives. The “real world” confronts recent grads with new challenges on multiple levels (spiritual, emotional, social, financial, vocational, civic, etc). When alums’ perceptions and expectations collide with reality, the result can bring more than a few bumps in the road, especially in that first year or two after graduation.

I distinctly remember the day a fellow campus minister poured out his concerns for some seniors who had just moved on. Sharing struggle story after struggle story of floundering alums, he pleaded for us to do something – something preventative, not remedial. His stories and concerns gripped me. Together we asked, What can we do during the college years, especially senior year, to prepare our students for life after graduation?

My guess is that this question can lead to as many possible solutions/ideas as there are struggling alums. For my co-ministers and me, it led to the launch of a senior year experience, called Senior EXIT. What began as a simple “What’s Next?” luncheon has grown into a full-year experience with monthly one-day retreats or other touch-points for our graduating seniors. Through Senior EXIT, we try to address both the philosophical and practical realities of life post-college to prepare students to navigate the transition ahead and the challenges of the first year out.

In working towards my MA degree in Higher Education from Geneva College, I had the opportunity to interview our EXIT alums as well as non-participant alums. Here’s what I found to be some of the top issues and themes our students face after graduation:

  • Finding a church, “community” & friends
  • Adjusting to diverse people & places
  • Adjusting to work/the marketplace or grad school
  • Developing identity & clarifying values
  • Managing money
  • Dealing with pressures related to marriage & romantic relationships
  • Finding mentors

Senior EXIT has been our attempt to prepare students with the tools and people resources we believe they will need to deal with these issues. Though we continue to evaluate and modify our experience each year, here are some of the best features of EXIT, according to our EXIT alums:

  • Gives opportunity for “realistic previews” (of life after college)
  • Provides community for senior year
  • Gives them tools & resources
  • Gets them thinking about the transition
  • Provides a safe space to address root issues
  • Creates a proactive mindset for the transition ahead
  • Hits the topics graduates face

As we seek to learn from others and discern best practices for helping our seniors leave well, I’m curious about what others are doing to prepare students for life after graduation. What issues are your alums calling you about? We know that a big part of our work as campus ministers, and higher education professionals, is to help students pursue faithfulness during their college years, but what happens after college? If we are simply concerned with students following Christ during the college years without considering if what we’re doing now will equip them to pursue faithfulness after graduation – and years later – then I’d argue we’re missing a huge part of our mission. Are there things that happen during college that uniquely prepare students for faithfulness post-college? And, are there things we can do during the junior and senior year to help students prepare for the transition ahead? If so, what are those things?

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Erica Young Reitz serves as the director of campus ministry at a Calvary Church, reaching out to students at Penn State University in partnership with the CCO. Whether in the context of the local church or on campus, Erica helps students connect faith with real life. She (along with a team of church members) leads Faith for Thought, an annual conference where people can come together to explore connections between Christian faith and everyday life. She also serves graduating seniors with Senior EXIT, a one year experience that helps prepare them for the transition from college to life after college.  Erica has a B.A. in English from Messiah College and an M.A. in Higher Education from Geneva College (with a graduate research focus on theSenior Year Transition). She and her husband, Craig, live in Millheim, PA.

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