Authors of ‘Graduates in Wonderland’ talk post-college friendship

graduates in wonderland
Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale promised to stay in touch after college.
Credit: Ian Cook

Even the closest of college friends can drift apart after graduation, but Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale were determined not to let this happen. The two friends made a pact to email each other every week after they graduated from Brown University, even though Jessica was moving to Beijing, China, and Rachel was moving to New York.

Seven years after graduation, the two friends are as close as ever, and have pared down the most heartbreaking and hilarious emails that recounted their 20s in the new book “Graduates in Wonderland.” We talked to the authors about their formerly long-distance relationship and correspondence.

Rachel, you talk a lot about feeling miserable and lost right out of college once you moved to New York City. I found that a lot of my friends felt the same way after we graduated. Do you think it’s more common than it seems?

Kapelke-Dale: I think it’s something that a lot of people go through when they move to New York, but they don’t want to talk about it because it’s such a great city that everyone dreams about ending up in. I did feel that Jess was one person I could talk to about my dreams not always matching the reality, and how I was still working on getting there.

graduates in wonderland cover
Life after graduation isn’t all roses.
Credit: Gotham Books

Jess, do you think you were better off moving to Beijing and forgoing the conventional route?

Pan: I think I went to Beijing because I wanted an adventure, and it’s easier to do different things there. You meet different kinds of people and connect really strongly to people that, if you met them in New York, you might not make that connection with them. I worked at a magazine, and I felt like it would have been harder for me to do that in New York. There were more opportunities because I was in a different place.

Tell me more about your pact.

Pan: We both had talked about this before graduation, about how we heard from our mothers that they had really great college friendships, but those friendships faded away in time because they hadn’t kept in touch. We said, “We can’t let this happen to us,” and I was going to Beijing and she was going to New York. We said, “We have to stay close by really living what’s going on in our lives instead of summaries every six months.” We also felt like there was no point in keeping in touch if we weren’t going to be honest: If you’re not saying how down you feel or how terrible the sex was, who can you tell? The more honest we were, the less lonely we were.

Did you feel you were able to grow together even though you were so far apart?

Pan: Yeah, I do think we did. I’m an impulsive, sort of crazy person, and it’s really good to have someone tell you when you’re being too crazy. We went through the things every young woman goes through: looking for the right career and going through heartbreak, etc., and I do think we grew together.

Kapelke-Dale: The importance of emailing once a week versus every six months is that you’re giving advice and asking for advice and talking about adventures and humiliation, so you are actually experiencing them together.

Was it hard to go back through your emails?

Kapelke-Dale: It could be hard, but I think more than that it was emotionally interesting to get put back into those moments — “Wow, that was really hard” — or when you’re looking at emails about some guy you haven’t thought about in five years and you think, “Oh my god, I’m in love with him again.”

And now you both live in London?

Pan: We live, like, five blocks away from each other and we see each other at least every week and probably every other day. When you’re in your 20s and live in another city, it’s such a gift to find out one of your best college friends lives there, too.

It must be nice.

Kapelke-Dale: We saw each other twice in five years, so to be together again – we were like, wow, this feels just like college. We still felt as close as we did back then, if not closer.

See Pan and Kapelke-Dale on in conversation with Jen Doll on May 21 at Housing Works.

Follow Andrea Park on Twitter: @andreapark



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