Worldwatch First-Person: The Innocent Abroad

By Andrew Wilkins

It’s springtime, and as another cohort of university graduates prepares to embark from the safe-havens of its classrooms and cloistered study nooks, I think back on my own recent commencement and have for them only this advice: Stay in school.

Nothing anyone says can prepare you for how challenging your first year out of college will be. It is alternately strange, boring, humiliating, lonely, uncomfortable, infuriating, and of course, uncertain. But above all, it is a test more important than anything Organic Chemistry could throw at you. It is a test of your values—those things you spent the last four years forming in and among your peers, in discussion groups and campus organizations—and it is like nothing that has come before.

Many college students fancy themselves environmentalists. They spend their days studying trans-boundary conservation areas in Sub-Saharan Africa and agonizing over every little detail of their resource use—and getting really angry with those who neglect to do the same. Some ponder what they would need to prepare for life when—not if—civilization comes crashing down, and daydream about finding a small farm far out in the country and being as self-sufficient as possible.

When I was caught up in this, it all seemed so laborious and exasperating that I didn’t see it for what it was: a great luxury. After graduation, there’s little time or energy to muse over homestead living or indulge in hours of amateur impact analyses. Tuition dollars no longer pay for that privilege. Now,much of our time has to belong to someone else.

Nevertheless, we assumed perfect jobs would be waiting, jobs that would set us on a career path to perfect, unassailable ecological holiness. Jobs that were challenging but not overwhelming; absorbing but not consuming; mainstream enough to be respectable yet fringe enough to be innovative and exciting. And of course it would save the planet. And be well paying, and management-level. We had B.A.’s—no photocopying for us!

Of course, employers did not line up with such offers. (Imagine that.) I ended up doing what many graduates do these days: moving back home and trying a lot of different jobs— cheesemaker, reporter, waiter, substitute teacher. Mostly I spent a great deal of time feeling like a directionless drain on society. One of my friends, a brilliant writer, got a marketing job at a publishing company, which she grew to hate in about two days. Another went to Africa and found herself neck-deep in the pitfalls of international aid work. Others moved to every corner of the country to beg for unpaid internships, quarter-time positions, house-sitting jobs, and the like.

It would have been easier to forget about the environment and take the first decent-paying job that came along. I do not fault anyone for choosing this path. I came very close. Luckily, the fact that my resume highlighted the nutrient-cycling compost toilet I built at my school’s organic farm scared most of the management consultant recruiters off.

Eventually, I relocated to Washington, D.C. and found a job at the Worldwatch Institute. The position does not quite match the ideal mentioned above: I spend a lot of time printing mailing labels and building spreadsheets, and not quite so much actually saving the planet with my bare hands. But I feel like I’m making a difference, and that makes me happy.

So what is my real advice for recent grads? Don’t stay in school forever. Enter the real world. It’s going to be a bit of a shock, but it gets easier. And if you can make the transition while holding on to the values you know in your heart are true, you will be grateful in the long run.

A year ago, I never thought I would be able to say this, but things have worked out for me and my friends. We’re all doing things, more or less, that provide sustenance for both body and soul. We’ve made the leap and lived to tell about it, while creating lives that seem to have a ring of economic, social, and environmental sustainability. All this, just in time to go back and get that Masters degree.

Andrew Wilkins is an administrative assistant in Worldwatch’s Marketing and Communications Departments and a 2004 graduate of Dartmouth College.