Career Path Experience: Breaking free of career "shoulds"

Matt Arnold '09 with ESOL student
Matt Arnold '09 with ESOL student

The diversity of academic pursuits that a liberal arts college affords can be bittersweet. Academic freedom yields a wide range of career choices, yet it can be difficult selecting what will ultimately be right for you.

As a senior looking forward to graduation, I had some requirements: As a native of upstate New York, I planned to go far away. I didn’t ultimately care where as long as the environment was stimulating. The job had to be interesting. I wasn’t going to do repetitive tasks in an office.

I applied for entry level jobs at a few highly competitive NGOs and learned that were hundreds of graduates like me vying for the same jobs. After a few months of applications, none of them yielded an interview.

I realized my expectations were unrealistic. After scanning websites like transitionsabroad.com and idealist.org, I learned that the Teaching English as a Secondary Language (TESL) market was one of the few bastions of employment that still thrived for recent graduates. I applied to positions in South Korea, India, Nepal and New Zealand. I talked to friends and friends of friends who taught abroad and listened to their stories. I received a few offers in South Asia but failed to find an affordable contract.

On a whim, I enrolled in Barbara Britt-Hysell’s TESOL course to see if this kind of job would suit me. Working with refugees in Utica turned out to be immensely rewarding and I became inspired to find jobs that involved working with people. I gained a renewed sense of gumption and sent more applications.

A few months and a series of dead-ends later, I dropped the idea of going abroad and turned to AmeriCorps State and National. It still fulfilled my requirements: interesting jobs and going somewhere far enough. I applied to jobs all over the country. Within a few weeks I was getting phone interviews.

I ultimately accepted a TESOL position in Washington, D.C. teaching immigrants. I became "principal" of three ESOL school sites, making me responsible for 22 volunteer teachers and class aides, as well as teaching two to four hours of classes four days a week. I also became the IT specialist (although I had no computer training). I created strong relationships with my students and learned much about their experiences in this country. Teaching without a common language with students is a unique experience. I was so deeply affected by this experience that after completing my contract a year later, I continued to tutor immigrants. Looking back to the beginning of senior year, working in this kind of position would have never crossed my mind. Despite all of my meticulous planning for the “next step” I learned that it's important to keep an open mind and not be afraid to stray from your original plan.

The average 20-something-year-old undergraduate senior likely finds it difficult to identify the “right” path to take. With limited experience paying bills, without having seen 99 percent of the world with your own eyes, and without being aware of a significant number of existing career opportunities, in a fundamental way, you’re driving blind.

Many seniors find themselves divided between what they think they “should” do and what they “want” to do. In order to avoid this anxiety, the most rational path is to seek out a structured, fail-safe career that provides financial security and will remove the need to make a serious choice (there are countless options that provide this peace of mind).

Being an intern is no one's end goal; but I recommend considering all of your options before graduating. I've learned that refusing to settle for anything that doesn't excite you can pay off. Rather than tolerate a 9-to-5 job during the most vibrant and flexible phase of your life, I think it’s better to take a risk and stick to what you want to do rather than what you think you should do.

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