As schools around the country start to close out the academic year, honor their student leaders and organizations with awards, check out students from the residence halls, and prepare for graduation, I can’t help but reflect on the ways my life and career path have changed in a few short months. Last Fall, as I was finishing up summer projects, and preparing for RA training, I was also contemplating some major life changes.
I’d planned to start a doctoral program here at the University of Georgia, but I wasn’t accepted. I’d applied to the program for several reasons: first, it’s a great program; second, it is close to my family (in South Carolina) and Sarah’s family (in Florida) and third, after 14 years in State College, I’d finally reached a point in my career at Penn State at which I’d accomplished what I set out to do. More importantly, I had to admit that I wasn’t motivated by my daily routine, and I found myself more than a little bit discouraged as I faced the prospect of another year of doing the same things.
I’d imagined (and worked quite diligently toward) a return to the classroom. From preparing for the GRE, to writing, fretting over, and re-writing my statement of purpose, I’d been single-minded about getting in to the University of Georgia, so it was kind of a blow to get rejected. Despite what some might expect, though, I won’t say a bad word about U. Ga. or their graduate admissions process, or about Residence Life at Penn State. I have deep respect for, and can honestly say that I learned a lot about myself, from both.
At Penn State, I had many opportunities to learn and grow as a professional, and my work was rewarded by several promotions and many great learning and leadership opportunities. The people there are not just my colleagues or my friends; many of them are family to me, and I will always value the time I spent there and the relationships I forged. And though it would be easy to be bitter about getting rejected from a grad program when you have a generation of experience behind you, good GRE scores and recommendations, etc., I’m not upset with anyone at U.Ga., because I learned something very valuable from the process. It was a simple but powerful realization, and it was this: I don’t love Student Development theory.I think it’s interesting, but my real love is for two things: the people and the process. While I am capable of doctoral-level work, and a Ph.D. would help me get to a logical next step, as a faculty member or senior administrator, I hadn’t really explored my other options enough, and I’d set some aside that were actually important to me (and that I have always wanted to do) because they didn’t fit with what many would consider conventional next steps along a “career path” in Student Affairs.
I’ve known several things about myself for most of my life, but wasn’t giving them a proper place in my personal “scheme of things.” First, I have always been a writer and a story-teller. Some of my earliest memories are of me telling my grandmother fabulous stories. When I was young, people didn’t read me bedtime stories: they asked me to tell them. Second, I’ve always been a “helper” and a “sounding board” for other people, and I like to challenge others to think about what they want to do with their lives. This was apparent in many ways as I grew up, became an RA and eventually moved into full-time work in higher ed. Third, I’ve always been creative and free-spirited, and Fourth, I hate bureaucratic nonsense and as much as possible, I do my own thing, and I seldom apologize for it. My track record on this count is pretty good. I am an original thinker who drives conversations in new directions, experiments, and takes risks. Usually, the results are good. When they aren’t, I explain my rationale, apologize for bad results if necessary, and move on.
Finally, late last summer, as training loomed in the near future, I took a pretty big leap of faith, and registered for a Coach Certification program with the Life Purpose Institute, and began to plan my departure from Penn State. The program was in October and after it, Sarah came down to meet me in Atlanta, and we went to Athens to look at houses for two days. We made an offer on our new house on the second day.
I’d planned to end the semester at Penn State, but finding the house kind of tipped things in a different direction, because it created a new sense of urgency toward unloading our old one and moving on. Pennsylvania winters are notoriously bad for selling houses, so we had to jump right on it. Things started to happen quickly, and before I knew it, the die was cast. After 14 1/2 years in Happy Valley,we were packing up our life, unloading our junk and starting something new.
The strangest part of this, for me, has been how easy it has been to not look back. I don’t have any “might-have-beens” to dwell on. I did what I went there to do, and I know that I made a difference while I was there. These days, I spend my time writing, and discussing life and career issues with people from all over. Through Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, BrazenCareerist, and the wonderful #sachat community, I’m more connected that I ever have been to others working in Higher Ed.
Since I’m new in business, I spend a lot of time working on ways to bring in clients, do presentations and offer workshops. It’s challenging and very different from working for a large university. I set my schedule, pay for all my benefits, and I generally work alone. I don’t supervise anyone, and I don’t have a boss, but in some ways, I answer to everybody…either I get feedback that my work is helpful, or I work through the silence and keep trying until I find something that is both validating and (hopefully) potentially profitable. I’m not swimming in money by any means. I’ve earned less this year than I earned in a week at my old job, and most of what I’ve earned has gone to pay some of my fabulous guest writers. And let’s not get into what it costs to get certified as a professional coach through a reputable program, or to start a business.
Last August, I only imagined what it would be like to take this leap, and to forge out on my own. I had greater expectations for what the year would bring me, but, like many new graduates heading out into the world, or professionals moving on to their first (or next step), I choose to look back on the year with fondness, to reflect on everything I’ve learned…about business, about careers, about higher ed, and about myself, and to keep moving toward opportunities and experiences around each bend.
I know that I will get where I am meant to go in my career and in my life. I’ve found a purpose that drives me forward, and the realization that I’m doing the driving, so I’m the one who gets to decide where to go next.
It may be the end of the world as I knew it, but I feel fine.
How about you?
- Have you set aside aspects of yourself as you pursue the “next steps” in your career?
- Are there ways to incorporate these aspirations and skills into your current job?
- What risks are you willing to take to create more fulfillment in your life and career?
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