With graduations in full swing, proud families gather to celebrate accomplishments of their loved ones. But once the hoopla and parties subside, graduates often succumb to “what now?”

Years ago, my friends went into nursing, teaching, secretarial work or marriage, often to their high school sweethearts. Now, young women have so many options.

Natalie Himmelberg of Washington was betwixt and between when she graduated from St. Francis Borgia Regional High School in 2012. She had “no idea” what she wanted to do and contemplated getting a job instead of going to college.

Quality Education Close to Home

Fortunately, East Central College offered her a “great educational option.” Stay at home, save money, and get her prerequisite courses finished. At Borgia, English always appealed to her and at ECC, she found she “loved to learn.” Natalie said she had plenty of opportunities to do that in her classes, where she found teachers who went the extra mile to help her succeed and grow in confidence.

With one semester to go before finishing ECC, she and her parents, Robbie and Colleen Himmelberg, started looking at colleges she’d transfer to after getting her associate degree. They visited Southeast Missouri State and Mizzou. “I just didn’t feel it for those schools,” Natalie said — but when they went to Murray State University, in Murray, Ky., she immediately “felt at home” in the small town with no “big city lights.” She told her parents “this is it.”

Look to Your Past

Natalie hit on something I often told students when I taught high school. Think back to what you loved growing up. Natalie had always adored horses. Early on, she took lessons, thanks to her grandmother Barb Devine. Her other grandmother, Donna Himmelberg, had a fox-trotter of her own, and Donna’s husband, Bob Himmelberg, and Natalie’s father made a cattle barn functional for Natalie’s horse and built an arena for her to ride in.

Like many a horse lover, once Natalie’s high school years began, riding got pushed to the back burner. Her horse Quinn, a towering racetrack thoroughbred she got when she was 10, went to a therapeutic stable, and Natalie only rode sporadically.

A Perfect Fit

Murray State was a cinch for Natalie because the college is known for its equine science degree and competitive riding team. What’s not to love about a school with a racehorse mascot named Racer One? Natalie was so excited about Murray State that a degree plan was put in action and with one semester to go at ECC, she transferred.

It was heaven to get back in the saddle at Murray State and meet “G,” a bay thoroughbred she rode there, “a big sweetheart” with “a beautiful silver tail.” Natalie still wears a bracelet braided with hair from “G’s” tail.

Three years after Natalie transferred to Murray State, Quinn came to school with her, after she got him back from the therapeutic stable. Belle, the other horse she owns, also a thoroughbred, was at Murray State with her too.

After graduating last year, Natalie wasn’t sure what her future would hold. She had a serious boyfriend, Spencer Moran, a geology graduate from Louisville, Ky., and they went out West thinking they’d find jobs, but that didn’t pan out.

A Great Experience

Natalie didn’t see this as a failure — she said they saw beautiful country and returned home trusting something would work out — and it has. With a degree some parents might discourage because of limited career possibilities, Natalie has landed on her feet. She recently applied for a job at Longmeadow Rescue Ranch and her geology guy applied at Ameren as a forester.

They both got notice they were hired on the same day, while at the Saint Louis Zoo checking out the zebras. Spencer might not have been a horse lover when Natalie met him, but he is now. He’d have to be because this gal doesn’t go anywhere without her boots on, and was dashing off to ride Quinn as soon as our interview was over. She will, however, set her boots aside on Nov. 3, when she’ll tie the knot with Spencer.

Sometimes grads just have to take the plunge, as Natalie did, and look to their past to figure out their future. Natalie credits her family with supporting her dreams, and encouraging her every step of the way. Her advice to graduates is to “never stop growing and learning . . . do the things you’re uncomfortable with, and surround yourself with mentors.”