By Madeline Dangerfield-Cha and Joy Zhang

For most of us, graduation is a time of celebration and uncertainty. New grads may be thinking: What am I going to do with my life? Will any of this work out? Can I adult?  

Some may wish they could ask their future selves for advice, but we offered them the next best thing — a chance to tap into the collective wisdom of those who have gone before them. Take a look.

We’re co-founders of Mon Ami, an organization that connects the generations by bringing college students together with older adults for conversation and companionship. So earlier this spring, we brought five college students together with six older adults from SF Village, a San Francisco neighborhood nonprofit dedicated to navigating the challenges and opportunities of aging.

Collectively, that’s more than 500 years of wisdom about savoring graduation, managing anxieties and embracing life ahead. Here are their top five tips.  

1. Stress and worry are momentary.
Given pressure to perform and plan for the future, college can be overwhelming. Or as Amber Dot. Renée, a student at the University of San Francisco, said, “It’s like “being dropped in another universe.”

The SF Village members recalled similar times of uncertainty, whether it was worry about how to pay the bills or frustration over being discriminated against in the workplace. But they said the anxiety dissipated over time. For them, anxiety transformed into the knowledge that individuals can survive stress and hardship — and conquer.

2. First love can be mystifying, terrifying and unpredictable.
“We fell in love and got married at 19.  What did we know?”
“I’m happily single.”
“We met in seventh grade but life only brought us together at 60.”  
“Getting married was the hardest decision I made.”  
“Fortunately, I had a husband who was supportive of me and my career.”  

Ah romance. It’s nothing like the movies, folks. You might fall deeply in love at a young age, you may find that it fades or grows deeper, or you may wait many years to feel it at all. Even for the elders interviewed, love often seemed like a mystery. Best to take it in stride and hold on for a wild ride.

3. Be firm, be focused, and don’t let anybody stop you.
“There is a lot of luck in life, but you don’t know it until later,” counsels Miles Anderson, a 70-something musician. In the meantime, the only thing you can do is be resolute in what you choose to do.

Some older adults interviewed were the only women in their math degree program or first job. Their parents didn’t want them to go to college at all (why spend the money on a future housewife?). They lived the lesson, “Haters gonna hate.”

When asked what she would tell her 21-year-old self at graduation, now 99-year-old Angela Little says, “If you want to do something, be firm, be focused, go ahead and do it, and don’t let anybody stop you.” You’ll be proud of what you can accomplish and learn even when others may not believe in you.  

4. Experiment and embrace mistakes.
Becoming your fullest self requires trial and error. As Kate Hoepke of SF Village said, “When I had kids, I started asking myself, not what kind of mother I wanted to be, but what kind of person did I want to be?”  

Rather than expecting perfection from the start, she learned that her early twenties were all about experimentation. “Some things will work and some things won’t, but it’s important to try. And sometimes the things that don’t are the most precious.”

5. Breathe deeply and enjoy life.
When times are good, take it all in and savor every second. When times are bad and you wish you could skip ahead to the next chapter, take it all in and know that you are experiencing life as it is.  

Ask Anne Averill, and she’ll tell you: “Breathe deeply and enjoy life.”


Madeline Dangerfield-Cha and Joy Zhang are co-founders of Mon Ami. Joy is also an Encore Public Voices Fellow.

Published: May 24, 2019