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Graduation: The Loneliest Day

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A Letter to My Fellow Graduates of the Great Recession

It's supposed to be like your wedding day or the birth of a child: blissful. Life affirming. There are flags and robes and sashes, hugs and cheers and high-fives, the band playing its jubilant heart out. Family members in all directions -- wearing huge smiles. Scores of volunteers passing out food and programs and telling everyone where to sit to witness the culmination of all your hard work, to send you off to achieve something historic, become someone unforgettable. But I have never felt less like celebrating.

I was jobless, hopeless, and utterly unprepared to be flung off my campus bike and into a desk chair. It was June 2009, and, like you, I confronted the worst economy in decades.

It seemed to come out of nowhere, this now-you're-an-adult business. Not the register-to-vote-because-now-your-opinion-matters-in-society kind of adult, or the toast-to-legal-happy-hour-whenever-you-feel-like-it kind of adult. This time we really mean it. We mean the look-yourself-in-the-eye-and-figure-out-what-you're-going-to-do-with-your-time-on-earth kind of adult.

The night before commencement, I sat on my couch for hours, paralyzed. I understood how lucky I was to have spent four years at Stanford, and I'd gotten more out of that time than anybody could ask for. Of course it was only fair to step aside and give a new batch of students a turn. Yet I couldn't handle it ending because, for the first time, I had no idea where I was going next.

Like you, I am a member of the trophies-for-all generation. I felt as if I had been on a rocket ship my whole life, told I could do anything I put my mind to, and then -- suddenly -- I was freefalling.

I woke in the morning still on the couch and slowly began to face the music. I stared at my image in the mirror and tried to navigate my cap to a reasonably attractive slant. Concluding that no such slant exists on those things, I gave up. I zipped up the flowery blue dress I simultaneously realized I hated, and started the long walk to the stadium, alone.

Everyone else wore their robes, giddily playing with the folds of the fabric, yet I carried mine. Putting it on meant this was really happening.

Everyone else looked deliriously happy, yet it felt like a march to my beheading. Don't they realize we're getting kicked out of here?

My mom and brother appeared at the stadium entrance to hand me an orchid lei, and I joined friends inside. The baking turf and surge of pomp made my head swell and stomach ache. Now sweating in my billowy black oven, I couldn't wait to get out of there.

I felt bad for feeling bad when I noticed after the ceremony how hard my parents were working to make me see the moment for what it was. In a deluge of beaming relatives, all I saw were wilting orchids dropping from the string pinching my neck.

I tried to put on a smile for them, but simply could not gain a healthy perspective. And for an embarrassingly long time, I still couldn't.

Three years later, I can now laugh at my melodrama, and at events from that day, like briefly losing my grandmother only to learn she had wandered off to another department's lunch buffet to stuff her purse. As many a twenty-something can tell you, though, leaving college in the Great Recession is no joke.

As they say, it got worse before it got better -- the countless cover letters sent into the digital abyss, the self-doubt, the adjustment to living at home at 22, the mind-numbing first job I landed after many frustrating months.

Like you already have or soon will, I eventually found my footing (right around the time I gave away that flowery blue dress, which I never wore again).

It's nice to finally see that adulthood is -- surprise! -- actually a lot of fun. Far more fun than I could allow myself to imagine on the day I grudgingly exited lalaland through a tunnel of balloons.