I didn’t get my college graduation photo shoot on campus quite when I wanted. While I was home for some time due to the pandemic, I decided to take college graduation pictures in my hometown. Going from my high school to middle to elementary school, I reflected a lot on my education experience and how it shaped me into the individual I am today.

I reflected back on my elementary, middle, and high school and college days to remind myself all that I have learned. Here are my top four takeaways, one from each phase of my educational journey, that I am carrying with me into the professional world.

Be honest. As simple as it sounds, I learned the importance of honesty in the fifth grade. Long story short, my mother caught me lying about something I did with a group of friends, and it brought me to tears. Like, I remember sobbing while trying to eat my broccoli and cheese chicken and rice. That’s how vividly I remember this situation. Being caught, though, wasn’t what made this lesson stick. It was hearing fifth graders sharing false versions of the situation. It was me trying to convince them otherwise. It was these snowball effects that drained me – at least for a fifth grader.

I like to consider that the first moment I caught a glimpse of public relations. In the most basic sense, I was managing reputations, my own as well as those of my close friends. I witnessed just how detrimental a false light could be, and I’ll never forget that.

The best thing I can be is myself. I absolutely hate how much middle school Madi cared about what other people thought about her. Hate. It. From my outfit to my friend group, I made a lot of decisions based on what I believed others found acceptable. Now, here’s a disclaimer: I don’t not care about other people’s perception, but I learned to not base my decisions solely on them. When I did that, to no surprise was I happier. As I took pride in my accomplishments in a deemed ‘dorky’ organization and had goofy photoshoots with my friends, I loved who I was. Who I am. 

As a communications professional, I am not trying to conform myself to anyone’s mold because I want people to know who I am. My personal brand is still a work in progress, which I’m sure it will be for quite a while. When it’s solidified, though, one thing is for sure: it will be uniquely me.

Prioritize. In 2013, at the start of my high school career, I gave myself permission to quit something. This wasn’t just any old thing, either. I let myself quit travel softball, the sport that was a part of my life since I could hold a ball. It was a tough decision, but it was one that I knew I had to make, especially since I was entering high school that year, which meant a new environment and more rigorous courses on top of two clubs and a part-time job. It seems so dramatic now, but that small action had a big impact on my life. I used my softball practice times to actually finish all of my homework for the next day. Weekends that used to be consumed by softball tournaments? I took additional works shifts so that I had more money to have fun with my friends. These positive effects made me realize that I did not quit softball, I prioritized other aspects of my life ahead of softball. 

I cannot even begin to count the number of times my priorities have changed in my life. From my family to schoolwork, I often shift my focus so that the most important parts are my top priority. The same goes for my experience in communications. I learned firsthand that it’s an ever-evolving world, and I must be prepared to adapt to any situation.

Believe in yourself first. “Well, I think you can do it,” said my professor. She was relaying her confidence in me, a freshman, after I practically in tears told her that I didn’t think I could take her 200-level public relations course during my first semester. She asked me why I felt this way, and I just rattled off every excuse as to why I was going to fail this major course. But, then she told me to surprise myself, which basically meant meet the challenge of not failing. Surprise, I did just that. When I handed in my final exam, my professor smiled, proudly looked me in the eyes, and asked “do you believe in yourself now?”. I carried that moment with me throughout college, as I stopped judging myself before giving myself the opportunity to succeed. That has made all of the difference. Professor Mims, if you’re reading this, thank you.

As much I enjoy the occasional praise from other people, I like it better when I give myself a little boost of confidence first. Above all, I’d rather people notice the confidence I carry rather than telling me I need to be more confident. With that, I don’t want people to think I’m arrogant. Rather, I want them to notice the little things that prove my confidence like making eye contact during presentations and taking on new project. I want people like my employers and my co-workers to believe in me because I show that I believe in myself.

Right now, I’m drawing on that experience to help me through this next chapter of my life. For the first time in at least 17 years, I don’t have a plan for the coming months. And, if you know me, you know I like plans. My education – like it was for many people – was my plan. Now, I don’t know what’s coming next, and I don’t know when I will know. Especially during this pandemic, when I have nothing but time to think, I question my readiness to go into the “real world” with no plan. 

But, this blog is my way of telling myself that I am ready.