The traditional view of mentoring is that of a wise(r), old(er) person with the time, skills, expertise, insights and contacts to help a younger person enter, or climb the ladder of, their chosen profession.
You might find a mentor in a family friend, a neighbor, teacher or professor, a coworker or fellow freelancer.
But here’s the thing.
I think mentoring is no longer, as many people see it, a one-way street, with the person arguably with all the power and connections helping the person with none, or many fewer.
The economy has changed.
Entire industries have shifted, shrunk or simply died and disappeared.
Many people my age — I’m in my 50s — are scrambling hard now to earn a good living freelance; even if we wanted a full-time job with benefits, at the salary we enjoyed a few years ago, it’s quite likely out of reach.
So while we have decades of experience and skill we can and do share, we’re also now working for, and with, people half our age or younger who are the new gatekeepers.
A few others have been, frankly, shockingly ungrateful and entitled, delighted to use me in whatever ways they thought most expedient and then...buh-bye!
Not cool, kids. Not cool at all.
I recently applied for a part-time editing position, one in which I’d be working closely with — i.e. managing — several young staffers. I needed proof of my ability to do so, and asked several Millennial friends, (i.e. mentees), to write me a LinkedIn recommendation.
Fortunately, several came through for me, and their words have been both touching and just what I needed. One blew me off with two snotty little sentences. That was…instructive.
Mentoring 3.0 is no longer the CEO in his or her corporate corner office pontificating.
Not everyone who can be helpful to you now has a Big Fancy Job.
They might not even have a “job” anymore!
Nor is everyone who can be helpful to you de facto eager to have you — (and never ever use this hideous phrase!)— pick their brain. Just because you need help doesn’t mean everyone has the time or energy to help you.
Before you clutch someone’s ankles, insisting you desperately need their help and advice, show us what you’ve already tried to do.
Even if you’ve failed, at least you thoughtfully and sincerely tried. Effort is huge.
We need to know you’re listening and will actually do some of what we suggest; nothing is more annoying than making time to really listen carefully and offer our best advice, contacts or insights — and you fail to follow through.
Oh, and yes, a thank-you, (even on real paper with a stamp), is very welcome!
If you’re lucky, you’ll find a mentor who’s flexible, savvy and able to pivot whenever and wherever necessary. Treat them, and their valuable time, with the respect it deserves.
No one owes you this!
And if they turn back to you — and ask you for some help in return — don’t shrug and ghost.
“A lot are coming to school who don’t have the resilience of previous generations,” Dr. Jones said. “They can’t tolerate discomfort or having to struggle. A primary symptom is worrying, and they don’t have the ability to soothe themselves.”
…And so personal setbacks that might once have become “teachable moments” turn into triggers for a mental health diagnosis.
“Students are seeking treatment, saying, ‘I just got the first C in my life, my whole life just got shattered, I wanted to go to medical school and I can’t cope,’” said Micky M. Sharma, president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors and head of Ohio State University’s counseling center.
I spent the past year teaching at a private college that charges $60,000 a year. It was an interesting experience to see how fragile and coddled some of these students were.
My husband and I are career journalists; his website is here; mine is here.
Maybe it’s the careers we chose — if you not debrouillard(e) — resourceful and resilient — you’ll hate the job and quickly leave the industry.
It’s likely the generation we grew up in.
Maybe it’s having survived three recessions in the past 20 years, times that forced many of us to shelve our dreams and say farewell to some others forever as our incomes dropped and good jobs disappeared.
I do know one thing.
If you are unable to tolerate discomfort, your life beyond college — no matter where you live, what you earn, what career you path you choose — you are going to be miserable.
So are your co-workers, bosses, husbands/wives/partners.
Life has sharp edges!
When someone tells you that your work, or skills — social and/or professional — are weak or sub-standard or do not measure up, these are some of your choices:
— Disagree and ignore them
— Disagree but listen to their input for whatever lessons you can learn from it
— Acknowledge that their point of view is fair and listen to it carefully
— Never try that path of endeavor again
— Complain to a higher authority and push as hard as possible until they take your side
I have several friends who teach college ready to tear out their hair at the behaviors they see from students who refuse to take “no” for an answer when that “no” bumps up against their cherished self-image.
When life feels difficult and unfair and uncomfortable, here are some of your choices:
— Yell at someone
— Run away
— Deal with it
— Use drugs or alcohol to numb your unpleasant feelings
— Talk to someone wiser and calmer, whether a friend, relative and/or therapist for their insights
–– Change as much of the situation as possible
— Examine how and why your reaction to this challenge is making things even worse; as the Buddhist saying goes “Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional”
As readers of this blog know, I do not have children and never wanted to have children.
I do nurture and mentor about a dozen younger writers and photographers, one of whom just arrived in Australia for a two-month assignment there. Jose and I are happy to do it.
But they listen! They also have developed the requisite ego strength, even in their early 20s, to hear tough-if-loving feedback and use some of it without a shrug, hand-flap or quick dismissal of anything that challenges them.
I was still an undergraduate when I began selling my writing to national publications. At one of them, an editor was so harsh I’d end up in tears after a phone session with her.
But I learned a lot from her: how to write better, how to listen to criticism (even painful!), how to maintain a calm and professional demeanor. That growing (up) wasn’t going to be all puppies and rainbows.
Decades later, she’s still reading and admiring my work. That’s hard-won and well-valued in my world.
I wish every new graduate the best of luck as they move into the larger world of commuting, low-level drudgery, long hours, too-little money for too-much work.
More than anything, though, I wish them the resilience they most need — not just a shiny new degree or a stellar GPA — to thrive in the decades ahead.
Some of you want to become journalists or non-fiction authors.
Some of you have just graduated from college or university, wondering when your career will begin.
I recently found a piece of my early career that I’m so glad I still have, as so many of my other clips have been thrown away by accident or deliberately as I’ve moved around.
Today, with everything available on-line, it’s hard to recall a time when print was it and paper clips — (pun intended!) — were crucial to getting more work, carried around physically in a large, heavy portfolio case.
Here it is.
The reason this clip matters so much to me?
I was three years out of university, with no journalism training, but ferociously ambitious and already writing for national magazines before I graduated.
Without editors willing to take a chance on a writer in her early 20s, I’d never have gotten started, or so young. That trust meant everything!
I was lucky on a few counts:
I already lived in Toronto, Canada’s media capital; there were then many such magazines, several of them well-respected weekly supplements to newspapers, and they paid well; editors were willing to give me assignments, and more assignments.
And I had the cojones to walk into those glossy offices and make my pitches, sometimes even overcoming their doubts.
I wrote about the (then!) new fashion of wearing running shoes as casual wear, and the warring German brothers Adi Dassler (Adidas) and his brother, Rudolf, who founded Pumas. I also learned to pronounce the name of their town, and never forgot it — Herzogenaurach.
I got to watch a lady parachutist, hoping like hell not to fall out of the open aircraft door myself.
I got sent to Flint, Michigan to watch teen girls play a form of hockey called ringette.
More than anything, I was paid to learn my craft from some of the best, people old enough to have been my parents or professors.
The testing story came to me via a local activist, a woman I still run into when I go back to Toronto and visit the flea market, where she sells terrific jewelry. She was then a passionate advocate for animal rights and told me about the testing, some of which I saw done on cats in a downtown hospital.
It was pretty soul-searing.
But it also set the tone for much of the work I would later tackle as a journalist, whether visiting a cancer hospice in Quebec or writing a book, decades later, about women and guns.
I wanted serious intellectual and emotional challenge from my work and I still do.
This story appeared in March 1982 — the year my career took off after I won, in June 1982, an eight-month fellowship in Paris. I would spend Sept. 1982 to June 1983 in a group of 28 journalists from 19 nations, including Togo, Japan, Brazil, Ireland, New Zealand, Italy and, of course, the U.S. and Canada, with eight of us from North America.
The year was astounding. We traveled as a group to Germany and Italy. We also took off on solo ten-day reporting trips. I went to Copenhagen to write about the Royal Danish Ballet; to Comiso, Sicily to write about Cruise missiles, (speaking not a word of Italian!); to London and Amsterdam to write about squatters and an eight-day trip from Perpignan to Istanbul with a French truck-driver who spoke not a word of English.
I’m still friends with several of these fellow journalists, looking forward soon to seeing my Irish friend and meeting her two daughters, one of whom is now also a serious and ambitious journalist.
When I came back to Toronto, with the glittering dust of a recent fellowship gilding my resume, I got my first staff job at The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper. I had never written to a daily deadline in my life.
I stayed there 2.5 years then went to the Montreal Gazette, to work in French and enjoy Montreal. There I met my first husband, an American medical student finishing up at McGill, and followed him to New Hampshire, then to New York, where I’ve stayed ever since.
I hope to retire within the next few years and for now would like to focus all my energy, ideally, on writing non-fiction books, long-form stories and teaching. I love telling stories but also want to travel longer and further away than a deadline-driven life allows.
Journalism is an industry in a state of upheaval — usually politely termed disruption — and I’m grateful beyond words, (ironic for a writer!), that I was able to find staff work at three major dailies (my last staff job was at the NY Daily News, then the sixth-largest in the U.S.) along the way.
If there’s a more fun way to see the world and learn about it and tell others about it — and talk to everyone from Admirals and Prime Ministers to convicted felons and Olympic athletes — I’ve yet to discover it.
Maybe you’re one of those whose cap read Game of Loans.
Maybe you had a full ride and are graduating debt-free.
Maybe you’ve already found your first job.
A few thoughts as you head into off-campus life:
Stay in touch with any professors with whom you had a great relationship
Many students leave college without ever having spoken to a professor outside of class. They might have stuck to email or texts or simply focused only on their grade. Mistake! Every bright, ambitious student who has forged a more personal relationship with a professor, or several, has already significantly smoothed their path to internships, jobs, freelance work, fellowships and graduate school recommendations.
Time to up your wardrobe!
Even if you’re only working part-time or job-hunting, know that almost every opportunity to connect with an adult in your life can open useful doors. But only if you leave a favorable impression. While baggy jeans, sloppy PJs, purple hair and 12-hole Doc Martens might have been your school’s unofficial uniform, you now need to impress a different set of people. Employers!
Same with grooming
Details matter, even if not to you or your friends: raggedy cuticles, chipped nail polish, hair that’s weeks past needing a trim or cut, shoes that need new heels or a coat of polish. You only get one chance to make a first impression.
Look people in the eye, smile and offer a firm handshake
Many of the people you’ll now be interacting with — whether work colleagues or supervisors — are people of a different generation, and they expect you to arrive with polished social skills. No matter how shy or scared you really might feel, people respond best to someone who looks them in the eye when they speak and who is clearly paying careful attention to what they say.
Scrub your existing social media and keep it clean
No one, I assure you, wants to see photos or videos of your drunken or stoned exploits. Nor angry/obsessive comments about your love life or lack of same. Make sure you have a LinkedIn profile with a terrific recent head-shot and fill it out completely; it’s many employers’ first stop when deciding who to interview for a position.
A blog can be a great sales tool
If you don’t have one — and you have an area of expertise, especially — get started! WordPress themes are free and dead easy to set up. Think of your blog as a 24/7 marketing tool. If it is well-written, free of spelling and grammatical errors and well-illustrated, it can show off a wide range of your skills and some of your personality in a way that no resume can match.
Get a great-looking business card and hand them out wherever possible
Attend every conference, event and panel in your desired field or industry that you can afford
Now that you’ve finished with classes and grades as your measures of success and learning, it’s time to start connecting with some of the people you might like to work for. Seek out a few Twitterchats in your field or desired industry. Lurk long enough to see who’s who, but adding smart, insightful comments will make people curious about you and what you have to offer.
Almost every conference offers some opportunity to save costs by volunteering there. And be sure to introduce yourself politely, (see: business cards.) A bright, well-mannered, friendly fresh grad — with a business card and some wit and charm — can make powerful impressions in only one day. (Follow up quickly with the people you’ve met and want to stay in touch with before they forget who you are.)
Informational interviews are a terrific way to gather intel on where to go next
I’m surprised how little-known this technique is as an excellent way to learn a lot about possible careers or graduate programs.
When I considered leaving journalism for interior design — quite a leap! — I interviewed three women working in the field and asked them some basic questions: What do you like best about this work? What do you like least? What are the three most essential skills needed to succeed in this industry?
You can learn a great deal from conducting a focused 20-minute informational interview, including that you really don’t want to do that dream job after all. Arrive at each face-to-face or Skype meeting with a prepared list of 8-10 focused questions, take careful notes, do not ask them to hire you — and send a hand-written thank-you note on good plain stationery, (yes, with a stamp), within two days.
You’ve worked really hard for four or more years. You’ve made great friends, enjoyed a wide range of new experiences (see: scrub social media!), gained intellectual confidence and skills. While “everyone else” might have a job or a plan for grad school or a sexy internship already, take your time to decompress a bit.
I think the very best choice any fresh grad can make — if you can afford it financially — is to travel as far and for as long as possible; post-graduation I spent four months alone in Europe, traveling Portugal, Italy, France and Spain and it taught me a lot more about how to be independent. It also helped me win the best experience of my life, an eight-month journalism fellowship based in Paris, whose criteria included language skills and a demonstrated interest in European affairs.
It’s graduation season, and time — for the fortunate — to step into their first full-time staff jobs, whether a permanent position or a summer internship.
If you’ve snagged a paid spot (or, likely, an unpaid one), congrats! Time to rock it!
As someone who has hired and managed less-experienced researchers and assistants, and has watched some newsroom interns succeed — or fail — a few hints:
Put down your phone, look people in the eye and give them your undivided attention. Old folks — anyone over 30 — expect you to look at them while they’re speaking to you, not IM or text. Especially if you’re working in any sort of customer-facing work like PR, retail, hospitality or food service — where high quality customer service is expected — this is crucial.
Your ability to soak up information quickly and accurately will make or break you. You may also have to convey key information to other people and need to be sure you’ve got everything right. You may well need to remind your boss of meetings, travel appointments or other tasks. They’re offloading onto you and counting on you to be helpful.
Use whatever method is easiest and most reliable, whether a pen and paper, Ipad or verbal dictation. Double-check the spelling of even the simplest names and figures: Jon Smythe, for example. Never assume you automatically know the right answer; even if you do, check to be sure.
Ask lots of questions
Don’t be annoying and sleeve-tugging, but learn what is expected of you, whether hourly, daily, or weekly. If you’ve been asked to prepare a conference room for a meeting, go there ahead of time and make sure everything your boss(es) and co-workers will need is in there, and if not, get it!
Get to know all support and administrative staff and be kind and respectful to them. They hold a lot of power.
Also, find out how your boss and coworkers prefer to communicate — whether face to face, texts, email, phone or Skype. Just because you and your friends prefer texting does not mean those paying you do as well.
Memorize the phrase: “No problem!”
And mean it. After you’ve gotten your responsibilities clear, and you know who to ask or call for help in an emergency, it’s up to you to figure stuff out for yourself. It’s called being resourceful. Your value to your organization is not simply doing the job they hired you into, but to notice and anticipate other issues you might be able to help solve.
Take care of yourself: eat right, sleep 8 hours a night, limit alcohol intake
Don’t underestimate the stress — (and excitement!) — of a full-time job pleasing many new and demanding strangers. They’re not your Mom or coach or professors and (sorry!) many just don’t really care if you’re happy or having fun or even if you succeed. So it’s up to you to take the best care of your body and soul as possible, especially in an economy with few great jobs and little to no room for error, sloppiness, oversights or slip-ups.
Being well-rested and properly nourished will help you stay on top of your game; (i.e. do not arrive at work, ever, hungover. Nor share those details if you do.)
And no draaaaaaaama. Ever. No public tears or tantrums. (That includes stairwells, elevators and bathrooms. The walls have ears and you never know who’s listening.)
Check in with your boss(es)
If something they have asked you to do is heading south, let them know as soon as possible so there are no ugly last-minute surprises they can’t fix.
Don’t constantly ask co-workers or bosses for “feedback” or praise
Seriously! No matter how badly you crave approval or are used to being told — “Thanks! Great job!” — don’t hold your breath waiting for this at work. And don’t freak out if you never hear it there, no matter how much extra effort you put in. We’re all running 100,000 miles per hour these days and anyone who even has a job, let alone a senior position of any authority, is already plenty stressed and tired.
They are in no mood to coddle you as well.
Don’t take shit personally — unless it’s aimed at you specifically
If someone rips your head off, don’t take it personally. They might be a bitch to everyone all the time, or their dog just died or their husband is having an affair or they just got a lousy diagnosis. Get a feel for office politics and culture so you know when someone is really just like that, or when you really are screwing up and deserved to get your head sliced off, GOT-style.
Do everything to 187 percent of your ability. Everything!
That means getting coffee, running to Staples, booking your boss’s flight, whatever your boss needs. People who run their own business, especially, rely on helpful, cheerful team players — no one is “too important” to do the smallest of tasks, no matter how silly or tedious or un-sexy they appear to be. People really value workers who consistently offer them good cheer, high energy and empathy.
Your primary job is to make everyone else’s job easier
Don’t focus on your job title or description, if you even have one. Never say out loud, or post anywhere on social media: “That’s not my job!” If your boss says it’s your job, guess what…
Your most valuable skill, certainly as someone new to the workforce building your skills and your networks for the future, is being sensitive to others’ needs and making their lives easier, while accomplishing your own tasks on or ahead of schedule. No one, even at the opera, wants to work with a diva.
So, unless you majored in computer science or engineering (congrats if you did), you may have just entered one of the worst job markets in history. Awesome!
I’ve been seeing a lot of hand-wringing, despairing blog posts lately from frustrated fresh grads wondering if or when they’ll ever find a job, let alone a job that matters to them, let alone relevant to anything they studied. Plus all the other grads, two or three years out, who still can’t find a job that makes them feel that all the costs of college were worth it.
Here’s a great article with a lot of common sense suggestions, once you do land a job, no matter how menial. It’s from the U.S. edition of Glamour, a women’s magazine, but the savvy therein is unisex...
And here’s a funny, smart blog post by a young British female journalist about the need to “fake it until you make it.”
Here are my 12 tips to help you cope:
By all accounts, your generation has been cooed at/over since birth, almost without interruption, with a chorus of “Good job!” The second you’re not accomplishing something or winning an award or polishing your resume, (and getting lots of attention for it all), you feel ill at ease, possibly useless. Praise is so sweet…and yet, often, so meaningless.
Take an hour every day unplugged from all forms of technology
Savor it. Your best ideas will come to you alone, in silence and probably while in the natural world. Do not tether yourself to Facebook or Tumblr clutching for some sort of emotional blankie.
Read challenging, smart material. Every day
It’s easy to think “Thank God. I’m done!” No more papers, tests, exams, finals. Just because you’ve snagged your diploma doesn’t mean it’s time to turn your brain off. Veg for a while, but make a point of reaching for some smart, tough work. If you’re an art history major, are you up on the (latest) banking scandal ? Do you know what Libor is? Read the business section of the Wall Street Journal and/or New York Times, the Financial Times if you’re really ambitious. If you’re an economics or political science major, take the time to read history, arts and literature. Throughout your life, and not just to get or keep a job, you need to keep broadening your horizons and stay sharp!
People tend to hire and promote people with insatiable curiosity and the ability to quickly analyze and sift through complex data.
Run, bike, walk the dog til s/he is exhausted. Climb a mountain, or several. Mow the lawn — without an electric mower. Stress and frustration mount exponentially if you don’t release them; hard physical exertion will calm and soothe you. During the absolutely worst six weeks of my life, (I was 19 and alone, both my parents far away traveling and unreachable), I went to the gym every single day and worked out. I ended up with something like 8 percent body fat, Olympian style. It was free and gave me a place to go, a purpose, a routine, a uniform — and wicked muscles.
Find an activity or hobby you love so much you can’t wait to do it every day
Make it something physical, tactile, sensual, practical. If at all possible, make it outdoors, social and an activity that produces something visible, useful and/or beautiful. It’s deeply satisfying and will keep your confidence up.
Spend time around people much older and/or much younger than you are
Visit your grandparents or a nearby nursing home. Do it face to face. Read to someone whose eyesight is failing. Anyone over 40 has already survived three recessions since they graduated — so they get it. And they’re OK. Anyone who lived through the Depression really gets it; perspective is useful. Hang out with your younger siblings or cousins, if you have any. Play is good. Get far away from your peers on a regular basis — they’re probably either equally whiny and miserable or happily employed which will make you even more miserable.
A dream deferred is not a dream necessarily permanently denied
The economy is somewhat on the mend. I see it in my own freelance business, which was in the tank 18 months ago. So you can’t, right now, have the job/income/life you want and think you have earned and are so certain you deserve. Take a number! Stay cool and focus on things that can make you happy in the meantime. Keep taking baby steps toward your goal, even if it means working without pay for a while. If nothing is making you happy, get a grip. Or get help.
Whenever someone gives you a chance to work for/with them, be amazing
It’s “only” retail or dog-walking or baby-sitting or waitressing or whatever…Rock it! I’ve spent the past month working with a fresh grad from the Midwest who is smart, brave, organized and follows up and through on everything I ask her to do as my assistant. (She’s getting busier with her internship — if you want to help me out, paid, email me. I’d prefer someone in Canada or the U.S. who understands how American business works. You must be ethical, a very quick learner and 200% reliable.)
Find a community and show up regularly
It might be a faith-based community or a softball team or your local yarn-bombers. You need to be around fun, funny, happy people face to face who’ll keep your spirits up and remind you that work is not the only thing in the world. One of the toughest parts of graduating is leaving the home you created for yourself at school — friends, frats/sororities, clubs, dorms, campus groups, maybe even a few favorite professors. The comforting routines are gone. An unstructured life is fairly terrifying, especially if you’re not terribly self-disciplined.
Many of the people you hope will hire, mentor, network with, refer or promote you are people who have likely already weathered a whole lot more than you have yet. They may have survived serious illness, the loss of loved ones, being fired from one or several jobs with all the financial and emotional stress that entails. Professionals do not vent at work and certainly never to their bosses. We don’t want to hear how tough things are. We know.
Travel, as far, often and cheaply as possible
Even if it’s only within a 10 or 20 mile radius of your home, you’ll learn something new if you’re open to it. Take a notebook and camera and be observant. If you can possibly find a way to flee the borders of the United States, preferably alone and cheaply, do so. Get a passport, and use it! You’ll quickly learn a great deal about how other people think and behave, and why. We all live and work in a global economy. You need to get that on a fundamental level to thrive in the 21st century.
Make a good-looking business card for yourself
“But I don’t have a job!” Yes, you do — job-hunter. Your card, which is simple, clean and elegant, will have your full name, your home and cell numbers (if you have both), your email address and your website(s) that show your work. Every time you leave home, carry your cards with you so you can use them whenever you meet a potential job lead. This alone will make you stand out from the sweaty, desperate pack.
I’m amazed more grads don’t know what this is, but it’s the best way to find out if you even really want to work in a particular kind of job or industry. I decided, in my mid-30s, to leave journalism and become an interior designer, but before I even enrolled in school, (which cost plenty), I went out and interviewed three women who had worked in the field for many years. I learned a great deal, and a few things that surprised me.
People are generally happy to help if: 1) you do your homework first so you have intelligent questions to ask them; 2) you take no more than 20 minutes; 3) you send a hand-written thank you note on good quality paper through the mail the next day; 4) you do not ask them for a job! The point is simply to learn, but very often, if you leave a fantastic impression, you’ve opened a door for future contact. Things to ask might include: Why did you choose this field? What do you enjoy most/least? What’s a typical day/week/month? What are the three most essential skills to succeed in your field/industry? What’s the worst deal-breaker you typically see when you meet a job applicant? What has surprised you the most about working in this field? If you were to start again tomorrow, would you still choose it?
I think about this, although many decades out of university, perhaps because college classes in the U.S., where I live, are so expensive for many students, with no — of course! — jobs guaranteed at the end of it all. I never continued on to any form of graduate study for a variety of reasons:
I loathe debt and could not imagine how I would pay for it
I saw no need for it in journalism
I attended a school with 53,000 students and, while I am very happy with its high standards, did not enjoy feeling largely ignored and anonymous. That put me right off any more formal education
I attended the University of Toronto, for years deemed Canada’s most competitive and demanding school. I loved having super-smart, terrifyingly erudite world-class experts in their fields as my professors. I still remember their names and their tremendous passion for Victorian poetry or Chaucer or history and the excitement they were able to convey to us about it all.
I enjoyed having super-smart fellow students, knowing some of them — as they have — would go on to lead some of my country’s financial, intellectual and cultural institutions.
In the 1990s, determined to leave journalism (and then having an MD husband’s income, certain this was possible), I studied interior design at The New York School of Interior Design. Loved it!
What a totally different educational experience:
Small classes. Nurturing teachers fully engaged in making sure we were succeeding. The inspiration of talented classmates but no cut-throat sharks.
It also showed me something really important about my learning style. I need it to be hands-on: drawing, painting, drafting….all were challenging but also engaged my brain in wholly new ways. I liked learning!
Like many people, I’m more of a visual and tactile learner and sitting in a lecture hall for hours — what most college classes still consist of — was deadening.(Which is also why journalism has always felt like such a terrific fit. It’s life-as-classroom.)
I have very mixed feelings about learning away from a school and classroom and campus. Yes, online learning is democratic.
But I think we also need to learn how to defend your ideas in public, that little knot of fear in your belly before you speak out in front of a room full of smart fellow students. You need to work face to face. You need to see how ideas play out in person.
And I loved the campus and its beauty and history and the clubs and activities I took part in at U of T, and my equally demanding and passionate profs at NYSID at their charming Upper East Side building. I was terrified there when, as we all had to in our Color class, I presented my designs to a room full of fellow students (just as we would have to with clients in the real world.)
But I managed to score an “A” (yay!) from the very tough professor. It still remains one of my proudest moments.
Yesterday’s New York Times ran this piece arguing in favor of getting a college degree, although I completely disagree — with plenty of anecdotal evidence to back me — that cashiers and clerks with a college degree earn more. In my time at The North Face, (the subject of my new memoir of working retail, “Malled“), I didn’t see this among our college-educated staff, nor have the many emails I’ve received since then from fellow associates, current and former, suggested higher earnings elsewhere.
Theoretically, tertiary study could become an opportunity to choose your own adventure. Innovative universities might form select international consortiums that would allow students to tailor degrees; with on-campus stints in Sydney, London and Beijing, for example, and a huge array of subjects offered on-campus or online from the entire list of combined course resources.
Yet universities jealously guard their individual reputations and their place on the competitive, global-rankings ladder. Everyone knows all degrees are not equal; their value depends on the reputation, history and standing of the university that confers them.
For individual institutions, with their campuses physically anchored in one place and their budgets built around the face-to-face delivery of core programs, its likely to be a very complex way forward.
At the same time, the internet is facilitating the entry of private players into the local and international education market, some of which will compete with universities for paying students.
Postgraduates, in particular, want access to experts from the professions and industries they aspire to join.
So when a group of globally renowned, private-sector achievers offers user-pay courses online, for example, which way will future students go?
Here’s a story from the New York Observer, for all you fresh grads — a journalism student, who three days after graduation from Columbia J-school, scored one of the most coveted interviews in New York City. Only two outlets got a private chat with Prokhorov:
He is not exactly a bold-faced name.
Two years years ago, Mr. Rotondaro was working in a pizza kitchen. He began writing more and more, and published a few items for The Huffington Post, worked briefly as a crime reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle and then enrolled in j-school.
By his own admission, he wasn’t an obvious choice for the sit-down. He spent the last few months occasionally filing for a blog run by Columbia called Brooklyn Ink. He had five bylines.
Mr. Rotondaro said that he received an email about three weeks ago. It was light on details. In the note, he was asked if he would be interested in an exclusive interview with someone really important. It didn’t say who. If he was interested in pursuing this further, he should call this number…
Mr. Rotondaro wisely decided to call.
“I was kind of weirded out,” he said. “But they left a number and you might as well call back, right?”
When he called, a handler said that Mr. Prokhorov wanted a Brooklyn blogger to interview him. The handler had read some of his stuff on The Huffington Post and thought Mr. Rotondaro would be perfect. He said Mr. Prokhorov wanted “to meet up with you. Pick your favorite bar or café in Brooklyn.”
I love that a blogger got the nod.
These sorts of chances are becoming increasingly rare in a world where, in addition to the traditional media outlets of radio, television and print, those seeking PR — and journos seeking an exclusive or a scoop — are playing needle in a haystack. Who to choose and why? Ambitious journalists always need Really Big Stories to beef up their portfolios, especially when they’re just starting out, to prove they’ve really got the skills to snag something great and to handle it well when they do.
People like Prokhorov are surrounded by the razor wire of multiple handlers and minions and flacks. If Vinnie had tried to reach out to him — would he even have dared? — the odds of success would, normally, have been risible.
The visibility of blogs and their writers has changed the game, and this can only be a good thing. The challenge will be for those bloggers, certainly those with no background or training in journalism ethics and practice, to know what to do with the material and avoid manipulation — we work alone and have no backstopping, eyebrow-raised editors saying “Really?”
It’s fun to hit “publish” without interference, but it brings its own specific dangers as well. (Lawsuits, for one.)
The only downside here — HuffPo still doesn’t pay its writers. True/Slant does.
Meeting different kinds of people, navigating a new environment, opening one’s mind to unfamiliar ideas and possibilities, and living away from home are just a few of the positive developments that students experience in college. I certainly understand that in a rough economy where money is tight, but should we really encourage 18-year-olds to give up on a four-year degree that could help them in myriad ways for the rest of their lives?
For him, the very idea is anathema.
I see the word “could” in his sentence and that, as someone who has taught graduates and undergraduates, gives me pause. I was underwhelmed by many of my students. Lovely people, sure. Fun, friendly. But really working hard? Determined to excel and do whatever was necessary — not just grade-grub — to get it?
Most were so busy sucking up to their profs they had no idea how to negotiate with/in the real world beyond campus, the one where you don’t wear pajamas during the day or drink yourself unconscious on weekends. I’ve seen way too much slavish thinking and book-focused learning to believe that “college degree” = prepared to compete effectively in a multi-cultural, global economy.
I also think, in a global economy where the world is wide open to those with the vision or guts to go for it — through student visas and work-study programs, and volunteer work or even just hanging out for a while with people whose jobs really interest you, if they’ll let you — one can learn a tremendous amount that is useful, life-long, far away from any college classroom. For every student whose eyes are opened and whose horizons are broadened, there are those hanging out with all the same rich kids they went to prep school with and who’ll snag them great Wall Street jobs when they all graduate.
I’m not wildly persuaded that college is so enlightening, nor that it is the best place in which to watch the world at work and find your place within it.
The idea that four years of higher education will translate into a better job, higher earnings and a happier life — a refrain sure to be repeated this month at graduation ceremonies across the country — has been pounded into the heads of schoolchildren, parents and educators. But there’s an underside to that conventional wisdom. Perhaps no more than half of those who began a four-year bachelor’s degree program in the fall of 2006 will get that degree within six years, according to the latest projections from the Department of Education. (The figures don’t include transfer students, who aren’t tracked.)
For college students who ranked among the bottom quarter of their high school classes, the numbers are even more stark: 80 percent will probably never get a bachelor’s degree or even a two-year associate’s degree.
That can be a lot of tuition to pay, without a degree to show for it.
A small but influential group of economists and educators is pushing another pathway: for some students, no college at all. It’s time, they say, to develop credible alternatives for students unlikely to be successful pursuing a higher degree, or who may not be ready to do so.
Whether everyone in college needs to be there is not a new question; the subject has been hashed out in books and dissertations for years. But the economic crisis has sharpened that focus, as financially struggling states cut aid to higher education.
It’s a question that needs asking. University education in the United States is, as most know, an extremely costly proposition, unless you’ve won a free ride or a lot of scholarship or grant money. (In my native Canada, at even the best schools — all of which are publicly funded — a year of tuition is still about $5,ooo.)
No one would argue that, for those with the emotional maturity, academic preparation and intellectual drive, college is well worth their time, as students choose or focus on a possible career choice. But blowing $25,000 or $30,000 or more, each year — a downpayment on a home, a really good car — to “find yourself” and send emails all through class? Not such a great idea.
Many people hate college. They hate sitting for hours in a classroom, listening to some boring old prof drone on and on. Or they beat their profs up for grades because they have to get into competitive graduate or professional programs because….Mom and Dad want to see a healthy return on the $100k+ plus they’ve just dropped on their schooling so law/dentistry/MBA/medicine are it, kids!
What you might really want to do? God forbid it’s blue-collar or creative — not important.
I enjoyed my time at the University of Toronto in some ways. We had tremendous teachers, a gorgeous campus, really smart fellow students, lots of student clubs and activities. But ask many U of T grads — then as now — if they really liked it. Not so much. The school is huge (50,000+) plus and often impersonal, in itself a great prep for the “real world.” I learned, because their standards were high, to place the bar for myself a lot higher than I might have thought necessary. (I never attended graduate or professional school. I’d really had my fill by then.)
But there are people who never attend college, let alone never graduate, and thrive. Many skills are just as easily — and much more affordably — learned through an apprenticeship or internships or networking and freelancing.
In our family, award-winning and highly successful, only two of us graduated college, me and my half-brother who runs his own software company. My father, mother, step-mother and her son, now 30, all made terrific money and enjoyed international success without a college degree.
For everyone who reveres the mythology that college is the only, or the most important, place to get smarter, I think there are many more ways to spend $40,000 to $100,000 over four years and get an education — jut not a expensive, official piece of paper certifying it.
I liked this piece in The New York Times a lot, advocating some serious downtime post-graduation. But I wonder how many can afford it (student debt?):
After graduation, I spent five years wandering around doing nothing — or getting as close to it as I could manage. I was a cab driver, an obsessed moviegoer, a wanderer in the mountains of Colorado, a teacher at a crazy grand hippie school in Vermont, the manager of a movie house (who didn’t do much managing), a crewman on a ship and a doorman at a disco. The most memorable job of all, though, was a gig on the stage crew for a rock production company in Jersey City. We did our shows at Roosevelt Stadium, a grungy behemoth that could hold 60,000, counting seats on the grass. I humped amps out of the trucks and onto the stage; six or so hours later I humped them back. I did it for the Grateful Dead and Alice Cooper and the Allman Brothers and Crosby, Stills & Nash on the night that Richard Nixon resigned…
“So, what are you doing after graduation?” Thirty-five years later, a college teacher, I ask my students the old question. They aren’t inclined to dissimulate now. The culture is on their side when they tell me about law school and med school and higher degrees in journalism and business; or when they talk about a research grant in China or a well-paying gig teaching English in Japan.
I’m impressed, sure, but I’m worried about them too. Aren’t they deciding too soon? Shouldn’t they hang out a little, learn to take it slow?
I spent four months traveling alone through Europe when I was 20 and it changed me forever, as I knew (and hoped) that it would. I had no student debt (Canadian universities, today, are still only about $5,000 a year in tuition for citizens) and some savings and some assignments and some money from my Mom.
I had never been so lonely — or so adventurous. I began in Lisbon, traveled through Portugal, Spain, Italy and France. Workaholic even then, I sold 10 freelance stories to Canadian newspaper editors.
But I still had some wild moments, from being taken home by an odd Frenchman missing a few fingers to his wife and kids to the unbelievable hospitality of a German Reuters stringer in Barcelona who invited me into her home, alone with her kids, after barely an hour’s acquaintance. I learned to trust myself and others; when and how to ask for help (and when to tough it out); that being the only woman amid 55 men on Easter Sunday in Evora’s town square was very, very weird. (In rural Portugal, women were only acceptable, and remained unharassed in public when accompanied by their husband, father or child[ren.])
I still have powerful memories of that journey: writing a letter to John Cheever with a question about his collected short stories I was reading en-route (he wrote back); being really sick on a train going from Venice to Barcelona; suffering a major attack of hypoglycemia one night in Lisbon and, speaking no Portuguese, trying to buy aspirin; meeting a young couple heading home from France to Lisbon for their marriage that weekend.
They needed a wedding photographer — and I became it — wearing a lovely dress I had just bought in Florence a few days earlier. I still remember breakfasts around their mother’s table (yes, I stayed with them as well!) being asked why codfish at 8:00 a.m. wasn’t something I devoured eagerly.
I’m not sure what else I could possibly have done in those months that could possibly have provided such delicious and indelible memories. Such a long solo journey also proved my interest in European affairs and working on my own, skills that won me a life-changing Paris-based journalism fellowship barely five years later. Who knew?
I met a young man a few years ago who wandered, literally, for about seven years after dropping out of college. He worked all over the country doing odd jobs, for a while as a short order cook. His parents, wealthy and focused on material success, were horrified; his Mom, a church friend, made his intriguing peregrinations sound insane and misguided. When I finally met him, he was fun, funny, smart, warm and interesting — and, at 29, finally went back to (and graduated from) Cornell. Whew!
His younger sister had — natch — become a corporate lawyer, just like Dad. Guess who won all that family’s approval?
If you’re about to flee campus for the last time, what plans do you have for the summer — or next few months? Are you planning to do anything fun or quirky or go off traveling? Would your parents be horrified if you did?
Parents, how would you feel? Have any of you had such post-grad adventures?