I want to tell you about my job. My job is work, like any other person’s, and there are days when I am entirely wiped out by the intensity it requires. It is entirely worth this. I help students search for internships, sometimes full-time and part-time work when it’s fitting, and craft and improve their resumes, cover letters, and other letters of interest. I do this as part of the Career Services Center at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia, a bedroom community north of Atlanta.
Earlier this week, in the same day, I met with these three students, among other meetings and one or two other students:
An Anthropology student graduating this semester and heading to library science school in the fall, who is applying to two summer internships with affiliates of the Smithsonian on archival projects on historic books. She’s back at school now after over fifteen years working for and managing Borders and, more recently, an independent bookstore. On a trip to Scotland, she realized that Europeans have an altogether different relationship with their past than Americans do, and she was struck by this very intriguing component of human existence. I helped her craft a cover letter, using a rough initial draft, that would effectively introduce herself and her qualifications, and the question to which they sought an answer: why are you interested. She’s also earned her minor in history.
A Modern Language and Culture student, whose emphasis was Business and German Studies, who studied in Germany for one year while in high school, then applied and received several fellowships that had her back in Germany to finish her Bachelor’s work, including a stint at a university where she worked with international students to make sure they’d worked out all the logistics, like housing and visas and language acquisition. She can bust out some German like nobody’s business, and actually had to work to translate some terms on her resume back into English. She also speaks Spanish, though not quite as fluently as she does German. She’s applying to a job at Georgia Tech now to do the same kind of thing, help international students when they arrive to study in Atlanta. Did I mention she got a 99 in high school AP calculus? She’ll have no trouble speaking their math language either.
A Political Science student who is frustrated by the fact that her diploma and resume will say Bachelor of Science in Political Science (because of the double “sciences”) with a background in the moving industry, but now seeking a part- or full-time job in a law firm as she’s soon to graduate and wants to take some time to learn in a real-world environment before starting law school. She needed help with cover letter and resume, and she needed a lot of help, because was having a hard time translating the skills she’s earned in assisting to manage a couple moving companies to the world of a law firm.
In case you’re having a hard time too, there are quite a few of them, and my colleague and I who work with liberal arts students call them “transferrable skills.” It’s what those students with the English and History and Sociology degree are acquiring during their years in school, and they are not to be dismissed, not by recruiters and especially not by their colleagues and friends. Leading teams, analyzing complex situations, communicating effectively and coordinating events, projects, and people—liberal arts students excel at these. I won’t say all of them do, because there are less talented people in every program, even business schools and computer science colleges.
So let’s not pretend.
She told me all about her role in the moving companies, how she’s had to call old men in wheelchairs after their lives have been reduced to a small apartment after their wives have died to collect the bills the moving company is due. She’s gone into the homes of doctors and lawyers when their marriages were ending, packing up things in very intentional segments of time and with very peculiar instructions due to who would be home and what each was keeping. She was so inspired by the amount of crap people just move around with them from place to place she decided to start her own consulting business, where she helps people referred to her to simplify and organize their personal homes and spaces. Yet she was having a hard time explaining her worth, her absolute and enormous value, to this law firm in the space of two cover letter paragraphs and one page of a resume. We fixed that. That girl’s obviously got some serious skills to bring to any law firm. Did I mention she manages the files and records for a moving company that has thousands of clients a year and is second-in-command for a company that specifically helps old people who are downsizing?
I do feel like when students leave my office, I’ve empowered them, and many of them leave excited about what they now feel will be a strong resume that represents them well, illustrates their worth, instead of feeling overwhelmed and intimidated, or worst, like they should apologize for the liberal arts degree they’ve spent four (or more) years earning. “Oh, I’m an English major,” in that disheartened tone. And the response, “What are you going to do with that—teach?” This exchange makes me angry, and it's ignorant.
This was Tuesday.
Today, my last appointment was a difficult one, and I’ve met with him several times. He’s an older student with some obvious learning or social disabilities, and he has a very hard time seeing. He speaks too loud and is often barging into spaces with little awareness that he is making people bristle. I am patient and we work through his problem. He is stressed and overwhelmed by his schoolwork in a way that I probably will never understand, but we go over slowly the assignment he has to do for class, until we understand each other. He has to find a job posting he’s interested in, find someone working in that industry and ask he or she some questions, and present on why his qualifications and education make him a good fit for this job and what the person he interviewed had to say. The instructions are written in two or three sentences on his syllabus, but he had completely misunderstood them. He thought he had to apply to a job and get an interview in time to present on this by the end of the semester (4 weeks). I clarified the assignment for him, we found a posting he could use as a starting point, in environmentalism, and brainstormed some questions he could ask someone he already knows at Georgia Adopt a Stream. I made sure he wrote down that he needs to contact this person tonight in order to ensure he has time to finish his assignment by deadline. I don’t know what will happen. Based on the records we keep digitally on students who visit Career Services, he’s been to meet one-on-one with my predecessor at least three times, and my current colleague twice, and I’ve met with him at least once myself already. Every time he was advised and talked through writing a resume and what format would be best for him. Today he remarked that he needs to write a resume (!!!!) and has been too busy with school to do so before now. He said he’s devoting the summer to it. His first resume meeting was in January 2011, over three years ago now.
I tell you his story as well because it’s not all successes and amazing students who I know will change the world. There are leaders and followers and successes and failures and students with drive and students who have no idea what they want to do, and sometimes they just need to talk with somebody who will listen to figure out a path for Right Now. The other day a girl left my office with the name of a company she’d never heard before she walked in, but when I told her what they do, her face lit up. After that, I couldn’t get her interested in a single other idea. It’s a nonprofit that works with adolescent girls on everything from body image to creativity to “the drama years.” She is a psychology student who is near graduation and doesn’t know exactly what she wants to do. We talked it out. It might not be her path. But you have to at least try a path before you know which one is yours.
This work, with these students who are sometimes given a bad reputation for being dreamers and idealists, blows me away. I would say some days it does this, but no, it’s most days. I’m very real with them, I don’t put on airs and I definitely don’t put much space between myself and the student on the other side of my desk. Let’s face it—there’s not much. A few weeks ago I advised a student who’s 71 years old. Her work history began in 1958. Did you hear me? Nineteen fifty-eight. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, and I’m very forthcoming and honest about my own trials and tribulations job-seeking, and times when I’ve done this or that on my own resume. When students come to me and say they applied to forty internships last summer and didn’t get one callback, or they applied to this-or-that before and were interviewed but didn’t get it, I’m totally honest. We brush it off. It’s good for you, I tell them. (I really do tell them this. It’s the most true thing I could say. It might be the most useful and important thing I say in the entire hour.)
I don’t talk in theory, at least as much as I can. It’s real talk in my office. I ask them what they’ve done, where their interests lie, what they do when they’re not earning money or a grade for it. We talk about volunteer experiences and activism and passions, and pull these things to the forefront. I tell them: A resume needs to show me not just where you’ve been, but where you want to go. If you don’t make that connection for the employer, no one else is going to do it for you. I can’t believe how many students sit across from me and start telling me about papers they’ve written and work they’ve done pro bono or with organizations or classes that relate so enormously to where they want to end up after school, that are nowhere to be seen on their resume. We talk it out. We reorganize, we make a game plan.
I had a student, political science, who wrote one tiny line tucked in to her Education section, on how she writes for the campus newspaper. I remarked that it needed to be given a little more room on the resume, while could remove her lengthy description of her retail management job. She tells me she’s actually been heavily involved in an investigative report that was the front page story weeks ago, on a website that facilitates “sugar daddy” scholarships for girls who want to attend college and so enter into relationships with men who will pay the tuition in exchange for sex. She tells me that now she’s met with legislators in the state in very intimate meetings, working to shut down the website. “Should I put that on my resume?” she asked innocently. She is applying to an internship with Amnesty International. Ahem, yes. Yes it should. I was flabbergasted.
Resumes are not a history of the boring crap you’ve done at your jobs. They are your accomplishments! It matters far less where you’ve done any of it, but that you’ve done it. This is what I hope they leave with.
Crucially, my students leave me inspired by their accomplishments. It’s like I get to be all these things by seeing them succeed. It’s like having a thousand children. About a third of them might always let me down, that’s true. And they do. Sometimes they leave and they just don’t get it, and they might never get it. But there are plenty of adults with jobs who don’t get it. We all know some of them, and we work with them, and someone hired them.
But the other two-thirds come in with all this potential and it is unleashed on the desk in between us, as we work out how we’re going to make sure they shine, how they can talk about the things that make them great. I am sure that only a small portion of these students will change the world, but holy crap, I helped them, in this small way, get that interview that will open their worlds wide, and unchain that immense capacity that is just waiting to burst free. They’re my bundles of joy and pain and success and failure, set loose into the world. And helping them towards all those things gives purpose to my days.