It’s amazing how the title of Jullien Gordon’s TED Talk, “How to graduate college with a job you love and less debt” resonates with students. Their enthusiasm is all the more remarkable in its rarity. Most of my students are attending the University full-time, while simultaneously supporting themselves with at least one part-time job. They come to my class already exhausted, so when they ask me if they can stay late just to finish Gordon’s talk, I am always equal parts shocked and gratified. Clearly, this is a subject students are interested in.
Jullien Gordon is a kind of Millennial whisperer. He travels around the country speaking not only to students, but to staff, parents and faculty about how to engage Millennials in higher education. One of the things I appreciate about Gordon is that he’s direct. He doesn’t try to soften the truth about career by promoting college completion as a magical key to success. In fact, within the first few minutes of his talk, he challenges students to re-think what success really means – to them, to society, to their parents, friends and teachers. He encourages Millennials to redefine achievement so that they’ll be motivated to make the most of their college experience.
When I last showed his talk, I engaged the class in a discussion about the pros and cons of letting someone else make your major and career decisions for you. One first-year student summed it up perfectly: “you lose freedom, but you don’t have to deal with uncertainty!” After this speech, he put his head down on his desk. I asked for a show of hands. How many of them enjoy the feeling of uncertainty? No hands went up. They gave me pained looks. I imagine this might be why they’ve registered for a class on career decision-making.
I empathize. Taking responsibility for your own success or failure is difficult enough. Having to make choices about what your success will look like, at 18, is more difficult still. It’s a big ask, but I think students appreciate when we’re honest with them about what’s expected. They resonate with Gordon’s transparency. They understand the concept of competition, and the signs on the wall, even in school, are increasingly clear.
If someone asked me to name the most important role a career counselor plays in the life of a college student, I wouldn’t talk about major requirements, or internships, or resume and cover letters, or even preparing for the long weeks of the job search. The most challenging, and important, part of my job, is encouraging students to tolerate uncertainty and to take risks. These skills are critical in our current job market, where technology is transforming entire fields in a space of a few years.
As Gordon implies, risks often mean sacrifices. Students may not be able to graduate with the perfect major, have a 4.0 GPA, lead three student organizations, and get the internship experience they need to be successful. No one can do it all. But if a student has a passion for travel, it may be more important for them to study abroad than to have a perfect GPA. These risks may pay off in unexpected ways, but they take courage in the short-term.
Career professionals have the opportunity to help students strategize as they decide where and how to take risks in school. Success in college is about more than just completion, it’s about preparing for the realities of post-graduate life.