As graduation passes for many of my friends in college, I reflect back to where I was a little over a year ago. After finals ended I was impatiently waiting for the graduation ceremony without a thought to what would really lie ahead. I had already accepted a job offer with Waggoner Engineering, Inc., a well-known Civil Engineering firm in Jackson, but had no idea the changes that were in store.

Not all problems have a simple answer. If I could go back and talk to myself on graduation day I would start by saying school is just homework for the test that is life. We are taught the basics and given some examples but there is not a cookie cutter formula for most of the situations that roll across your desk. You have to be able to take the knowledge imparted by your teachers and co-op experiences then apply with a critical eye those skills to develop your own engineering judgment.

Politics is real. If I could go back to college I would make better use of the vast networking opportunity it provided. I’ve come to learn that jobs sometimes are given to those with the best connections and professional networks. Topically that seems unfair; the most qualified person should get the job in an idealized society. Upon looking deeper into the nature of this paradigm, it makes sense to hire your personal connection to mitigate risk. If you know someone who does quality work and you have an established professional relationship, you would choose that person because you feel confident in their ability to execute a project rather than an individual who brings more unknowns to the table. My advice to those graduating would be make connections and keep the relationships strong for you never know when they might become important.

Dress for the job you have. I found that the adage dress for the job you want to not be completely accurate. If we take out dress and replace it with perform, it sets up a precedence of always looking ahead. And you might end up missing out on the joy and value of the experiences at the position you have currently. I am so thankful for my coworkers and the leadership of our company. They challenge me and put me outside of my comfort zone with new projects. Not every task I have completed was glamorous, not every idea I’ve generated panned out. Going forward I can appreciate the opportunities I was given and use them as the basis of my engineering judgment.

Do not choose a job for money alone. A year ago as my graduating class discussed the job offers we had received, I heard a lot of people state they were going to just follow the money. As a poor college graduate with heaps of student loans that may seem ideal, but just stop and think first. Does this company value me, do they take personal interest in my success, or am I just another number? These basic questions can help you analyze your prospective employers to see which place may be the best fit. I am not saying a competitive salary isn’t important but it shouldn’t be the sole factor in your decision. I found that when interviewing I could get a real sense of the community each office had. Some places were highly stressful, others were highly regulated. I chose a place where there was a balance between the need to perform and personal ownership of projects while still feeling like a family environment.

In the end I know the graduates of 2014 have great things ahead of them and cannot wait to see where the new young leaders, especially in civil engineering, end up. As I mature in my engineering experience I hope that I am able to inspire those around me to be better just as I have been truly motivated by my coworkers to really stretch my boundaries to see what I can accomplish. Without my mentors, bosses, and friends at Waggoner, I would not be able to say I have grown as a young engineer and been able to learn through the experiences I have been presented. There are more lessons I could share about my first year in the “real world,” but I will end on this quote by E. E. Cummings, “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”