Chapter 1: Words of Wisdom: Learn What You Don’t Want
Michael Duggan & Jamie Edwards
Michael Duggan (in the center)
When I was in college I was incredibly lost on what I wanted to do. I was originally a music major–jazz music to be specific. I grew up for most of my childhood playing different instruments. At age 3 I was playing the piano and organ, in high school I played most anything brass (trombone, trumpet, baritone, etc.) and also really developed a passion for jazz improvisation. Music performance only seemed like a logical progression. In my freshman year however, I soon discovered that is one is to be successful in the music industry, they need to be practicing many, many hours a day. While I enjoyed performing, this is something I lacked the patience or interest to do. This left me at the end of my first year feeling very disheartened and concerned for my future.
In my sophomore year I took a random Anthropology course as a General Education requirement where we studied among many other things, the Deaf culture and other disability subcultures. I found this fascinating. Growing up I had volunteered with organizations like Special Olympics as I had people with disabilities in my family, but I did not realize there were academic studies on the topic. I wanted to develop a deeper understanding, so as a project for the course I conducted an Anthropological study where I staged a fake car accident and lived in a wheelchair for two weeks. I wanted to better understand the disability experience first-hand. In addition, I interviewed a person with a disability each night to broaden my knowledge. I tried to cover as many disability groups as I could–blindness, Deafness, autism, mental illness, learning disabilities, and cerebral palsy to name a few.
My experience learning first-hand being in a wheelchair, plus my learning from interviewing other people was a truly transformational experience. I found my favorite restaurants to be poorly accessible, public transportation mind boggling, and the way people treated me drastically different. I also found from my interviews that different types of discrimination and access issues were prevalent for every diagnosis–certainly it took different forms for each person, but the theme was always one of frustration and inaccessibility. After this experience, I decided I wanted to understand things on a deeper level, and discovered there was an entire academic discipline dedicated towards this type of research–it was called Rehabilitation Counseling.
So I changed my major, dropped all my music courses and started piling up on social sciences–psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science and more. I eventually earned my Bachelors degree and then moved unto graduate school earning my Masters in Rehabilitation Counseling. I was lucky enough to earn a Graduate Assistantship at my university where I worked at the schools Office of Disability Accessibility. I loved it. Working in higher education, there is this wonderful combination of left brain access puzzles requiring creativity and legal knowledge to respond appropriately to access conundrums. In addition, there was a right brained affective component involving addressing interpersonal issues that can come for any college student, especially one with a disability struggling in the transition to independence which I found equally fascinating. I feel in love with the occupation. When I graduated, I got a job at a Community College doing this line of work and long story short, have now been at it nearly 25 years.
I realize not everyone can be as lucky as me when it comes to finding a major. In fact, if not for that random Anthropology course, who knows where I would be today. I am so very grateful to my instructors who provided me the encouragement and direction I desperately needed when I was in college, and I try to do the same as a Counselor and Professor today–serving as a lighthouse in the storm whenever I can do someone feeling lost. I hope my small additions to this text are helpful, and I appreciate you taking the time to read my story. It is my sincere hope anyone I work with can find whatever information they are seeking, and perhaps even have a laugh or two along the way….
For a long time, my plan had always been to be a kindergarten teacher. But when I began my undergraduate degree I fell into that ever-growing pool of college students who changed their major three times before graduation. I was swayed by family members, my peers, and the economy, but I eventually realized that I was investing my education in the wrong areas for the wrong reasons. It shouldn’t just be about salaries and job security. I needed to find that personal attachment.
At eighteen, it’s hard to see your entire life spread out before you. College may feel like a free-for-all at times, but the reality is that it’s one of the most defining times of our lives. It should never be squandered. I started to imagine my life beyond college—what I found important and the type of lifestyle I wanted in the end. I started thinking about the classes that I was actually interested in—the ones that I looked forward to each week and arrived early just so I could get a seat up front.
A turning point for me was when I took the advice of a campus mentor and enrolled in a career exploration course. I learned more about myself in that class than I had in my entire three years at college prior to taking it. It showed me that my passion was something I had always thought about but never thought about as a career. In high school, I could sit in the Guidance Office for hours on end. I enjoyed listening to others—hearing and helping people work through their struggles.
I had seen firsthand how detrimental the absence of career classes can be to someone’s future. Through this realization and my participation in my career exploration class, I saw a viable future in the Higher Education Administration field. As I dove deeper, I was opened to an incredible amount of unique and diverse opportunities to work with students. My main approach was to get a taste anything to do with student services: I shadowed a career counselor in a career services office, attended graduate school fairs and informational sessions, discussed the Higher Education Administration Program with several staff at my college, and most importantly, I talked with my internship coordinator (my mentor). From there, I completed an internship in my prospective field, which gave me a wealth of insight and skills that directly related to my future career goals.
From where I sit now—my former personal and professional struggles in tow—I offer up some pieces of advice that were crucial to getting me where I am today. Whether you’re an undecided major who is looking for guidance or a student with a clearly defined career path, I suggest the following:
- Find a mentor—For me, everything began there. Without my mentor, I wouldn’t have done any of the other items I’m about to suggest. Finding the right mentor is crucial. Look for someone who can complement your personality (typically someone who’s the opposite of you). My advice would be to look beyond your direct supervisor for mentorship. It’s important to create an open forum with your mentor, because there may be a conflict of interest as you discuss work issues and other job opportunities. Potential mentors to consider are an instructor on campus, your academic advisor, a professional currently working in your prospective field, someone you admire in your community, or anyone in your network of friends or family that you feel comfortable discussing your future goals with.
- Enroll in a Career Exploration/Planning course, or something similar—Even if you do not see the effects of this course immediately (such as dramatically changing your major), you will notice the impact down the road. Making educated career choices and learning job readiness skills will always pay off in the end. Through my career exploration class, I learned how to relate my personality and values to potential career fields. These self-assessments changed my entire thought process, and I see that influence daily. Beyond changing the way you think, the knowledge you gain about effective job search strategies is invaluable. Learning how to write purposeful résumés and cover letters, finding the right approach to the interview process, and recognizing your strengths and weaknesses are just a few of the benefits you can gain from these types of courses.
- Complete a Job Shadow and/or Informational Interview—No amount of online research is going to give you the same experience as seeing a job at the front line. In a job shadow or an informational interview, you’re able to explore options with no commitment and see how your in-class experience can carry over to a real world setting. Additionally, you’re expanding your professional network by having that personal involvement. You never know how the connections you make might benefit you in the future. My only regret about job shadowing in college is that I didn’t do it sooner.
- Do an Internship—A main source of frustration for recent grads is the inability to secure an entry-level position without experience. “How do I get a job to gain experience when I can’t get a job without experience?” This is how: do an internship or two! Most colleges even have a course where you can obtain credit for doing it! Not only will you earn credits towards graduation, but you’ll gain the necessary experience to put on your résumé and to discuss in future interviews. Having completed four internships throughout my college career, I can’t say they were all great. However, I don’t regret a single one. The first one showed me the type of field I didn’t want to work in. The second confirmed that I was heading in the right direction with my career. My third and fourth internships introduced me to completely different areas of higher education which broadened my knowledge and narrowed my search simultaneously.
My takeaway is that sometimes you have to learn what you don’t want in order to find out what you do want. The more informed you are about career options through real life conversations and experiences, the better prepared you will be for your future and the more confident you will be in your career decisions. Always explore your options because even if you learn you hate it, at least you’re one step closer to finding what you love.
Licenses and Attributions:
CC licensed content, Shared previously:
Foundations of Academic Success: Words of Wisdom. Edited by Thomas Priester. Essay authored by Jamie Edwards. Located at: https://milnepublishing.geneseo.edu/foundations-of-academic-success/chapter/learn-what-you-dont-want/
Additional essay by Michael Duggan.
License: CC BY: Attribution.