THE BLOG

On Finding Value in Your First Job Out of College

05/02/2014 03:18 pm ET | Updated Jul 02, 2014

I told myself to breathe deeply, stay calm, be creative, and think quickly in the moment. It was the second week of my new job, and I had encountered my first major crisis. Like any recent college graduate, I was relatively used to high stress situations. But this wasn't a paper deadline or an upcoming final; today, my current concern was the two-and-a-half-year-old who had locked herself in her parents' room while under my supervision.

In the months after graduating from college with a liberal arts degree and little money, I became a full-time, live-in nanny for two kids under the age of 6. I quickly learned that this job would be much more than babysitting, and would challenge me in ways I'd never experienced. This May, thousands of college seniors will graduate from schools around the country, and for many of them, job prospects will be slim. Like me, graduates will have to take jobs in service, labor, childcare or other fields that do not require their expensive degrees, because they need the money or they do not yet know what they want for their career. I urge these grads to appreciate the value that can be gained from jobs that are seemingly menial and most times underpaid, and to leverage those skills for the future. I, for example, will bring the same quick thinking and creativity to my next job -- which I hope will not be in childcare, but working for a non-profit that is solving problems in unique ways -- that I summoned when I used a butter knife and screwdriver to unhinge the door frame to get two year old Charlotte out of her parents room.

I graduated from the University of Michigan last year with degrees in environmental science and political science, and a specialization in urban systems, but without a clear sense of what to do next. Law school? A fellowship? Non-profits? This indecision spread me thin, pulling me in many directions, and it was probably evident when I applied (unsuccessfully) for jobs that I wasn't sure about. I found a short term position for the summer, but as the fall loomed, my student loan statements started to pile up, and I still had no concrete direction or relevant job opportunities. I decided to take a nannying job because it made financial sense for me. My specific circumstances are unique but my situation is not: 48 percent of college graduates are in jobs that do not require a degree. The lousy economy and chronic underemployment that our generation is facing is easy blame. But a prospective employer will rather see what you gained from a set of experiences rather than excuses about why you worked at a coffee shop. Whatever the first job out of graduation is, you have to prove to future employers how they excelled despite their circumstances. They have to explain with numbers how they were the best retail associate in the region or and tell how they remained patient and responsible through 70 hours a week of taking care of toddlers. Google executive Laszlo Bock pointed this out in his interview with the New York Times last week,"The key," he said "is to frame your strengths as: I accomplished X, relative to Y, by doing Z."

Unfortunately, being the best nanny in the neighborhood won't always translate to having enough relevant experience for the job you want. Fred Cook, CEO of the international public relations firm, GolinHarris, explains how he had to take on new projects to make his former job relevant for his current career. He volunteered and spent free time to build the tangible skills he needed to transform a teaching job into a public relations career. This past year, I did the same: I spent my weekends interning with a non-profit, in order to gain more experience with project management.

Along with cultivating an interesting and unique skill set, graduates should use this transitory time to actually figure out what they want to do next. They should think deeply about academic and personal interests and take steps, no matter how small those steps might be, to use their degree and life experience towards finding a job they love. Maybe meeting with current students in the Master's program you're considering reveals that it's not the best choice for you. Perhaps volunteering at an organization opens new doors and unearths new passions. Maybe you discover, after shadowing a local lawyer, that law school is the right choice, or perhaps working in a cubicle affords the realization that you want a career that allows you to be more active. The years spent in college are not always enough time come up with a plan for the future, and it's important to keep asking questions, exploring new options, and continually working at becoming a more qualified applicant in your field. I want to reiterate: You will not magically have things all worked out simply because you have a diploma in your hand. It is a process that takes years, or even decades. I congratulate the few that have found their dream job right out of school. I hope they appreciate their current situation and encourage them keep an open mind about careers and the future; because it is impossible to know how circumstances may change down the road.

I think whether someone is working at a fortune 500 company or as a nanny, the "post-grad" period of life is scary and uneasy with constant questioning of "am I doing the right thing?" Even if an ideal career seems impossible to imagine, use this distinctive time in life to build beneficial professional skills as well as for personal growth and discovery. The late Marina Keegan, whose book of essays was released last month, sums this up heartbreakingly in her final piece for the Yale Daily News. Her piece, which went viral when she tragically died days after graduation from Yale, urges her fellow graduates to live up to their potential but also find what is important to them. She says: "The notion that it's too late to do anything is comical. It's hilarious. We're graduating college. We're so young. We can't, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it's all we have."

Keegan is right, our lives and careers are not a race -- but we also must keep running. We must keep learning, challenging ourselves, and holding fast to that sense of possibility of achieving something great. But we cannot expect that this success will come by sitting and waiting for it. Sure, we can mess up, but we must learn from the missteps. If the time is right, it's alright to change your mind as long as you use your past experiences constructively. It may take time and it's perfectly fine to not be a 25 year-old millionaire -- or to never be a millionaire for that matter -- but it is still important to build a solid career foundation in your twenties. I am not discouraging determination or drive right out of graduation, but instead I am championing young people to stay resolute even if they don't have it all figured out right away.

On a polar-vortex cold day in January, steps away from her house, now three-year-old Charlotte threw a tantrum and refused to go inside. I was kicked, hit, and screamed at while I hoisted her inside, and in that moment I wasn't feeling very successful. On the toughest days, like this one, I felt that gnawing desire to be out in the world -- to be making a difference for environmental issues or equality or education -- was especially acute. I longed to be working on a team solving problems and being impactful in my society, rather than arguing with a toddler. I realized, though, that I had to harness my determination to change my situation, while also appreciating the small successes each day. That afternoon, I got Charlotte inside the house. Other days, I helped her count to 50 and saw her brother Nolan squeal with delight and pride as he finished his first book all by himself. I know my career as an activist will come, and when I'm out knocking doors in the cold for a cause I care about, I will use the perseverance and patience that I learned in my year as a nanny.