I went to a small state school in Michigan for undergrad. We were mostly blue-collar and first-generation college students and so, as my mentor/professor recently reminded me, often unaware of our intelligence and our potential. I am not really sure why this conversation keeps going around in my head, perhaps because I am still trying to figure some of this out for myself, but the conversation isn't going away and I figured I'd flesh it out here.
So "What advice would I give soon-to-be-graduates of my former alma mater? (or any other small state school political science student)?"
First, don't go to law school or grad school because you don't know what else to do. I was lucky enough to have our law school advisor in college give me this sage advice and I am glad I heeded it. Not that law isn't a great profession and perhaps I would be good at it, but he knew I was thinking of law school because I didn't know what else to do.
Second, if you don't know what to do, WORK. Whether it be a formal job, an Americorps position, the Peace Corps or JVC, PIRG or DART, get out there and start doing something. This will be the best way you can find where your interests lie, what your talents are, and what your future may hold. Most importantly, it can teach you WHAT YOU DON'T WANT, something as invaluable as knowing what you do.
Third, take a stock assessment of your resources. I was from a small town in Ohio and wanted to do international work. Unfortunately, this meant I had very few connections in the international realm and it also meant that after college, in part because of a family situation involving money, I didn't really have the luxury to go off and do international work like I had wanted to. Perhaps this is unfair but its reality, and it's a reality that many in my type I am sure have had to face. So what to do? Take reasonable stock of what you can do - perhaps you don't have rich parents that can pay your rent when you move to NYC or DC, or connections that work for the UN or some DC lobbyist org. But what you do have, or at least I had if I had realized it, was intelligence, ambition, and TIME. Take your time, save up some money, don't get into any trouble (credit card debt), and unless that's your desire, don't get bogged down in local relationships or babies!
Fourth, and perhaps this should have been earlier, but before you graduate, think about combining your political science degree with something else more practical - ideas range from public administration, social work (yes, social work is VERY political!), education (what's more political than the power of ideas?). Remember, your 'free' financial aid (grants and scholarships) go away once you graduate with your Bachelors degree. So take an extra year and add that teacher cert or BSW cert so that you make yourself THAT much more employable post-graduation. Looking back, I wish I would have gotten my teacher cert because even if I didn't know whether I wanted to work in public schools, the possibilities for doing education work outside of classroom teaching can be endless (after-school programs, curriculum development projects, TESL with immigrants, or higher salary teaching English in Asia). More importantly, the additional skill, especially in a Language, can just give you a competitive edge in the job market.
Fifth, YOU DON'T HAVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU WANT TO DO RIGHT NOW. In fact, it may be better if you don't think in terms of long-term, you'll get caught up in how to get there rather than thinking about what you want to do NOW and exploring your options NOW. I got too caught up in ideas of grandeur - wanting to be a diplomat or a development worker - that I didn't think about the other things on this list. How would I do this? Would I even like the work? More importantly, would I like the entry-level work that I would need to get there? So rather than getting caught up in the future, take baby steps, and do the work that makes you happy NOW.
Some other random thoughts and ideas? Move to a big city, especially one that you DO have resources in. Now, I didn't know anyone in NYC or DC when I graduated from college, but I did know folks in Columbus, Ohio, my state capital and the largest city in the state. It's cheap, there are tons of orgs there (including jobs), and aside from having a good social life (which is important!), you can build your resume until you're ready to move somewhere even bigger for a job or grad school!
Now, this list may not be exhaustive. In fact, I may even come back to it from time to time. I mean, do I really think that soon-to-be-graduates of my alma mater are going to read this? Not really. In fact, this sage advice is probably more for me, as a reminder of where I've come from, where I am, and where I'd still like to go. Because frankly, as I get older, I realize more and more that few people have this 'stuff' figured out.