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What’s my line?
A new program helps sophomores in the liberal arts think about the future
In mid-January, 203 sophomores cut short their winter break and returned to campus for three days of “career exploration.” They came for the one-year-old Endeavor program, organized by the Career Center and designed for liberal arts majors in their second year—students with a full two and a half years left to develop their skills and build professional connections. Endeavor’s aim, according to Rachel Greenberg, associate director of the Career Center, is not to produce a definitive “career decision,” but to help students focus on their options.
Day One was an in-house affair—a period of preparation for meetings, on Day Two, with 61 visiting alumni volunteers who would be talking with students frankly and in some detail about their working lives. It was a day for students to share thoughts about why they were there and what they hoped to achieve. Liam Rogers, a biology major from Amesbury, Massachusetts, explained, “I want to work on talking about myself [to employers]. I don’t know what people want to hear.” Julia Cardwell, a Maryland native who was considering a “sharp turn” from biology to English, was seeking reassurance that “becoming an English major wasn’t going to leave me broke and unemployed for the rest of my life.” A few students confessed that Endeavor had been the excuse to escape from home a few days early. Many more said they wanted to find faculty and alumni mentors.
It was also a day for faculty and administrators to share their expertise. To that end, students heard Stefane Cahill Farella, associate director of the University’s office of employee development, deliver a pep talk in Gasson 100 on networking and the top “currencies” for a productive first meeting: curiosity, open body language, and “generosity of spirit.” Breakout sessions followed in upstairs classrooms—more sessions than time allowed—and students pored over 11 précis to choose three apiece. Topics ranged from “Building Cultural Competency,” presented by the Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center, to “Study Abroad—How to Explore Careers and Build Skills,” offered by the Office of International Programs. A communication professor, Lisa Cuklanz, and an assistant professor of the practice in the biology department, Danielle Taghian, led “How to Connect with Faculty” (for starters, said the biologist, “Don’t begin a note with ‘Hey Danielle'”).
Twenty students attended “Networking for Introverts,” presented by Ali Joyce, a self-described introvert who is an assistant director of the Career Center. Chatting with strangers about jobs can feel “painfully awkward,” Joyce noted, but the vast majority of employers hire through networking; some three-quarters of all job openings are never published. She asked the students to share their greatest concerns about networking, easing them into talking about it by first taking an anonymous text-message survey. The top results, displayed live on a projection screen: “I never know what to say” (63 percent), followed by “I’m afraid of imposing.” Joyce suggested the students think of networking more as investigating, and that they prepare questions in advance to ask the alumni the next day.
Over in “Exploring and Changing Majors,” Academic Advising Center staff tried to allay the worries of students feeling “pulled toward every direction,” as biochemistry major Nnamdi Onochie put it. “Your diploma from Boston College is more important than your major,” assistant director Rebecca Schmitz told them.
Day Two began at 10:00 a.m. in Robsham Theater with a keynote talk by Arivee Vargas Rozier-Byrd ’05, JD’08, a one-time litigator who recently joined the in-house counsel at Vertex Pharmaceuticals in Boston. Her topic was the value of reflection as a tool for career navigation.
She drew as many questions from alumni as from students. A young alumnus asked when she knew she wanted to practice law. The former sociology and Latin American studies major said that before law school she’d seriously considered teaching. “But when I told my dad, a Dominican immigrant, he said, ‘How dare you. Who’s going to pay your loans? It’s a slap in the face to take a job that pays less than what I made when I got to America.’ For me, that was it. Expectations are huge, especially from immigrant parents.”
At that, Wynndell Bishop ’00, MBA’07, a white flower pinned to his blazer’s breast pocket, approached the audience microphone with counter advice. “I would just add that in the end you have to do what makes you happy,” said Bishop, director of strategic sourcing at Emerson College. “You don’t want to make a lot of money and be miserable.”
Rozier-Byrd expanded: “I chose to make money to be able to have freedoms my parents never had. . . . Whatever you do, you have to be honest with yourself about why you’re doing it.”
On this day also, there was a profusion of breakout sessions in Gasson—14 in all—led this time by panels of alumni. They were organized into career clusters, with topics ranging from “arts, sports, and entertainment” to “technology, startups, and entrepreneurship.” Again, students narrowed their selections to three.
In the “communications, media, and marketing” meeting, a female student asked the panel, “What are some unglamorous aspects of your jobs?”
Daron Manoogian ’88, communications director of the Harvard Art Museums, said, “Often in marketing, a lot of the work gets none of the credit for success, and all of the credit for failure.”
Dave Levy ’06, an account director at a PR firm, asked the students a question. “How many of you hate group projects?”
Nineteen of 22 students raised their hands.
“Group projects are the rest of your career, and life. So, dig into them now.”
Additional wisdom, from members of the “financial services, accounting, and real estate” panel over lunch with students: “At some point your boss won’t be as smart as you,” said Cynthia Campobasso ’07, a former communication major and vice president of a Boston-based real estate firm. “But you never want to be in a room in which you’re the smartest person,” added Ed Reynolds ’07, a private equity administrator at State Street. “Complacency will breed misery.” Reynolds, who previously taught high school English and consulted for Google, recommended that liberal arts students “future-proof” their employment by taking courses in finance and computer science.
At 2:45, alumni and students walked uphill to McElroy Commons for a period of informal networking in the Eagle’s Nest. Some students kept their counsel near a buffet table laden with spring rolls, but most chatted with alumni; a few from Networking for Introverts approached in pairs.
Many asked about money. A female student asked Brendan Coffey ’94, a senior reporter at Bloomberg News (who at 6’6″ towered over the half-dozen young women gathered around him), whether it was wise to wait to become a journalist until after her loans were paid off. Coffey, who’d been an English major, cautioned, “If you take a job that starts at $70,000 or $80,000, you will get used to that. And it will get harder and harder to switch to writing.”
Political science major Ben Wolters asked Joseph Manning ’14, who works at Ceres, a Boston-based sustainability advocacy organization, if he finds it stressful pursuing his passion at the risk of financial insecurity.
“No,” Manning said matter-of-factly. “The lifestyle of environmentalism and long-term happiness were the most important things to me.”
For an hour, the students veered among conversations with social workers, healthcare administrators, software engineers, and others. The alumni spoke of their professional crises and triumphs and offered business cards and tips on extracurriculars (many recommended service organizations such as Arrupe). Although not a stated goal of Endeavor, last year such encounters resulted in several internships.
On Day Three, Career Center staff led groups of 10 to 20 students to local workplaces, ranging from the white-shoe law firm WilmerHale to the nonprofit Cradles to Crayons, a provider of school supplies and clothing to underprivileged children—14 sites in all.
Sixteen students, most of whom had attended a career cluster panel on “government, law, and public policy” the day before, traveled to the gold-domed Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill. In a floral-carpeted hearing room with a marble fireplace, they heard from six legislative employees, half of them alumni. Students expressed surprise that many of them had not studied political science, and that some, like Martha Kwasnik ’07 (English and history), JD’13, now associate counsel to the Senate Committee on Ways and Means, professed to have “no bandwidth for politics at all.” It’s the immense range of policy work that Kwasnik finds rewarding, she said: improving elevator standards one day, learning the difference between sanitizing and sterilizing musical instruments at public schools the next, and “being able to say, ‘Hey, Mom, I helped raise the minimum wage.'”
The students sat in pews opposite the panelists’ semicircular bench and asked questions such as what makes a good intern (“being able to answer the phone; it’s a lost art” said legislative aide Cam Stoker ’14) and which courses would best prepare them for government work. “Follow the news, and if there are any issues you don’t understand, take courses that fill those gaps,” said Mike Cannella ’08 (political science and biology), now legislative director and counsel to State Senator James Welch.
By the end of Endeavor, said Rachel Greenberg, the program’s primary organizer, the hope is that sophomores are more comfortable networking and articulating how the skills they’re acquiring through the liberal arts “translate into the workplace.” They should also come to the understanding that they may find “multiple, meaningful careers in their lives.”
Clint Keaveny, a sophomore from Wisconsin, said he had signed up to hear how alumni in the liberal arts “leveraged their degrees.” Talking with alumni such as pro bono immigration attorney Sheila Corkhill ’88, MSW’89, confirmed the political science major’s interests in public policy and law, he said. He added, “Few of the grads I spoke with had a simple linear career path, yet they were all doing very well, which was very encouraging.” Corkhill recommended several organizations that Keaveny might approach for an internship this summer. For good measure, Keaveny grabbed an application on his way out of the State House.
Read more by Zachary Jason