What Post-Grad Life is Actually Like

…when you are unemployed and not going to grad school in the fall.

Sure, graduating from college is exhilirating and surreal–a dream come true. And we departing seniors go to great lengths to show everyone how exciting it is…like paying people to photograph us frolicking around campus with our Class of 2016 sashes and bursting champagne bottles.

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PC: Terri Shih // Apologies to the shrub that I ripped these flowers from.

On the other hand,  graduating from college is also terrifying. Within a two-hour commencement ceremony, I went from being a driven UCLA student and Assistant Director at a wonderful writing program, to an unemployed adult. After all of the graduation festivities and moving back home, it all sunk in: now, I must completely reconfigure my identity, my lifestyle…my entire sense of self.

Surely, this is a great opportunity to reconnect with myself. I can finally pick up the violin again and whip out the Prismacolor pastels. I can drop by the Y.A. section of Barnes & Noble and reunite with some old friends. I also look forward to generating new goals and finally pursuing my passions in the “real world.”

But then there’s that Catch-22.


Let me be 100% honest: the job search is absolutely soul-crushing.

Now is the time to get real-world experience, but everyone expects applicants to already have a whole lifetime of experience under their belts. We recent graduates have to be Olympian professionals before we even set foot off campus, fluent in every computer program and foreign language known to man. Nevermind if I have great social media chops by 1) being a millenial and 2) cultivating an online presence of my own–skills that I can develop to a higher level. In order to secure an entry-level social media management position, I should have already worked social media for a major brand for at least three years. Oh, and I essentially need to be a graphic designer, computer programmer, and videographer.

Every time I see “preferred” and “a plus” // via monstermoviaitalia.com

I spend most of my post-grad days writing letters to faceless individuals, demanding that they see how qualified I am, how I deserve their time and consideration. It’s an exhausting, never-ending process of trying to prove my worth.

Yet, my determination to launch my career pushes me to persevere and apply, apply, apply.

Truth be told, I am still figuring out what this ultimate career goal is, exactly. Whenever people ask me what I want to do with my B.A. in English and Creative Writing…


There are a lot of things that I want to do (i.e., social media management, writing/editing, arts administration, filmmaking). But I can’t seem to package all of those aspirations into one short, sweet, and specific answer. I wouldn’t call this indecision, but my struggle to articulate my professional goals with precision (“therapist,” “doctor,” “lawyer,” “accountant”) makes it even more difficult to convince skeptics of the Humanities that I can transform my English degree into a fantastic career.

Throughout all of this, I must remind myself to not compare myself to others. Whenever I see a peer of mine post an update on LinkedIn or Facebook about landing their dream job or internship at Google, Adobe, or Disney, I need to take a step back and tell myself: everyone moves at their own pace. Everyone has a unique path. Everything will fall into place. 

I must deliver the same pep talk while watching my friends go off to prestigious graduate programs. I remind myself, again and again, that I decided against pursuing that path right now for a reason. Though I long for the security of knowing what to expect next, where I will be and what I’ll be doing for the next few years, I did not want to jump right into another school before understanding who I am in the working world. Who am I, apart from being a student?

But this, I’ve found, is the most important thing to remember as I navigate post-grad life:

There is not one version of success.

Sure, working for a well-known company like Disney would be amazing. But so would working for a non-profit that supports the arts. Whether I go into copyediting, screenwriting, or administration–it is ultimately more important for me to be happy, to love what I do, than to impress people. Sometimes, I forget this. I will make it a goal to remember: I decide what my version of success is, and only I can bring it into fruition.


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Finding Community: A Mosaic of My College Experience

On my last night as a UCLA student, I went for a run around campus.

A group of giddy graduates gathered around the Bruin Bear, their Class of 2016 sashes gleaming blue and gold as they climbed atop the statue’s metal back to pose for pictures. A calmness hung over Bruinwalk, the area cleared of flyer-flapping, donut-selling students–open space for me to zip through with rosy cheeks and short breaths. I passed by Kerkhoff, where I’d bought many a shitty vanilla latte, and Powell Library, where I’d written some of the most crucial pages of my honors thesis. I took a left at Schoenberg–the music school, where I had my first job ever as the Front Desk Assistant in the main office. The Humanities Building, home of the English Department. Haines, the site for Westwind meetings. I saw Bunche, aka the “waffle building,” up ahead and remembered lectures on Henry James, linguistics, Asian American history, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales…The first Writer’s Den meeting that I’d ever attended was in Bunche.

Royce glowed as majestically as ever that night, the brick golden against the night sky. I slowed to a stop and stood there, craning my neck back to take it all in. Every now and then, throughout the last four years, I’d look up at Royce in all of its collegiate glory and realize how privileged and honored I was to call myself a student at this university.

This particular moment, on my evening run–this is when it began to sink in.Wow. I traced the arches and the pillars with my eyes, drawing a picture to store in my memory. It’s over.

*   *   *

When I arrived at UCLA on move-in day, I was terrified. The campus was a foreign land, and the masses of students and parents milling up and down the hill were strangers. For the entire summer, I had been eagerly awaiting this opportunity to reinvent myself, to put the lonely and quiet years of high school behind me and reemerge a more “interesting” and “outgoing” person. But once this opportunity arose, I didn’t know what to do with it. As I trudged up to my new home, Saxon Suites, I already felt myself retreating on the inside, ready to go through the next four years with a shell over my head.

Admittedly, I spent most of my freshman year with this mentality. Despite having an amazing roommate (Danielle) with whom I bonded instantly and deeply, I spent most of my time cooped up in my room by myself, watching Dawson’s Creek and eating Rendezvous quesadillas.

Now, as a UCLA graduate, I’m happy (and relieved) to say that I found my way out of my dorm room and into a community. I began by attending meetings and socials for a creative writing club called The Writer’s Den, the island of misfit toys, where all shades of dorkiness and uniqueness were welcome. I went on to enjoy many adventures with these beautiful people, from beach days to book festivals to bonfires. I also met some of my closest friends.

Then, as a sophomore, I joined the staff of the Writing Success Program, a student-run, student-initiated project within the Community Programs Office, a department founded on the importance of community and peer support. I started as a neophyte counselor, who hopped on the team mid-year with no training and concluded three years of growth and hard work as the Assistant Director.

WSP Staff 2013-2014
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WSP Staff 2014-2015
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WSP Staff 2015-2016

(I blogged about my incredible, life-changing experience with WSP on their blog. I’ll just leave this link here and a quote below  or else I won’t be able to stop flooding this post with love for this program and all of the people involved.)

From organizing over three workshops to curating WSP’s first literary magazine–[…] I honed and embraced my ability to gather people around a common goal. I realized that a leader is not necessarily someone who distinguishes themselves from the pack; instead, she is someone who builds community by fostering collaboration.

Confidence is no longer this omnipresent but seemingly unattainable desire; rather, it is a foundational part of my identity. No longer preoccupied with self-doubt, I can now see outside of myself and focus much more of my time and energy on the team, the program, and my students. […] I am a leader. And it wasn’t until I claimed that title and believed that I deserved it that I actually became one.

I continued to find community in my short story workshops, where I met some of the most creative, talented, and compassionate students on campus. Every time I went to class, I thought to myself: these are my people. I’d found my corner of creativity at this immense research institution. In these small classes of twelve, led by two of my favorite women, Prof. Michelle Huneven and Prof. Mona Simpson, my peers and I got to know each other through our stories, our writing. I’ve always believed that the bond between storyteller and reader/listener is special and intimate, and these workshops reinforced this belief.

Short story workshop, led by Professor Simpson
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Prof. Huneven (left) & Prof. Simpson (middle)

My wonderful experiences in these classes inspired me to pursue a creative honors thesis, to tackle the task of writing a much longer work than the three-paged stories that I composed for the workshops. I didn’t expect my honors thesis to be a community-building experience. Aside from working with my advisor (Mona Simpson), it was to be, more or less, an independent project that I’d slave away on in the secluded corners of libraries and crowded coffee shops. Or so I thought.

My personal, bound copy of the novella that I wrote for my creative honors thesis.
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Me & Ruth on graduation day!

Well, my guess was partially correct: I did gravitate towards libraries and coffee shops for the actual writing process. But I did not anticipate the invaluable and impactful bond that I would form with my colleagues, Ruth Livier and Vera Burrows. Since Prof. Simpson was to advise all three of us on our projects, we decided to band together as a writing group. So, every Friday, we’d meet in a study room in Young Research Library (YRL) and read aloud our pages and offer feedback. Often we’d discuss our dilemmas and our discoveries, helping one another flesh out ideas and troubleshoot obstacles. Like gym buddies, we motivated one another to keep going, to push forward. At the end of those nine months of brainstorming and writing and rewriting and revising and editing, I had a novella. I received Highest Honors, as well as the Shirley Collier Fiction Prize for this novella–empowering accomplishments that I will never forget. These ninety-plus pages would not be what they are without the guidance and support of my colleagues, whom I now consider dear friends and inspring mentors.

*   *   *

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Layhannara & me

At the end of the year, all of us at WSP gave one another an “award.” My boss, our Project Director, granted me an award that she called “JoAnna–with a capital ‘A.‘”

“I want to recognize JoAnna for being JoAnna,” she said. For the past couple of years, she’d watched me gradually embrace and love myself. I’d finally taken ownership of who I am and who I strive to be, allowing no one but me to define who I am. While I’d already sensed this change in myself, this recognition made me that much prouder of my growth.

All of the graduation ceremonies have come to a close. I am back in my family home, in the room where I’d spent much of my adolescence, surrounded by posters that I’d tacked onto the walls ten years ago.

I don’t have my future figured out just yet.

But here are some things that I do know:

I can now say, with confidence, that I am a leader; I am a writer; and I am still a passionate dreamer. I belong to many communities that uplift me. Yet, I also know that the most consistent and significant source of love in my life is myself. I just needed the support of my communities to help me realize that.

This (self) love will carry me through fear, failure, success–and yes, even through uncertainty.

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