When did you find your career? Did you know what you wanted to do from a young age or are you still trying to discover the answer to the perennial question of what to do with this life of ours? I spent all of college not knowing the answer to what came next. When I found my major, a Bachelor of Arts in Letters, I found a major that I loved and a direction post college. I was going to law school, but I still had no career plans. I had no clear idea about what I might do as a lawyer.
In law school, I encountered people who were completely certain about what came next. Some of my fellow students seemed to have known they wanted to be a lawyer from the age of two. The rest of them had figured it out along the way and many of them knew exactly what kind of law they wanted to practice before they had ever taken a course. As for me, all I knew by the end of my first year was that I did not want to practice law, but I still had no idea what I wanted to do. I’ve since come to realize that there were many clues to my future career in my life, but I had no idea what they might be pointing to. In part because I didn’t know that Student Affairs was a career.
So many of my Student Affairs colleagues have told me one variation or another about a shared experience. One friend described it as a figure-ground experience. You know, that experience when the picture of a vase suddenly resolves into the profiles of two people. In her case, it was in a conversation with a career counselor when suddenly the generic “career counselor” became a real-live human with a real-live career. Now we have an entire month, October, dedicated to sharing with students that this is a potential career. We certainly didn’t have such a thing while I was in school. Instead, it was only after I had taken a job as a part-time hall director for my second year that I realized there existed many jobs on campus I might like and might even be good out.
I know I’ve written before about Parker Palmer’s story that, as a child, he wanted to fly planes. He spent hours drawing planes, writing about planes, and stitching those pages together into booklets. Years later he understood what he had missed – he wanted to write books.
After I understood Student Affairs was a career, I could see the signs in my own history. Serving as an RA and absolutely loving it is an obvious sign. Even earlier, joining the Future Teachers of America in high school and having fun working with two of my high school teachers, French and Speech and Drama, doing some teaching and some support work for student organizations shows a few hints as well. But the most telling one really was my involvement with the Oklahoma Model United Nations (OMUN).
I got involved in the first place when four of my friends were assigned Kenya which was a member of ECOSOC (the Economic and Social Council.) Only about thirty countries were represented in this council and they hadn’t planned for this. Now they needed a fifth and asked me if I’d like to join them. Sounded like fun. I said yes with absolutely no idea what I was getting into.
In February of my sophomore year, we dressed in business attire and headed down to the three day conference. We split up to attend our committee meetings and I went into my meeting where I was the least prepared delegate in the room. This was a problem for other delegates because Kenya was important in ECOSOC and I was not able to carry my weight in the mock debates. It was awkward, but in spite of that, I was enthralled with everything that went on that day and the next two days were even more fun since I was bolstered by my friends. It was a blast.
It turned out that many of my friends were involved in this event representing countries or serving on the staff. When my friend Margaret, who would be serving as Secretary-General the next year, asked me to be her Executive Assistant, I, again knowing nothing of what I was getting into, said yes. Serving on a country delegation had been fun, but being on staff was what I loved. So much so that when the spring rolled around, I found myself being encouraged to apply for the Secretary-General role and then again saying yes to the appointment.
Years later, I was making the point in some meeting or another, that it wasn’t unusual to give academic credit for some student activities. For example, I said, “I earned four hours of elective Political Science credit serving as Secretary-General of the Oklahoma Model United Nations.” One of my colleagues commented, “Of course, you did.” I responded with, “It’s not that I was a poli sci wonk, more that I was a budding university administrator.”
That was the first time I had that realization. I loved working with a team of talented, dedicated volunteers. I loved putting together all the pieces and parts to build a three-day conference for 500 or so college and high school students. It was years into my career before I managed that many people, had that large of a budget, or put on a program of this size. All of the indicators of a potential career were there for me to see, if I had had any context to identify them.
I suspect all of us have experiences throughout our early lives that pointed toward where we are now, at least if we are in a career that is interesting and fulfilling. In that situation, it’s fun to look back with experienced eyes to see what we missed. If the career or job you are in is not so positive, maybe that look back can help you identify clues to point you in a new direction within. I wrote about hobbies last week, looking at hobbies you’ve left behind or things you loved as a child can also provide hints to new possibilities.
October is Careers in Student Affairs Month and while it’s for undergraduates, it’s not a bad idea for post-graduates to use the time to understand a bit more about themselves and the work they do or want to do in the future whether or not you’re working in higher education.
Best of luck!
PS: Image is of the OU Forum, the site of the OUMUN General Assembly. The scariest part of the entire event was walking down those stairs in the high heels I rarely wore. The speech I gave from the floor was easy by comparison. It felt much steeper than it looks in the picture.