Dear Tompkins County high school seniors,

You’ll be walking across a stage in the coming days wearing your cap and gown, and after a few brief handshakes and applause, you’ll be thrust into your new life of post-high school living. Your life will be absolutely, completely different after that moment.

All of a sudden, there will be the very real expectation that you are capable of taking an entire lifetime worth of learning — in and out of the classroom — and apply it to your everyday life.

In other words, your struggle is about to be really real. Life will be difficult and beautiful and exciting and heartbreaking and, well, the list goes on and on.  Suffice to say, though, the one thing your life will not be anymore is easy.

So at The Ithaca Voice, we reached out to many prominent members of the Tompkins County community and asked them, “What piece(s) of advice do you wish you could have given yourself as you graduated from high school and entered the adult world for the very first time?”

Quite a few of them were kind enough to get back to us with answers meant to help and inspire you.

So bookmark this page, print it out and stick it on your wall — do whatever is necessary to keep these words of wisdom with you as you begin this next part of your life.

Good luck and Congratulations,
The Ithaca Voice

Deborah Mohlenhoff, Fifth Ward Alderperson, Acting Mayor:

Be open to new things, new people, new adventures – but find a balance – don’t tackle everything at once – just pick a few things and concentrate on doing them really well. Set really high standards for yourself and keep them. And if you are going to college – treat college like it’s your dream job. If you are entering the workforce and it’s not your dream job – pretend that it is and gain experience that will get you that dream job someday!

Peggy Haine,Marketing Consultant and Writer: Food.Wine.Farms.People:

I wish I had taken a year off between high school and college to see a bit of the world, do something useful for humanity, and mature.

My advice: whatever you decide to do, do it with passion. Get up off your backside. Travel. Leave yourself open to opportunity and seize it!

Jeff Stein, Reporter at and former Ithaca Voice Editor:

Here’s my advice: Become friends with your parents.

Now, this may sound counter-intuitive. After all, graduating high school is supposed to be about leaving the nest, about becoming independent.

But if your parents are anything like mine — smart, caring, affectionate, and reasonably able to use a cell phone — transforming them from your cruel jailers to your trusted companions is one of the most underrated joys of early adulthood.

In high school, parents feel like a ceaseless nuisance — a pounding migraine headache an elephant tranquilizer couldn’t subdue. They’re embarrassing. They don’t seem to know anything relevant to your life, and when they do it only ever seems to explain why you shouldn’t do something you want to do.

That miraculously changes, almost overnight, when you leave home.

Gary Ferguson, Executive Director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance:

Education is eternal; you can never get enough of it.  But if you want a good job, get some experience- internships, OJT, volunteering…. anything that will show a prospective employer that you have familiarity with your field.

And remember you are part of a community—become an active participant in the life of your community.

Matthew Van Houten, Lawyer and Ithaca Voice Board Member:

Take risks, don’t be afraid to make mistakes, but never compromise your integrity.

Evan D. Williams,  IHS ’04 IC ’08, Certified Art Appraiser and Consultant:

Most people love to talk about themselves. Use this to your advantage. If there is a subject, career, or activity that interests you, find an expert and offer to buy them a coffee. You will likely get a tremendous education within the space of an hour.

Laurie A Linn, President of Communique Design & Marketing Inc.:

My best advice as students graduate and enter college, vocational school or the workforce is look at everything they do as being their own brand.  No different than a corporate brand, create a brand strategy for yourself.  Ask yourself, what differentiates you, how do you want to position yourself from your peers, or in collaboration with your peers. Think about everything you write, post or say as part of your brand.  Be proactive, get creative, do your best academically, travel the world, get involved and give back to the community you are working or living in.  At the end of the day it is your brand and life experiences that will sell you in whatever you want to do in this world. Finally, do not be afraid to fail, not getting it right the first time helps you grow and explore new options and new paths of excellence, it pushes envelopes to grow.  This is what life is all about, successes, failures and everything in-between.  Enjoy the journey!

Allison Graffin, Marketing Director Downtown Ithaca Alliance:

1. Start exploring the town or city you will call home for the next four years as soon as possible.

2. Ask lots of questions and keep asking them until you get your answers.  Persistence works.

3. Take full advantage of your university’s resources including career counseling services, study abroad, mentorships, referrals, tutoring services, and community enrichment events like guest speakers etc. while in school.

4. Turn off your phone every once and a while and live.

Eliza VanCort, Founder of The Actor’s Workshop of Ithaca: 

Don’t try to play in anyone else’s sandbox. You will lose. No one else will “do you” better than you will, so do “you”… always. Work hard to never rely on anyone but yourself for financial security. However, if you do what you truly love, and what you’re good at, success will absolutely follow. Trust your passions. Honor your talents. Believe in yourself.

Tompkins County Sheriff Kenneth Lansing: 

Remember this is a very exciting time in your life and you want to celebrate in a way that will create great memories that you can keep forever. This is a new beginning and you need to cherish the moment in a safe and responsible manner. Your choices will follow you into your future and they need to be the right ones. So enjoy your time with friends and family.

Sue-Je L. Gage, Ithaca College Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology:

“Give light and people will find the way.” – Ella Baker

The hardships, fear and anxiety of what comes next sometimes restricts how we see, perceive, and progress.  Keep the light and do all you can do to spread it to others.

Ariana Blossom,  Executive and Business Coach:

If you take the mindset that everything in life happens for you and not simply to you, you’ll see life as a series of lessons and guidance. It also helps you stay connected to a sense of gratitude for all that’s being done on your behalf.

Tompkins County Legislator Mike Sigler:

Don’t be afraid to fail.  You will.  It’s a part of recognizing opportunities and then capitalizing on those opportunities.   You make your own “luck” and opportunities to some extent;  recognize them and take a shot.

Second meet everyone you can and recognize their value or detriment to your life.   You’ll make great friends with some who have nothing to do with your business, but maybe you’ll help them with their life goals, or maybe they’ll be a mentor or maybe you’ll mentor them.  A cleaned up version of advice from my friend Matt Belvedere, “You’re not going to get any new opportunities sitting at home.”

Jim Bouderau, Executive Director, SPCA of Tompkins County:

You don’t get anywhere without a plan.

Carol Chock, Community Activist and Tompkins County Legislator:

Pursue something that gives you a “fire in your belly.”  If your success comes at the expense of other individuals or groups, it will feel hollow in subtle or overt ways.

Don’t underestimate the importance of kindness.

Ithaca Police Chief John Barber:

Live every day to the fullest and cherish every single moment because tomorrow is not promised.

Tompkins County Deputy District Attorney Andrew Bonavia: 

When it comes to any goal – college, finding a job, a trial – fall in love with the process and the grind it takes to get there, not just the result.

Don’t ask why something happened to you, ask what are you gonna do about it?

Surround yourself with people who are passionate, driven, and, most importantly, who make you laugh.

Featured image courtesy of John Walker, on Flickr. 

Jolene Almendarez

Jolene Almendarez is Managing Editor at The Ithaca Voice. She can be reached at; you can learn more about her at the links in the top right of this box.