Graduating is exciting. And a little terrifying. If after tossing your cap in celebration of the culmination of years of hard work you get that what now? feeling in the pit of your stomach, you're not alone. Whether you're about to start graduate school, your first full-time job, or that overseas trip you've always meant to take, it's natural to feel a little anxious about whether you're choosing your path. The good news? You can always change directions. We asked some accomplished NYU alumni who've built successful careers in the arts, government, science, media, and beyond to offer their advice to this year's graduating class. Some common threads? Be open to opportunities that scare you. Make a point to give back, even when you feel like you don't have much to spare. Oh, and don't forget to eat. Here are more words of wisdom from these 20 NYU grads on dealing with those post-Commencement jitters.
Alan Menken, Oscar-winning composer of classic Disney films (ARTS '72, Honorary '00)
The best survival tool I can offer anyone going off into the world is the ability to move on in life. If you’ve had a disappointment or a failure, don’t hang around, licking your wounds. If you’ve had a great success, don’t strut around and marvel at yourself. Move on to what’s next. Your job is to put your work, your expression, your ideas, your commitment, and your love into the world. What happens from there is not yours to control or to judge. Just start something new.
Billy Crudup, Tony Award–winning actor of stage and screen (Tisch '94)
If you are ever given the opportunity to take something seriously, jump at it. Whether it’s a job, a pastime, a relationship, a thought, a feeling—when that tuning fork in you is struck and hits the right frequency and you are lit up by something, be aware of that and go toward it. If the world conspires to hide those opportunities from you, be relentless in your effort to broaden your worldview and your life experiences. Coming out of college can often be a clumsy and back-footed experience. The structure that has been given to you or imposed on you evaporates, but that is your opportunity to set your own curriculum! I think when we put our head down and work to build skill, knowledge, discipline, and appreciation for almost anything, we grow—and that is an investment that will pay dividends in your life.
Maggie Schultz, Managing Editor, Buzzfeed News (Steinhardt '14)
Use this moment to try things that scare you a little (or a lot)."
Your first job after graduation can be an experiment. Use this moment to try things that scare you a little (or a lot). Focus on the skills you’ll gain from a role, not just the title or company. I define my career by the things I’ve learned and the skills I’ve mastered instead of the titles I've had.
Networking isn’t only about introducing yourself to people that can advance your career. It’s just as important to build a world around you by connecting like-minded friends and coworkers. The ones worth knowing always pay it forward and will likely lead to your next opportunity.
Clark Gregg, Actor, writer, and director (Tisch '86)
Avoid the sucking vortex of 'chasing work.'"
There were two simple life-altering concepts that I picked up while at NYU, which have sustained and defined my creative life to this day. The first was to avoid the sucking vortex of “chasing work”—an often futile and soul deadening task for recent grads—by making, producing, and writing your own. That seems daunting and it was, but finding a way to do it and doing it again even when I failed taught me everything I know. The second idea was to make the kind of work you’d like to see. This provides a powerful compass because it teaches you what you care about... in my case a first film about a sex-addicted colonial theme park worker with intimacy issues.
Tai Cooper, Deputy Chief Policy Advisor, State of New Jersey (Wagner '14)
Find something to do in life that scares you, but also sets your soul on fire."
Be Fearless, Be Passionate, Be Patient
- Find something to do in life that scares you, but also sets your soul on fire.
- Stop judging yourself based on other people’s successes or failures.
- Be patient—this whole thing called life is a process.
Elissa Phillips, Founder & CEO, Mise En Place Restaurant Services, Inc. (Stern MBA '04)
Give back to the schools and organizations that helped you get where you are today."
I have three pieces of advice for you, but the best advice I can give to a graduate is “Don’t be afraid to fail.” I graduated from Stern and pursued my dream of opening a natural foods/fast casual restaurant. The problem was that in 2005 no one knew what "gluten-free" meant or what kale was. My restaurant failed but that experience gave me hands-on experience in the restaurant industry, which makes me a valuable and trusted advisor to my clients today. Clients don’t see me as their accountant, but as their partner and ally.
Which leads me to my second piece of advice: Find your passion and follow it. While the path may divert from what you originally think it will be, if you follow your passion you will end up with a career that allows you to love what you do even on “bad" days. After my restaurant failed I combined that restaurant knowledge with my business background and started consulting for and providing accounting services to restaurants. When I wrote out my ten year plan while in a class at Stern I would not have thought this is where I would be but I am so happy I followed this path as I am eternally passionate about my career.
My final piece of advice is to be philanthropic, even when you don’t have a lot to give. Give back to the schools and organizations that helped you get where you are today and find other causes that tie into your passion. Support them with not just your money but with your time. There are few things more satisfying than seeing the results of your donations (time and money). Best of luck as you embark on the next chapter of your life.
Jordan Cohen, Director of Communications, The New York Times (Steinhardt '11)
At the start of your career, always be the first one in and the last one out of the office every day. Say thank you. Be grateful. Ask questions. Write things down!"
Congrats, you graduated! Now take a deep breath—maybe get something to eat —and think about how much you’ve accomplished over the past few years. It’s so easy to become stressed and overly focused on what might happen next. But if there’s one thing I learned after graduation, it’s that things almost always fall into place.
You’ve got this. Networking is important, so keep in touch with your colleagues, your professors, and even that intern manager who made you carry a certain celebrity’s abundance of dry-cleaning across town (more than a few times).
At the start of your career, always be the first one in and the last one out of the office every day. Say thank you. Be grateful. Ask questions. Write things down! And like I said earlier, always find time to eat.
Though your first job might not look exactly as you thought it would, consider every step an opportunity to learn, make mistakes and grow. You’ll be glad you did.
Tuffus Zimbabwe, Keyboard player in the Saturday Night Live house band (Steinhardt '09)
Stay positive and remember to give back and help others as well. Kindness has a way of recycling back around."
Congrats on graduating. Continue learning as many aspects of your craft and interests as you can. Try to be around people with similar skills, goals, and network as much as possible. Recognize and give thanks for what progress and achievements you’ve made. Stay positive and remember to give back and help others as well. Kindness has a way of recycling back around.
Lourdes Zapata, Chief Diversity Officer, Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo (Wagner '93)
You will spend more waking hours with your colleagues than most everyone else—get to know them."
Don’t worry about planning your life…
Be open to every experience: unique learning opportunities; a chance to leverage a volunteer or board position into access to new jobs you would not have otherwise considered; new businesses; new contacts. Let your interests and your passions guide you—don’t try to make everything fit into a "master plan."
Take every opportunity…
Join meetings in which you may not have an obvious role but that fit your interests. Never turn down the chance to join a meeting when asked. From watching talented women lead, I've learned how to negotiate, communicate, manage a meeting, lead a team, and develop priorities. I’ve learned how to be forceful when needed, and how to be gracefully diplomatic when called for. Not a day goes by that I don’t apply the skills I learned just from watching and listening to others do it.
Give every opportunity…
Support people and causes you are passionate about. Give your time and available resources to those in need. Respond to those who come to you for advice or support. Remember there are people behind you who will benefit from your earned wisdom and people in front of you who will appreciate your openness and generosity.
Remember to breathe…
You will spend more waking hours with your colleagues than most everyone else—get to know them. Respect and appreciate their experiences and remember that there is more to life than work. So get your work done, but make sure you also have some fun. Love and enjoy your family and friends. They’re the ones who will keep you grounded and remind you that sometimes you just have to disconnect and forget about work for a while.
You are at a wonderful and exciting intersection of your life. You will write your own amazing story.
Alice Colarusso, Digital Marketer (Stern MBA '07)
Be the person who raises your hand when you make a mistake—and fix it."
- People come first always. Treat the people you work with as human beings with feelings. Empathize with and care about everyone. Focus on connecting and understanding what motivates them, what makes them happy. Do your job in a way that aspires to help make everyone you work with a better person. Be patient, teach each other things, be partners trying to achieve a common goal. You will excel along with your peers and partners.
- Listen and communicate openly. Don’t wait to find out how you are doing. Proactively ask how you are doing, what it takes to do well, and what you can do to improve. You will be able to pivot, grow and succeed that much faster.
- Always do the right thing. Be the person who raises your hand when you make a mistake—and fix it. Encourage others to do the same. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s how we handle them that distinguishes us.
Mohamed Belarbi, Co-founder and CEO, VUL9 Security Solutions (NYU Abu Dhabi '16)
The people you know, the posts you share, the videos you watch, and the pages you like are as defining as where you studied."
While Jordan Belfort made the phrase “sell me this pen” quite famous, for young professionals today the real task is “sell me yourself.” All those job interviews you had, all those cover letters you’ve written, the time you spent polishing your CV, and the number of networking events you attended have one single common aspect: They help you sell yourself better.
It’s that simple, yet very powerful. Selling yourself is becoming the prime focus of young professional in an employment ecosystem that values not only applicant’s credentials, but also their social clout and potential. The people you know, the posts you share, the videos you watch and the pages you like are as defining as where you studied in terms of professional persona. Moreover, if you don't exist on Google, you don't exist at all. The first gateway to your personal brand are the search results that come up after Googling your name, so pay attention to the digital footprints you leave online.
The people you socialize with and the events you attend will be as valuable in building your personal brand. They say you are the average of the people you spend time with, and that’s for a reason. If you’re into consulting, connect with consultants or consultancy enthusiasts, go grab coffee or lunch with them, go to their seminars, start reading their books and magazines, and try writing about the topi yourself. That way, you align yourself and your brand to be what you want it to be. If you can master and engineer the personal brand you put out there for yourself, then you've set yourself up to be a highly sought-after asset in an increasingly competitive world.
Megan Balch, co-founder of Flagpole Swimwear (Steinhardt '11)
Be patient, kind, and forgiving to yourself. Don’t take yourself for granted. Stretch, and use SPF moisturizers. Yes, now."
Graduation can be terrifying. It marks the end of clear directions and expectations from parents and teachers, and the sudden silence can feel isolating. But the quiet is good. It allows you to hear yourself, and to really get to know yourself. People don't say it, but the relationship you have with yourself is the most important relationship you will ever have. It will dictate all other personal and professional relationships in your life.
So spend this time learning how to be a good partner to yourself. Take yourself on dates. Ask yourself what kinds of things you like. Learn how to listen to, laugh at, and work with yourself. Realize your strengths and weaknesses. Learn to be someone you can trust to make hard decisions, and to depend on to see those decisions through. Be patient, kind and forgiving to yourself. Don’t take yourself for granted. Stretch, and use SPF moisturizers. Yes, now.
And when you start to freak out, just remember: You got yourself this far, and you can get through whatever comes next.
Monefa M. Anderson, Senior AVP, Nursing & Chief of Staff, Office of Patient Centered Care, NYC HEALTH + HOSPITALS (Wagner '96, Meyers '07)
Have a humble heart but don’t act small—know your worth, find your voice, and speak your truth."
I firmly believe that everything happens as it should, and I would tell my younger self, “it will be okay.” I would advise one to always move from a place of good intention, refrain from wishing others ill, and, when faced with an obstacle or what you deem a setback, instead of thinking “why me?” reframe to think “what I am supposed to learn from this?” My life has been filled with evidence of greater learning and opportunity springing from what I thought was a setback, or things not going as I had planned. To be open to knowing that everything will work out in the end will strengthen your resolve to step out when you are most afraid and keep going when you are tired. Have a humble heart but don’t act small—know your worth, find your voice and speak your truth. Live life with openness, love and gratitude. It will be okay!
Farah Shamout, Biomedical Engineer, Rhodes Scholar (NYU Abu Dhabi '16)
Silence is ample. Take advantage of it to calm your mind, sit back to think effectively and take care of yourself."
Balancing busy schedules on a daily basis during our undergraduate studies often distracts us from appreciating tranquility. A unique piece of advice that I have received after graduation, one which I regularly try to practice, is being comfortable with silence. I encountered this concept for the first time during a Scholar retreat when it was set as a discussion norm by the facilitator. I realized how adopting this exercise immediately unleashed my thoughts and brought appreciation and understanding into the room. Since then, embracing silence has allowed me to deeply engage with pure self-reflection and growth in all facets of my life, whether that was during the highs or lows of my career. Silence is ample. Take advantage of it to calm your mind, sit back to think effectively and take care of yourself. This will give you power to formulate harmonious thoughts, rather than fill the quiet with indeterminate noise.
Natalie de Graaf, Global Projects Lead, National Biorisk Systems, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Global Institute of Public Health '13)
Be wary of ‘suck’cess which plagues those who compromise themselves along the way to reaching success."
Don’t look for the perfect job. Work hard, keep your head down, and opportunities will always present themselves. Through those opportunities, challenge yourself and you’ll find success. But be wary of ‘suck'cess which plagues those who compromise themselves along the way to reaching success.
Thomas Lennon, actor and writer (Tisch '92)
Be relentless. Write, act, direct, do whatever you do nonstop. Even if almost nobody sees your work."
My writing partner, Robert Ben Garant, and I have written 11 studio films, three television series, and dozens of scripts and pilots—most of which never see the light of day. We met in 1988 in the lobby of Brittany Hall, and we still work together every day. Brittany was the unofficial headquarters of our comedy group The State because a lot of us lived there. In fact, after 30 years, many of us in The State still work together frequently, which leads me to my two pieces of advice:
- Surround yourself with passionate people. Not just “motivated” people. Everybody’s motivated. You want people who are borderline crazy. Willing to fail spectacularly but not to back down. Work with people who do not have a plan B.
- There are lots of opportunities out there—but you will be the only person who is creating them. They won’t be coming from anyone else. Be relentless. Write, act, direct, do whatever you do nonstop. Even if almost nobody sees your work. If you are constantly creating, then at some point the world will come looking for you. And it will seem like someone’s given you an opportunity, or that you are lucky. But you are not—you are relentless. Which is the only thing to be.
Zachary Kessel, TDP Senior Associate, Optum (Gallatin '17)
Meeting change with resilience is easier said than done. But, if you show up, put in the effort, empower those around you, and water your roots, you may find it's not as hard as you initially thought."
Change is often the source of great anxiety, and the reality of commencement is shrouded in it. Stress may no longer take the form of exams or papers, but it will almost certainly accompany you as you navigate your new environment, new responsibilities, and perhaps even a new city. What often helps me is reaffirming my support system—my constants no matter what. I know I will always have my family, friends, mentors, and morals to lean on. I go out of my way to nourish at least one of these relationships each day, especially if I feel we are losing touch.
Meeting change with resilience is easier said than done. But, if you show up, put in the effort, empower those around you and water your roots, you may find it's not as hard as you initially thought.
Congratulations on this extraordinary accomplishment. You have much to be proud of. Know that the best has yet to come.
Conrad Sandelman (Gallatin '16) and Matthew Morton (Stern '15), co-founders of Cha Cha Matcha
Don't wait for the 'right' timing. It will never find you. Instead find your own 'right' timing."
Eduardo D. Rodriguez, Helen L. Kimmel Professor of Reconstructive Plastic Surgery, Chair, Hansjörg Wyss Department of Plastic Surgery, NYU Langone Health (Dentistry '92)
Learn to adapt to the unexpected; plan for the best, but prepare for the worst; remember to demand the most of yourself; never compromise your integrity; and be self-confident, but maintain humility.