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Getting beyond graduation

By Amber Shanahan

Graduation is a joyous and proud occasion filled with anticipation of what's to come. But emotionally, it's a mixed bag -- anxiety, apprehension, grief, fear or sadness may live alongside relief, joy and delight.

One graduate's next steps and outlook can look quite different from another's and so can their attitudes about their future. Some may be thrilled to say goodbye to the comforts of home to explore parts unknown, but others may feel apprehensive about their new found freedom, and a few may have no plan in place at all -- causing feelings of unease, pressure and confusion.

No matter the emotion, we as youth workers and caring adults can both acknowledge the spectrum of feelings and help youth prepare to step into the big wide world. The experiential learning model is a tried and true way to guide discussion by focusing on what has been done, what skills have been gained and how these skills can be applied to future endeavors.


Graduating youth are experiencing a multitude of events, activities, and formal processes that require a tremendous amount of thoughtful planning and execution. These experiences can be overwhelming and stressful (i.e. final exams and college/work preparation), and the results can be exhilarating or down-right terrifying. Here are some phases of the experiential learning model to help youth consider how these experiences can translate into tangible skills and future-oriented action.


Embrace the experience by asking some good ol’ fashioned, reliable questions: What happened? What went well? What would you change moving forward? What skills did you gain? Discuss the facts of the experience and ask the appropriate questions to obtain as much context as possible.


Dig a little deeper—Ask: Why are these experiences important to you and your future? What is essential for you to feel successful? Why are you feeling this way now and how might you feel in a month? Two months? One year?


Help youth identify how their lessons learned can translate into opportunity-focused goal setting. How can you, the supportive adult leader, utilize discouraging emotion to propel constructive results for the future? If a youth is facing challenges, ask: What are some things that can be done to change your perspective? What is your ideal end-result? What are the options available, and how do your skills translate to the “real world”?


Work with youth to identify the best solution to combat negative emotions or fears and support them through their journey of application. Also, be mindful that a youth may demonstrate joy today, but that joy can shift to nerves in the future. By exploring one’s emotions, stress-triggers, options, and possible outcomes (and what to do if their future plans do not turn out to be exactly what they expected), you provide a degree of relief and comfort as graduates work through a diverse range of positive and negative emotions.

Graduation is a celebratory occasion and a giant milestone that requires reflection and support, regardless of how a youth is embracing or rejecting the transition. As youth professionals, it’s important that we remain thoughtful of the throng of feelings that are associated with such an enormous change in one’s life and remain focused on the experience at hand (DO), the significance of thinking about what has already been accomplished thus far (REFLECT), and the opportunities that lie ahead (APPLY).

This model can be used to frame a discussion with recent grads, but can also be helpful to guide conversation around other momentous life events. Have you done this? What were the results?

-- Amber Shanahan, Extension educator

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  1. Amber, thanks for the blog. As the mom of a recent high school graduate, I appreciated how you framed the questions around the experiential learning model. I just had a similar conversation with my graduate as she started a new job and showed some anxiety about being successful. It was helpful to ask her reflective questions.

    Thanks for showing the wide application of the model.


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