I’m a ham. I admit it. I always have been. Remember the kid in high school that sat in the back of the class, cracked jokes, and mimicked the teacher for laughs? That was me. From an early age I was told I was funny and clever and that I should be an actor. That became my identity, and most of my decisions regarding college and career were based on that identity. In college I had seven different majors, but most of my time I spent in the theater department. My sophomore year I auditioned, and got into, the B.F.A. acting program, and for about three years, I spent almost every day with the same 11 students (who are now dear friends). I loved it. My senior year, I got cold feet after hearing “What kind of ‘real job’ are you going to get with a B.F.A. in acting?” too many times to count. My solution? I changed my major, one final time, to communications, with a “media performance” concentration. Almost all of my theater classes transferred over, and I only had to take five communications classes my senior year to graduate with a B.S. in communications.
My first “real job” after graduation? Working at the downtown coffee shop…walking distance from the theatre department. I had no idea what to do with my life. One day a friend visited the coffee shop and asked me if I wanted to move to Chicago. I said, “Sure.”
A week later we were packed in her brother’s van heading to the Windy City. My first job in Chicago? Working at a coffee shop. When not slinging coffee or working at a record and video store (I needed two jobs to pay the rent) I was trying to act in student films. While I enjoyed Chicago as best I could, I was mostly lonely and anxious. Friends were hard to make, and I was in bit of an existential crisis trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. After a year in Chicago, a friend in New York City called and asked if I wanted to move to NYC to sublet his room for a year. I said, “Sure.”
In NYC, I was able to get an internship with a documentary filmmaker and her crew. We spent the summer of 2001 in a small Rhode Island town shooting a film about a wealthy, highly educated, family that learns their wealth came from the slave trade. The film documented the family’s journey from Rhode Island, to Cuba, to Ghana, traveling the route of the slaves their family members bought generations before. I became close to this family and the crew, I loved the tight-knit feeling of working on a small project for a big cause and becoming a part of a community. I liked documentary more than acting, it certainly felt more meaningful to me, but still, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to spend so much time on location (traveling and away from home) and spending hours and hours researching grants for funding.
I was in Tribeca, about 11 blocks north from the World Trade Center, when the city was attacked on 9/11. I, and thankfully my friends, was uninjured…just terrified, heartbroken, and confused. Most filming in the city was shut down, and in order to make ends meet, I started waiting tables at the World Wrestling Federation restaurant in Times Square (that experience could be its own blog post – ha!). Later I was able to do some freelance work as a production assistant with the show Law and Order, but really, after such a tough year, I wanted to be home with my friends and family. So, that’s what I did. I landed a job back home working in digital media as a production assistant (and then producer) for a small company. We worked very hard, and many long hours, and as a result became extremely close. One day, an intern I worked with told me I should consider being a college career counselor.
“Colleges have career counselors?” As an undergrad, my world was theater 24/7 and I had no idea there were student affairs professionals, like career counselors, that got paid to help students. Crazy! I did some research on careers in student affairs, decided to pursue career counseling, earned my graduate degree, and then landed my first career counseling gig for a school of communications. Finally, I found a job that satisfies my desire for building meaningful relationships, provides community, allows me to help others every day, AND I get to perform (and be a big ole ham!) doing workshops and presentations. It only took me three states, four coffee shops, three record stores, one documentary, a television show, and 10 years to get here!
So you are probably asking yourself by now, “Why is Ross telling this long story. What is the point?” Good questions. I shared my story to highlight a few points that may be helpful to you as you work with your students as they consider “What should I do with my life?”
Identity – it’s about you, not other’s perceptions of you.
Feedback is important, but I frequently tell students not let anyone tell them who they are or what they should do with their lives. Many students get feedback from friends and (especially) family on what to do career wise. Feedback from these folks, while well intentioned, can be based on issues about themselves and their own experiences…not necessarily about the student. I normally ask students to investigate common denominators from past experiences that can shed light on possible career options. For me, though, I love to perform—community and a sense of helping others—is most important in my career. I found evidence of this time and time again as I reflected on why I love theatre, film, and the arts. The art part is fun, but I most valued working hard, as part of a community, towards a common goal.
Just say “sure” and trust your gut – it’s leading you someplace good.
I find myself saying this to students a lot—“If you don’t know what to do, just do something, anything, and that will inform the next thing.” Every time I tell someone my career story, they say “Wow, you’ve landed the perfect job for yourself!” And as I look back, I agree with them. At the time it seemed that my career was chaotic and directionless. But if I had not made that drive to Chicago, then taken that room in New York, and then come back home, I never would be enjoying my job as a career adviser for media, arts, and entertainment students. I was building an incredible resume and didn’t even know it!
Share your story.
Your students need to hear your career story. Pursuing a career is daunting no matter what industry or major. Disclosing some of your accomplishments and failures (yes, I used the “F” word) normalizes fears and confusion, and provides insight students can use as they pursue their goals. When I tell my students I had seven majors, or took a risk and moved to a big city where I really didn’t know anyone, or had to work at a wrestling themed restaurant to pay the bills until I landed another film or TV gig, and was still able to mange to find a career I love it gives them hope (and ideas!). A couple of summers ago, at the career center where I work, the staff did audio recordings of stories reflecting that in which they believe. These personally told career stories are posted on our “staff” web page and available for students to listen to. Our students love this! I’ve had quite a few students make appointments with me specifically because of the story I share about my career journey.
What is your career story? Leave a comment and let me know – I’d love to read it (and I bet others would too)!