INTERVIEW: Graduates in Wonderland and love lessons learned abroad

Apr 30, 2014 at 1:04 p.m. ET
Image: Ian Cook

Jess and Rachel became best friends at Brown University, but after graduation, they were left wondering: Now what?

The grads: Jess Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale
Photo credit: Ian Cook

College is a safe, cozy place where you know everyone — and every bartender. You prioritize three things: boys, bars and books. Then, after four years, you're tossed into the world and told to make something of yourself.

Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale met their freshman year at Brown and became best friends. Eventually, graduation arrived, but the night before they went their separate ways, they made a pact to keep in touch every week via no-holds-barred emails giving honest, brutal accounts of their lives.

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The girls never expected the emails to be seen, but now, their exciting — and sometimes hilarious — experiences are being released to the public.

Life after university.
Photo credit: IndieBound

Graduates in Wonderland: The International Misadventures of Two (Almost) Adults is a collection of life stories as Jess headed to China and Rachel to France. Jess's father is half-Mandarin, which drew her to Beijing to study her heritage.

Rachel had visited Paris before, and according to her, "The city just seemed to have an endless supply of magic — the Christmas lights over the streets in winter, the immaculately-sculpted gardens by Rodin's house, the nineteenth-century lanterns and cobblestoned streets."

Living abroad sounds very romantic, but it's not always easy. According to Jess, "When you land in a country where you have literally no idea how to pronounce anything, you have to become an excellent mime. I'm deathly allergic to peanuts, so the first sentence I had to learn in Mandarin was, 'If I eat peanuts, I will die.' Then, I'd mime death."

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Miming can't solve everything. Rachel had an embarrassing habit of using the words for "roommate" and "bedroom friend" interchangeably. Speaking of dating, she once spent an entire evening talking to a charming, handsome Frenchman only to later realize he only had teeth in one half of his mouth (of course, the half facing her).

These stories and more are shared at length in their new book, and when they say no-holds-barred, they mean it.

"I always felt like there was no point in keeping in touch if you weren't going to be honest about what was going on in your life," said Jess. "If you can't tell your best friend how down you feel or how terrible the sex was with some guy or that you actually don't know what the hell you are doing with your life — then, who can you tell?"

But it does take discipline. Keeping up with college friends is something we all say we're going to do, but it's easy to forget that phone call or not send that email.

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Rachel made a good point: "If you only talk once a month or once a year, your conversations become mere summaries about your life, instead of sharing your life experiences as they happen."

Readers of Graduates in Wonderland will not be lacking in information on the life experiences of Rachel and Jess. Yet, it's not just their story; their story is applicable to any number of young women — in college or not. "Everybody has embarrassing moments and moments of depression and struggles when trying to find the right path," said Jess. "Even if you didn't go to college, even if you haven't traveled, these are still things we all have to live through."

Their message is really one of friends saving friends. Jess and Rachel have traveled the world (they've got the battle scars to prove it), but no matter the distance, they were connected to each other.

For both of them, they've learned a lot outside the classroom, and for their readers, they hope to share at least two things: "No matter how stuck you feel right now, there are always two options: Work on making it better or leave. Also, even though no boys loved you in college, things are going to change."

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