Even after graduation, UAA graduates are still finding ways to stay busy

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After having graduated in May, Sierra Afoa plans to take advantage of her newfound freedom to explore Alaska and spend more time outdoors. Photo credit: Young Kim

One of the most common questions anyone will hear before graduating is: “What are you going to do now?” For some graduates, there isn’t an answer, but finding work in their field doesn’t have to be the only goal in their future.

Dustin Mendoza, a UAA graduate with a double major in electrical engineering and computer systems engineering, considers himself one of the lucky students that found a job before graduating.

After having applied to multiple places since November of last year, Mendoza is happy to say that he will begin working for technology giant Intel this summer as a technical support engineer.

“Out of all of them, this one was the one that was most in line with what I wanted to do because one of my long-term goals is to start my own company doing robotic solutions,” Mendoza said.

Many students are anxious about their plans for after college graduation, and not all of them know exactly what they want to do. The pressure to find a decent job or even pursue more education can be overwhelming, but it hasn’t stopped Mendoza from chasing after his ambitions.

Part of his plans for the future includes eventually going back to school for a master’s degree or doctorate in robotics and mechatronics, a scientific field that combines electrical and mechanical engineering as well as programming. Until then, he has been enjoying the newfound freedom that comes with graduation and a new, steady job.

Along with taking a trip to California, Mendoza has been able to invest more time into anime, robotics and video games. He says that while others may enjoy outdoor activities as a hobby, he prefers programming his own video games.

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While a new job and no longer having class can be exciting, there are other aspects of being graduated that are not as appealing to Mendoza.

“I feel like any person who’s literally starting their life… I’m not prepared, I have no idea what’s going on,” Mendoza said. “Nobody taught me any of these things. I’m learning about the 401k plan and, you know, like life insurance, health insurance… It’s like, you know, you get prepared for your job, but you’re not prepared for life itself.”

Jennifer Merly shares similar concerns after having graduated this spring. Although she does not yet have a job lined up, her time has still been taken up with what she refers to as “getting life together.”

“It’s just been kind of a catch-up on bills and house stuff and social life,” Merly said.

Now that she has earned her bachelor’s degree in justice with a minor in communications, Merly finds it hard to believe that her college years are over. She says that after nearly 19 years of school — from kindergarten to college — her feelings range from excitement to anxiety.

“I don’t know, it’s mixed feelings… I can just do whatever I want pretty much. But it’s also terrifying that you’ve got to figure out what you want to do,” Merly said.

Her position with her church as a temporary youth pastor’s assistant ends in less than a month, but Merly has plans to focus on enjoying her summer. They include taking a road trip through the states to visit family and possibly volunteering at camps.

As far as education, Merly hopes to eventually earn a master’s degree in justice or even attend law school. Her main goal revolves around helping youth, and she sees the McLaughlin Youth Center as a potential career choice.

“I like working with kids and teenagers. I’ve always volunteered in some aspect. So I would love to work with children or youth in the justice field… whether it’s in the court systems, whether it’s in the correctional facilities,” Merly said.

Although many graduates may feel overwhelmed and that they need to start their lives sooner than later, she is accepting the stress as a good thing. Merly is the first person in her immediate family to graduate — let alone attend — college and now she says that she is being expected to pursue more education or find a good job.

“The pressure is definitely there and I think it’ll always be there, especially from family… But I think some pressure is good ‘cause I think it kind of keeps you grounded, kind of keeps you focused,” Merly said.

Similar to Merly, Sierra Afoa has taken interest in helping out the youth and working at McLaughlin. With a bachelor’s degree in social work and a minor in justice, she says that the community gave so much to her and she would want to return the favor. Afoa has spent her time working with the Special Olympics and doing an internship with the youth center. She also played on the UAA women’s basketball team during all four years of college.

Before trying to find a full-time job and consider continuing school, Afoa wants to take advantage of the free time she has now during the summer. Years of playing basketball while going to school have taken away being able to hang out with friends and family. Now she has the opportunity and appreciates it.

“I haven’t gotten a chance to do that in quite some time. Basketball and school have always come first, especially the last four years,” Afoa said. “Even during my summers I was training for basketball or had to work part-time jobs to pay for school.”

So far, her family has taken a trip to the East Coast to visit her twin brother, who has also graduated. Unlike him, someone who would like to travel, Afoa says that she would much rather stay in Alaska because she loves it here. If there are any trips that she will be taking this year, they will be to places like Seward or Homer.

Afoa also sees herself possibly coaching basketball and volunteering, but has no desire to pursue the sport in terms of playing. Athletics run in the family since her parents and older siblings played sports, but she says that they have been patient when it comes to her decision against continuing.

“My family is super accepting and like, my brother only played a year and then he was done with athletics,” Afoa said. “My parents 100 percent supported him in that.”

It is important to find people that can be a support system, she says. Even if it isn’t family, there are others that will be there for you in whatever you choose to do.

“Kind of like, following what you want to do and then finding people that support that… I’d definitely say ‘do you,’” Afoa said.

Despite the hassles of being newly graduated, Mendoza and Merly also have some insight and advice for those who will soon be in their shoes.

“Figure out what you want,” Mendoza said. “It doesn’t even have to be like, your life passions… Step two: make a plan, and step three: do something every single day towards that.”

For Merly, she wants to remind others that it’s possible to be free of stress.

“Whatever is going to come is going to come. I’m not stressed out as I was during graduation season,” Merly said. “And if you get a job and love it, great. If not, you keep trying and, you know, you just live life.”