A Graduation Gift That Matters

When I graduated from high school – and again when I graduated from college – I received quite a few gifts from friends and family members. Most of them fell into two categories: money inserted into graduation cards, or items intended to help with my life in the near future (like a gas card or a laundry bag or a shower kit or a microwave oven).

Just a handful of gifts fell into a third category, and those were the most memorable. Great sentiments on handwritten notes. Long dinners with real conversations. Thoughtfully-given books with some suggested passages to start with. A nearly-invisible helping hand to get my career going on the right path.

To put it simply, the best graduation gifts for me were ones that were thoughtful, ones that were inspirational, and ones that actually opened doors for me.

For the most part, these gifts didn’t cost the giver very much at all in terms of money. Instead, the value of the gift was delivered via time and thoughtfulness, and that always means much more than a twenty dollar bill stuffed inside a forgettable card.

The best part is that most great graduation gifts won’t cost you much money at all. Instead, they require some thoughtfulness and some planning. Here are four things to think about as graduation season approaches.

A Thoughtful Conversation
The best way to understand what exactly a graduate is thinking about for the future is to sit down with that graduate and have a real conversation. A great way to do this is over dinner – invite that graduate to your home or take that graduate out to dinner. If that doesn’t work for you, a telephone call also works.

The key is not to bury them in advice and your own anecdotes. Instead, you should seek to get the person to talk about what they’re thinking about doing in the future. Some good questions:
+ What are you going to do after graduation?
+ Where are you going to college?
+ What are you thinking of majoring in?
+ What do you enjoy doing?
+ Do you have a job lined up, or any prospects?
+ What would you like to be doing?

Listen to what’s being said. Many students feel an urge to tell a particular story about their dreams, aspirations, and post-graduation plans that doesn’t really reflect their true story. Listen carefully and try to seek out the things that they really enjoy.

More important, give encouragement to the graduate. Tell them that they can do anything. Offer a few specific pointers, but don’t drown them in advice. Let them do most of the talking.

Don’t drown them in personal anecdotes, either. A few are fine, but the focus is on what they’re doing, not on what you did.

Your goal here should be to figure out where the graduate really wants to be going – and whether or not they’re on their way. Pay attention. Listen to what the graduate is saying. Be positive about the things they’re passionate about. Let the graduate do most of the talking. And, when you’re done, make sure you’ve taken away two or three things about the graduate’s dreams and future that are clearly true and that the graduate is clearly excited about.

A Telephone Call
Once you have that source material, look through your s. Do you know any people that are doing anything close to the area toward which the graduate is focusing? Call them up. Explain what’s going on. Ask for their thoughts.

If there are opportunities for the graduate, pass them along. Let the graduate know of any opportunities you discover for them. Even better, if you have the chance to make a positive case for that graduate, do so. Grease the rails for them so that those early, tentative career steps go quite easily.

Most likely, though, you’ll gather some useful insights about their direction and you might also gather an additional or two.

Take all of the information you discover and deliver it to the graduate. Tell them that you called an old friend of yours who’s doing that kind of work and here’s what he/she had to say. Pass along any useful information if you can.

In short, help the graduate (if you can) by getting their foot in the door. Every bit helps, and if you can help that graduate open a door, you’ve changed their life.

A Single Key Reflection
Taking together all you’ve learned about the graduate and where he/she is headed, spend some time thinking about the one piece of advice you’d like to give that student. Don’t just go with your first instinct – don’t be afraid, even, to jot down several ideas and think about them, but stick with just one – the real home run.

The graduate won’t remember the $20 bill you stuck in the card. But they might remember something insightful and useful that you wrote, especially if it clicks with them. That $20 will be lost in the mists of time, but a useful bit of knowledge pays dividends forever.

Surround that one piece of advice with some strong positive reinforcement. Let the graduate know that you see great potential in him/her and that you look forward to their great future.

Words like this can really have an impact. I still remember the advice and similar sentiments that people gave to me in graduation cards, but I don’t remember who gave me $10 and who didn’t a decade ago. The advice stuck with me and helped me to grow – a truly great graduation gift.

A Follow-Up
Most people limit their congratulations and help to the graduate to the days around the actual ceremony. When that graduate will probably need help, though, will come a while down the road.

Touch base with the graduate a few months after graduation and see how they’re doing. Are they still struggling with finding their place? Or have they found a happy home?

You may find that you can offer much more help early in their career than at their graduation. Encouragement can be key in the midst of early challenges. A little helping hand can be much more useful after the glow of graduation has come off and the realities of professional life are starting to appear.

If it seems potentially useful, get ahold of your s again and see if anything has changed. Are there any new opportunities? Pass these along to the graduate.

Here’s the big thing: graduation and entry into professional life is often a huge shock for people, but the support they get usually just comes in a burst at their graduation party. If you really want to give something with impact, give them time, both before and after graduation, and help pull a few strings for the graduate. It won’t cost you much at all – and it can make all the difference to a motivated graduate.

Good luck!