bridgeOver the holidays, how many times did your relatives ask you, “What’s next after graduation?”

For those of you who were able to answer that question no sweat, congratulations and I’m jealous of you. For everyone else, you’re not alone. When asked that question during my final year of undergrad (last year), I told my aunts and uncles that occupational therapy school was my next step, even though I didn’t think that was what I wanted.

For some reason, I was under the impression that I had three choices: I could hold onto my youth by continuing to be a student, I could start my career, or I could do neither and be deemed a failure. I wasn’t ready to start a career and I didn’t want to be a failure, so although I wasn’t sure about the program choice, I decided to go with the school option.

At the beginning of May, I learned that I was accepted to three OT programs, and I had one month to accept or decline the offers. Everyone was so happy for me and I wanted to be too, but for some reason, I cried everyday throughout May.

Driving to the grocery store: tears. Going for a jog: tears. Watching High School Musical: tears.

No 21 year-old should cry for Gabriella while Troy badmouths her to the basketball team: High School Musical wasn’t really the reason for my tears. The real reason was that in the back of my mind, I was constantly worrying about what I would do with my OT offers.

Occupational therapy is a great field, and I knew I was blessed to have been accepted, but I couldn’t see myself going back to school for a career that I wasn’t 100% sure about. At the same time, I was so worried about what people (particularly my parents) would think about my decision to decline such a great opportunity.

I spent the next couple of weeks really thinking about what to do and building my confidence to make a decision that was true to myself. On the day of the response deadline, I clicked decline three times. I knew my parents wouldn’t be happy, but I couldn’t pick a career that put their happiness over my own.

Not too surprisingly, my seemingly irrational crying came to a stop after I declined my offers.

With the OT option closed for the meantime, I was able to start making other plans.

I turned to books, TEDx Talks, and Pinterest quotes to help me realize that I’m young; I don’t need to have everything figured out right now. However, indefinitely chillin’ on my parents’ couch was also not an option. After a month or two of reflection, I made a plan for my next steps.

I’ve always had an interest in journalism but the fear of the instability of the field and pressures to stick to the status quo (High School Musical reference—sorry, but it’s a good movie!) influenced me to pursue other things.

After taking that reflection time though, I realized that I had to go back to that interest. Although it may not be the safest choice or the route that my parents prefer, it’s the path that makes me most excited. And I’m convinced that following one’s own happiness will result in the most success (I got that from Pinterest).

Right now, I’m working for a newspaper back home, applying to do a master’s in journalism, and planning a work/travel trip for the summer.

My parents were originally disappointed when I decided not to go right back to school, but they’re glad to see that I’m happily moving in the direction that I am. I don’t have my whole life figured out like I thought I should’ve in fourth year, but I now know that’s okay (thanks again, quotes on Pinterest). For the meantime, I have a plan for my next steps and I’m working confidently towards them.

So if you’re one of those people who cringes when asked what’s next after graduation, here are some tips to help you figure it out so that you can give your nagging aunt an answer.

Firstly, remember that you’re lucky to be graduating and to be in the situation that you’re in. Maybe you’re stressed, but be grateful and stressed.

Value what your heart’s saying over anyone else’s opinions. If you can’t hear what it’s saying, take some time to slow down, really listen, and reflect.

Make a plan that’s in line with what makes you happy and follow that plan confidently. Your happiness and confidence will quiet the opinions of everyone else.

It’s okay to turn down a good opportunity to explore other opportunities that are better suited for you.

You don’t need to know where you’ll be in thirty years, but if you listen to your heart today, you’ll be fine tomorrow.

I leave you with another quote from High School Musical: “There’s not a star in heaven that you can’t reach.” Yeah, I’m a loser but the quote applies. Good luck!