Moving Forward When Plans Fall Through
I was nearing the end of my junior spring semester abroad in Madrid, when I opened an email from my final summer internship I had yet to hear from. It was another rejection. I immediately jumped to all kinds of conclusions–my failure to land a summer internship before my senior year meant that I would never find a career I enjoyed, and so on. My response seems dramatic now, but as a student with my senior year approaching, surrounded by peers with seemingly prestigious and exciting summer plans, I felt like I had fallen behind.
Like many other college students, I entered my undergraduate studies thinking I had a solid plan for my future, only to realize how little I knew about different career options. I dabbled in neuroscience, sociology, history, and eventually decided on a degree in literature. The summer after my sophomore year, I tried an unpaid editorial internship at an art magazine, paired with a seasonal job at a tutoring company near my home where I had worked the summer before. By the end of the summer, I learned that the often-solo work of editing was not a fit for me, but I did come away with a new interest in education policy after learning more about various issues facing the students I tutored and their parents.
Over my junior year, I looked for ways to incorporate this interest into my studies, both in literature classes and in courses with departments that were new to me. I applied for a variety of policy internships, despite having little background in that area––leading to that moment during my study-abroad semester where I found myself without a next step.
I was short on time and reluctant to do another unpaid internship, so I decided to return to tutoring for yet another summer. Although I enjoyed the work, I was worried about not exploring a new field. The position didn’t offer much advancement, and I didn’t know what to do next. My options seemed to narrow before me. However, I was very fortunate to have the chance to return to the position at all, something that was hard to see at the time.
That summer, my life did not fall apart as I had feared. With two years of tutoring experience, I felt new confidence in my abilities and knowledge. Although it wasn’t planned, that depth of experience helped me understand what I enjoyed in a workplace building skills and relationships, and I arrived at a more nuanced understanding of the issues in the field. When I left to return to school my senior year, I still didn’t know what kind of career I wanted to pursue. But I knew I wanted to work toward reducing inequities between school systems and improving resources for students.
When I began applying for post-graduation jobs, I looked for positions that would allow me to engage further with these issues, rather than for a specific role. During interviews, I focused on communicating what I learned from my years as a tutor, and translating those experiences to the responsibilities of a new role. My first job turned out to be a two-year fellowship at an early literacy nonprofit, doing a combination of policy and community impact work. And now, just a few years later, I manage an early literacy initiative, helping a group of nonprofits collaborate around increasing young children’s opportunities to develop literacy skills before grade school.
Today, instead of imagining my career as a series of steps towards some final dream job, I focus on addressing issues I care about while doing work that fulfills me on a daily basis. If I could give my junior-year self advice, I would tell myself to embrace the uncertainty, and pay attention to things that inspire me in any role. Long-term planning is useful, but twists and obstacles will occur at any career stage. Valuing each experience and taking the time to observe and learn, even if you aren’t where you expected to be, can open pathways you never knew were an option.