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What I Wish I Knew in College

October 28, 2013

Three out of four years in college I searched for that “right” path to success. I held on to an assumption that there was only one path made just for me that would provide my life the maximum amount of long-term happiness.  If I could somehow discover that path, life would be set!  However, the summer before my senior year, I realized that I had spent three years searching, trying new approaches, switching majors, and I still felt no closer to finding that perfect future plan.  My classes didn’t seem to provide me any answers.  The film major had taught me how to analyze films to spot the ideologies and intentions behind media texts—but it didn’t teach me how to actually make a movie.  My history major taught me how to analyze past events and data to form conclusions and make a convincing argument, but I had no clue how any of my history readings applied to a future career that seemed desirable or profitable to me.  Little to none of my academic education seemed to have taught me important career skills like writing a resume, navigating business politics, or organizing a group of people to make a film.   But looking back now that I have had my first promotion with Macy’s training to be a corporate executive—my college experience is all making sense!  What I wish I knew was that everything you do—whether it is writing papers, joining the cycling club, or socializing at a party—will add to your life skills. Career psychologists refer to these experiences as identity capital.  Your goal is to gain as much identity capital as you can in a diverse set of fields to increase your life skills.  Doing so will help you to better navigate your life inside this society.  And in order to obtain a job after college, you will need to use your people skills and your communication skills to effectively advertise your identity to employers.

The idea that there is one right path to success is a fantasy!  Please don’t lose a night’s sleep worrying if your major is the “right” one for you, or if one major will set you up for a more profitable or happier future than another.  That thinking is missing the point of college.  Any major that slightly interests you will give you experience with important life skills like rhetoric, compassion, writing, collaboration, creativity, and logic—yes even minority studies will teach you at least some of these skills.  Compassion for example is a key skill in today’s business environment because it increases associate engagement and motivates workers better than money.  So don’t be afraid! Choose a major and try out a few classes in it.  If you like those classes, stick with it!  If you don’t, try out some different classes until you’ve found something you like.  Just by trying, you have gained pieces of knowledge that you did not have before, and more importantly, you learned what you don’t like.  That whole myth of the “right path” comes once adults look back on their lives and try to justify their present situation.  In reality, decisions are made on a day-to-day basis, and our futures happen whether we like them or not.  What are you doing today that you enjoy?

The goal of college should not really be about discovering your dream path.  It should be about trying as many things as possible so that you figure out at least what you don’t like.  Worrying about doing the “right” thing can paralyze you from taking risks and trying new things.  Think of college more of like a sandbox where you can let your imagination wander and try out a bunch of cool ideas before you have to go home.  One day on a random trip to Bed Bath and Beyond in search of a new pillow for my old, rickety hand-me-down bed, I picked up the book Making College Count.  Its author Patrick O’Brien argues that in order to increase the chances of being employed after college and obtaining a job that you will like, one has to effectively communicate to employers that she has demonstrated “the winning characteristics,” which are: communication, organization, leadership, logic, effort, group skills, and entrepreneurship (acronym: COLLEGE, get it?).[1]  How do you demonstrate these characteristics?  Through all the things you do in college of course! Your class projects, internships, summer jobs, clubs, fraternities, and your grades all paint a picture of your identity. By the time you graduate, you want to have gathered enough experiences to safely know what you don’t want to do with the rest of your life.  This process will ironically get you closer to finding what you do like.  Also, your experiences give you stuff to talk about in job interviews that might help to paint a pleasing portrait of yourself to recruiters.  If you’re having extra trouble—GO TO THE CAREER CENTER and worry out loud to the counselors.   They’ll really help you put things into perspective by simplifying your anxieties and uncertainties about your identity.  Trust me, just go.

Great, but the bigger questions still remain: what do I do to gather these experiences, where do I go, and who can help me?  These questions baffled me all the way until my final year in college. But I found the answers through trial and error.  And they’re simple: you will get the chance to learn and demonstrate your communication skills through your friends, leadership through clubs and jobs, logic in your classes, effort through your grades, group skills through your class projects and work experience, and entrepreneurship through your efforts to improve the organizations that you hopefully take the effort to join and participate in.  Think about the global picture of why our society has college in the first place.  A university is an organization designed to educate citizens about how to best navigate their lives in society to improve it.  That is why our citizens have voted to publicly fund it! So have a little faith—it will indeed help you navigate your future.  The most important thing to remember though is this: the friends you make and the relationships you develop with your elders (i.e. professors, TAs, counselors, campus employers, internship coordinators, etc.)  will be your strongest assets when it comes time to find and acquire jobs after you finish your studies.  They are your connections with the world outside the university bubble.  They want to help you, and their recommendation of your skills and character will prove to strangers that you are a reputable human being.  Be social! Be interested in your peers and elders.  And most importantly—don’t be afraid to ask them for favors and job opportunities.

One final lesson to those who will be graduating soon: it’s not too hard to impress employers.  A winning story to demonstrate your employ-ability goes a little something like this: “When I worked at the front desk in Manzanita village, I noticed that my co-workers would get tired on the late shifts, which negatively impacted customer service.  So I organized a snack drive where everyone pitched in a few bucks for snacks to keep behind the desk.  The snack drive ended up boosting morale and helped us all keep alert on late nights.  The manager liked the idea so much that now the snack drive is a regular thing.” A simple example like this means a lot to recruiters because while the subject matter seems relatively unimportant, your actions demonstrate that you can improve a situation.  You recognized a problem (low energy among your co-workers negatively impacts customer service) and you had the leadership abilities to organize a solution that worked to improve the team.  This example is pure gold.  Little problems like that come up in real working situations all the time.  So get out there! Join the chess club.  Join a fraternity/sorority.  Form a band with your friends. Go to the Career Center and use GauchoLink to search for internships in a field you want to try, or ask your friends with internships to help recommend you to their supervisor.  Do something and look for little problems to improve.  Then remember what you did and learn how to tell stories like the one above naturally.  Your social skills and your ability to communicate about your past achievements are your best friends when applying for jobs.  Build your social skills by actively going to parties and participating in class discussions, and build your stories by joining organized groups if you want to best prepare yourself to work with others in the future.  Your personality is your strongest asset.

Good luck to you!  Being an adult doesn’t have to be scary—the best years are ahead.  Make sure that you set up the building blocks of success now.  Having a full-time job allows you freedoms in your off time that you never had in college. The best part about working-world free time is that it all belongs to you!  There are no classes to worry about.  And if you’re starting your senior year now, don’t freak out like I did.   Use this year to build up some experiences and strengthen your connections or make new ones.  You’ll have to work harder to fit in these experiences in three-quarters, but your efforts, however slight they are, will all be worth it.  I have confidence in you! Just the fact that you searched out this article shows that you are interested in learning from your peers—which is yet another important attribute to have!

Daniel Russell is a former Career Peer Adviser at UCSB Career Services. Graduating in 2013 with a History Major, he now works as a member of  Macy’s Executive Development Program and has recently been promoted to co-manage the five million dollar Women’s Shoe business at Macy’s Glendale


[1] O’Brien, Patrick S., Making College Count, Patrick O’Brien Enterprises LLC 2010, pp. 54-68.

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