Last November, Northeastern University student Kira Briggs was working the phones. Though only a sophomore, she wanted to get a feel for a range of careers—talk to people about what they do, what they loved about it, and what they didn’t like so much. She spoke to friends of friends of friends of her mother’s old classmates, a growing web of connection points, and a vision began to form.
“I really like the idea of using creativity and writing in some way with business,” she said. “I don’t know what that looks like in an actual job, but I’ve met a lot of cool people so far. I definitely think no experience is wasted even if it leads to a different path. My mom always said, ‘It’s about the next right decision’ and I’m just focusing on that.”
Briggs is one of a great many college students who are sampling their way through the career search like a box of chocolates, self-motivated and using innovative ways to figure out what they’d really like to do. It’s true that Northeastern University naturally fosters that sort of outreach, with its co-op opportunities that combine school with practical work. But this directed, thoughtful approach to one’s career is part of a wider focus on life balance that’s becoming increasingly common, perhaps fueled by the forced flexibility of the pandemic when making “the next right decision” was an everyday thing.
Colleges and universities are acknowledging these dynamics with many rethinking how they prepare students for the world of work. Beth Throne, Senior Associate Dean of Student Affairs at Frankin & Marshall College, teaches a course called “Designing Your Futures” aimed to promote creative thinking and planning among students considering their majors, jobs, and lives. “Design thinking is a structured creative process to help folks think beyond what they might expect, teaching them how to be stakeholders, and ideate. To approach designing their life like consultants,” said Throne. Students are challenged to use mind mapping — thinking in terms of a framework that includes a balance of love, health, work, and play. The results of their introspections spur them towards establishing these elements in their lives now, by starting a campus club, or rethinking majors. “They have to prototype before they plan—thinking about talents and strengths, what you bring to this world every day, where you are uniquely gifted. Those are your critical pieces. If life doesn’t facilitate those pieces, if you don’t spend time on a daily basis doing those things, it won’t be satisfying for you.”
Hermela Assefa was a student in Throne’s class last year and calls it “a game-changer.” Assefa was born in Ethiopia and came to the United States with her family when she was two years old. She’s long been inclined towards STEM, coaxed further along by a class in public health her freshman year. That summer on vacation in Ethiopia, she volunteered with children, some in poor health, and became aware of the tremendous disparities in healthcare. Her interest turned toward Black maternal health, and since then, that’s how she’s focused her academic, extracurricular, and fellowship opportunities: a public health leaders program with the CDC; an internship with a doula organization; working on a virtual health platform for the Ethiopian and Eritrean community with a F&M alum; even studying to become a doula in her free time (Instagram: @yenedoula), and using a school fellowship to go to London and pursue a doula mentorship.
Leading up to her graduation in May, Assefa wasn’t overly focused upon securing any one particular job. She said both the practical exercises and ideological shift of “Designing Your Futures” was transformative. “It’s really a journey of finding out what your interests are. And it only starts with getting more experience and doing more field work and taking on different activities in different roles,” she said. These days she’s less consumed with knowing each step in advance, and believes whatever comes will be a bridge to the next part of her life. “At different stages in life, I feel like we need to be open to letting one thing lead us to the next, which is what I’ve done so far, and what I’d like to continue to do. As long as you’re actively working towards something, I think you connect all your experience and succeed in the end.”
It’s really a journey of finding out what your interests are. And it only starts with getting more experience and doing more field work and taking on different activities in different roles.
For some students, a single, formative experience sends them on this path. For example, Model UN. In high school, many students participate in government programs like this. For Anya Begue, who is finishing her final undergraduate credits at Georgetown University and then entering a Master’s program there, it was a springboard to a Candyland path of opportunities.
“At the Model UN program, I became friends with an Italian student who was the founder of a magazine called Eutopia about international relations. He asked if I wanted to get involved, I think because he wanted a native English speaker on board,” she said. Over the next two years they transitioned to a podcast format – an international platform for young people to talk about global issues – curating episodes on a broad range of topics, with guests from ambassadors to activists, bureaucrats and think-tank fellows. Then came the international youth conference they organized in Italy, fielding applications to convene young adults in the progam they’d designed, with speakers they’d invited themselves.
“We thought no one would want to speak to students, but if you reach out, they’re usually willing,” she said. “Through my experience with Eutopia, the doors have just blown open in terms of the people you can connect with and what is possible for young people.”
Like Assefa, she isn’t overly concerned with exactly what shape her career will take. “I have no idea what specific job I want yet, or career path I want to follow. But I do know I have a much better sense of what excites me. In general, atrocity prevention is the direction I’m kind of going in.”
For many students today, the avenue to access has been social media, a digital doorway to approach any manner of alumni, professional, or researcher through LinkedIn and Twitter. For a generation that grew up on these platforms, it’s more direct and less daunting to send a message than to pick up the phone. And for young people who spent their college years in the pandemic, they found those professionals working from home a little easier to reach.
“We had just launched an alumni networking platform before COVID hit, and students embraced this very quickly and had a lot of success with that,” said Rick DelVecchio, Director of Career Development at Quinnipiac College. “Students are used to being online and are a little less uncomfortable starting conversations that way. They had the advantage of professionals having some freedom during the pandemic for how and where they approached work, so alumni who might have been otherwise engaged had a little more time to chat and be in accessible places for talking.”
The timing couldn’t have been better. The user standpoint for LinkedIn has shifted in recent years to be more accessible to job seekers. The pandemic represented a point in time where the regular rules felt suspended. So students saw an opportunity, and stepped in.
“I just went through LinkedIn, messaging people who had jobs that seemed interesting, and seeing if they would have a minute to talk,” said Kira Briggs.
In another silver lining example, the disruption of the pandemic strengthened many students’ abilities to deal with change, which is also reflected in new attitudes toward job searching. Max Scherzer is another May graduate of Franklin & Marshall, focusing his career search on the intersection of sports and business.
“I was supposed to be in Charleston, South Carolina working for the Yankees’ AA affiliates, but COVID had other ideas. So I ended up taking a position at a sports talent and representation agency based in Jersey City, through someone I knew at camp in middle school,” he said. Scherzer, who works hard on maintaining relationships, credits his agility to good old-fashioned networking, allowing him to turn pandemic lemons into lemonade with last-minute work opportunities.
Scherzer is interviewing for specific jobs after graduation but for students who are following their interests to a more amorphous career – maybe one they haven’t even heard of yet – there’s another path, said Beth Throne: The Glide Year.
“You don’t have to go right into a full-time job. If they’re thinking about graduate school but not sure, if they want to ‘date’ a career before marrying it, we call it the Glide Year. I object to the term Gap Year, because there’s no gap in life, there’s just the way you move to the next step,” said Throne. If students have approached their design planning thoughtfully, she said, they have the tools to be creative about laying a path forward, and don’t have to be rigid or afraid if it takes an unexpected route. “They’re putting themselves out there fearlessly. They’re trusting the path as part of the journey. Maybe they’re being a blogger or entrepreneur while being a barista. They put themselves into their resume in interesting ways. They look around to find the person they want to be, then they reach out to meet them. It’s courageous. Recruiters are looking for that.”
In this way, the generation of students interrupted by COVID has learned from their jury-rigged mode of taking classes. There’s in-person, there’s remote, there’s hybrid…you just have to puzzle it out and make it work for yourself.
Now, they’re puzzling out the path from there.
“I think the biggest thing I’m seeing, and telling myself, is that people end up in a very different spot than they started out,” said Briggs. “And that’s very comforting.”