What's Next After Graduation?
Artificial intelligence and real humans offer their advice
While contemplating the wisdom needed for an article directed at graduating seniors, teenagers who are eagerly entering — or sometimes unwillingly stumbling into — adulthood, I did what any worldly person in 2023 would do: I consulted with artificial intelligence.
"Graduating high school doesn't mean you're done learning," OpenAI's ChatGPT chatbot wanted graduates to know. "Education is a lifelong process and there are many ways to continue learning beyond the classroom. Read books, take online courses, attend workshops, or learn a new skill."
"That's some pretty good algorithmic advice there, ChatGPT," I wrote back. "What life experiences guide your counsel?"
"As an AI language model, I do not have life experiences," it responded. "There are certain aspects of life that are better understood and conveyed through human experiences, emotions, and empathy. Additionally, human advisors can provide emotional support and empathy, which are crucial elements in offering effective life advice."
That seemed like some pretty good advice too, so I took it. Now, the question remained: to whom should I speak? Teenagers themselves, not yet tainted by the trials and tribulations of adulthood? Celebrities who could entice more clicks for my article? Adults for whom the naivety of youth has been supplanted by the wisdom of experience? Maybe a local curmudgeon who, if only I could crack through their rigid exterior, would reveal compassionate truths of the universe?
"Both youthful teenagers and older individuals with life experience can possess wisdom, but in different ways," advised ChatGPT. "Wisdom is not necessarily tied to age, but rather, it is a combination of knowledge, experience, and judgment."
There was that word again: experience. As Julius Caesar famously said, "Experience is the teacher of all things." I decided to reach out to a few people with unique life experiences to see what wisdom could be mined from the depths of their collective journeys. My first question was one that I've asked myself many times: what advice would you give an 18-year-old you if you had the chance?
Maurice Troop, graduate of Central High School
"I would say learn when to speak and when to stay silent," says Maurice Troop, a Central High School graduate whose experiences include being an educator, Erie City Council member, and head of The Breeze Band.
"Things may not always go exactly the way you plan, but things will work out exactly the way they are supposed to," explains Sonya Byes, an East High School graduate who now wears many hats, including as host of the local talk show Chatting with Sonya & Friends. To have fear of a choice, she believes, doesn't mean that it's the wrong choice. "Don't be afraid to take risks, because they often pay off. Have the courage to do things [while] afraid."
Marcus Atkinson graduated from Strong Vincent, then attended school and lived in Atlanta for a decade before settling back in Erie. Today, he hosts NEXT with Marcus Atkinson on WQLN PBS and has held leadership positions with (among others) ServErie, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Center, and The Nonprofit Partnership.
"Get involved with the community and get involved with the organizations and people [of your community]," he recommends, noting the significant crossover of people from his past experiences with roles he has taken later in life. It's something he never anticipated during his younger years. "You don't think about it when you're a kid, but just make sure that you're connecting and being involved — because for as much as you believe it will never come back around, it does."
Dave Blazek, a Cathedral Preparatory School graduate who won the Reuben Award for America's Best Newspaper Panel Comic in 2019 and 2020 as a cartoonist, wishes he had better understood that where you're from has no bearing on what you are able to accomplish. "Your talent doesn't know where you live," says the one-time Erieite, who now makes his home outside of Philadelphia. Today, his comic, Loose Parts, is syndicated by The Washington Post Writers Group and read across the world. "I've met so many people with such great potential, yet they never pursued it under the weird thought that only people in big, fancy places have great ideas and the ability to bring them to fruition."
Dave Blazek, graduate of Cathedral Prep
For many who come from a small city or rural town, it can be difficult to imagine breaking into industries that might seem otherworldly, professions that seem to exist in other realities, impossibly out of reach. Despite this perception, Blazek explains that especially today, with how technology and social media connect us across the globe, we have more avenues for pursuing our goals.
"So, get going," Blazek continues. "Start working your talents to see what develops. If you fail, make it because you failed, not because you restricted yourself. Your ideas for a business; your thoughts for a song; your dream of living an authentic, quiet life that matches you… none of this is geographically dependent. So, figure out what it is that makes you happy. Figure out how you might make a living at it. Focus on the point where those two lines intersect. And get going."
Perhaps it's easier said than done, of course. There is always adversity. Even with a clear plan in place, there will be the inevitable challenges and, at times, even paralyzingly scary moments. Byes notes that, for her, optimism and hope are essential. She deeply believes everything will work out exactly how it's supposed to, but she still stresses the importance of being able to pivot when things don't go as expected. Being flexible and open to change when facing life's obstacles is key. "The power of redirection is the universe's way of saying: do it differently," she maintains.
The company you keep also matters. Atkinson stresses the importance of one's social circle to assist with strenuous times and highlights a childhood friend of 46 years as his "personal ace. "
"He's always been my first call, my longest call, my most intimate call, and that includes a lot of tears, a lot of frustration, and a lot of yelling because he gives me the freedom in that space to just be me, because he knows me so well," describes Atkinson. Their roots and understanding of each other's history, values, and background provide insight that is often lost in some of the superficial friendships of the social media age. "[H]e understands the journey that it took me to get where I am. So, when life is tough, it's a lot easier for this person to say the things that he knows needs to be said in that moment."
Marcus Atkinson, graduate of Strong Vincent High School
Moving away certainly has value too, he adds, as it provides new perspectives and opportunities for growth, but sometimes the friends made later in life lack the perspective of longevity, which is why he always comes back to his childhood friend. He has noticed the same with his father, who, now in his seventies, still has regular conversations with his own childhood best friend.
"Figure out who knows and really gets you right now, who has stood the test of time [as your friend]. Don't lose contact with that person," he suggests. "As time goes on, that person — or those persons if you're lucky enough to have more than one — is really key to your growth. There's a familiarity that you can't buy."
Troop has also seen the people in his life as indispensable during difficult times and he's made a conscious effort to lean on them for their wisdom and experience. "I always had relatives or mentors that I would ask about various tough situations," he explains. "Their wisdom would help me to overcome them. You never know if you are totally making the right choice. But I would consult with people who have experience in those areas and then make a decision."
Atkinson seconds the importance of these mentors and notes that during every chapter in his life, these people have been available and necessary to his own personal growth and his ability to see something within himself that he may have otherwise missed. "I believe that every season has a mentor or mentors for that season in your life," he says. "When it comes to wherever your life is heading, someone is always put into your life that helps shape it in that moment and direction you're going."
Sometimes though, as Byes says, you just need to trust your instincts. "I don't think you ever really know [if you're making the right choice]," she says. "What I do know is that I trust my woman's intuition. That's a real thing. If it doesn't feel right, more than likely it's not right. I also pray a lot and I believe a woman's intuition is a gift from God."
Sonya Byes, a graduate of East High School (Photo: Jessica Hunter)
Blazek believes that another key is to, as he calls it, get "on the right side of the mountain" while also reducing the amount of bad decisions one makes in the process. If there is something that you really want to do or pursue in life, he says, you'll want to learn as much as you can about it and then simply go for it.
"Let's say you want to be a rock star," he illustrates. "Well, you might not have the full talent to do that, but get yourself into the music industry somehow, someway. Get on that side of the music mountain. Or, at the least, get into a creative field instead of a purely analytic one. Get on that side of the mountain. … In short, you can afford to make a few bad choices, because you'll still end up somewhere you can learn to like."
Also, it's important to try and be cool, but maybe not cool in the usual understanding of the word.
"Cool is the slow, long acquisition of skill," Blazek says. He points out that having a fancy car is nice, but not necessarily cool, as it's something anybody with the money could go out and buy. Instead, he argues, it's the skills that take time — playing an instrument, learning a language, running a farm, building a business, and so on — that are cool. "[S]ince a time-acquired skill can't easily be acquired by the next person you meet, it makes you unbelievably cool. Do this and you'll be the person other people are drawn to at parties." He compares it to being a long-distance runner and how the mentality learned from this process, the uphill battles and even the pain, is invaluable. "So, while you work on being cool, you're actually building the very endurance that will see you through the tough times."
I checked back in with the artificial intelligence. According to an algorithm, was this all good advice? "These are generally considered good principles to guide young individuals," ChatGPT concludes. "It's still important to note that everyone's circumstances are unique. It's essential for individuals to adapt these principles to their specific situations and make decisions that align with their personal values, goals, and aspirations."
Indeed, although experience guides us, every journey through life is different. "We know nothing of what will happen in future," remarked Abraham Lincoln in 1839, "but by the analogy of experience."
"When you look back, you get it," reflects Atkinson on the experiences of his life. "In so many ways, I'm that nine-year-old kid still. But at the same time, I've realized a lot of my potential as a man and that is an amalgamation of all of these different experiences and all of these different people. Life is a beautiful thing in that respect."
Jonathan Burdick runs the public history project Rust & Dirt. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
EC3 Sees First Class Graduate
Photo credit: Mike Schnelle
Erie County Community College's first graduating class is also transitioning into a new phase in their lives. Their first ceremony was held on June 3, 2023 and included 28 graduates. Ten graduates received their certificate in welding and ten others earned an Associate of Applied Business in Management and Entrepreneurial Thinking. Of the graduates, 18 are moving right into the workforce while the others are planning to continue their education by transferring into four-year institutions including the Penn West University System, Penn State system, Mercyhurst University, and Slippery Rock University.
To learn more about EC3 and their educational offerings, visit www.ecccpa.org.