Karen Osborne

Graduation is supposed to be an ending, a sign of achievement and a time of celebration. It’s the culmination of your life so far, a moment to mark what you’ve achieved and a time to look back on treasured memories.

This year, though, graduation may not feel like the party it has been in the past. If you’ve graduated this year or are looking forward to it, you may feel a little scared about what comes next.

Things aren’t the way they used to be. This year, high school graduates will be entering a world that is largely unsure and in flux. What some call “The Great Recession” has affected countries and is still affecting economies across the world, including ours. No longer can people expect to get a career-track job straight out of college.

Many new graduates are struggling to make ends meet. Unemployment is still high no matter where you look. It’s true: When the graduation gifts are put away and the confetti is swept away, an uncertain future is knocking at the door.

But look at graduation not as an end, but a beginning. An uncertain future can still be fantastic.

Right now it’s probably hard to see past high school. High school is a teenager’s whole world, full of stories about friends, bullies, cliques, homework, sports and clubs. As soon as you cross that stage and receive your diploma, you enter a new world. You can’t go back. You’re in a beautiful, blank canvas, waiting for you to create new stories and worlds.

You can do anything with that space. Paint it with rainbows, or paint it black. Fill it with beauty, or fill it with darkness. Go after what you want, or don’t. The rules have changed. Nobody’s giving you grades or taking your attendance. Graduation means that your life is fully yours. Graduation puts the paintbrush in your hand and tells you to create your dreams — or lose them.

It’s easy to get discouraged when you have big dreams. Often, reality doesn’t do a great job of matching up to what we’ve hoped for. Television told me I was going to have a fantastic loft apartment in the city. Instead, I ended up with a roommate in an extremely tiny apartment infested with mice. Dreams swept me to New York City and to Hollywood. Reality swept me to Albany, N.Y., and Orlando, Fla.

Reality is a mortgage, a car payment and a job, but it is also family, friends, incredible beauty and wonderful experiences. The room I entered after graduation is full of bright new stories I could only have created by going after what I wanted.

My life is not the one I thought I would have when I walked across the stage in my red cap and gown. Yours won’t be, either. But I painted the walls and blazed paths. That makes all the difference. It was scary at times. Often, I didn’t know what was around the next corner, but the point was that there was always another corner, another “graduation,” as the case may be.

Graduation is scary, but what comes after is worth it.