**Disclaimer: Skip to the last paragraph for the TLDR version of this blog but read the entire blog if you feel a bit lost in life and/or are questioning your career choices.
When I received the Frank Karel Fellowship, I was excited that I could spend the summer productively, cultivating skills in a field I never heard of but nonetheless skills critical to anyone that seeks to be an effective advocate. Admittedly, I was also relieved that I could add a real job to my resume to help me get a “big-girl” job in the future. I was eager to explore a new city, to work with an amazing non-profit that stood for some of my deepest values, and to meet a cohort of fellows just as new and curious about the city as I was.
But with every new experience of mine comes the infamous imposter syndrome. I started my internship feeling like I had to prove my competency, aggressively network, and seem impressive enough to could-be future employers. I felt like my post-grad employment depended on my performance this summer. However, I quickly discovered that this summer was less about career searching and more about soul searching. I’ve been reminded of some life fundamentals and it’s given me peace about graduating and joining the big-world.
First, I cemented in my mind that I’m allowed to not have it figured out. Like for real, I don’t need a 5-year plan or even a 2-year plan. My professors and college mentors reassuringly remind me of this but it’s hard to believe coming from established professionals who ended up doing exactly what they planned decades ago. It felt more real coming from the early-career professionals at my organizatoin that came together to tell me their stories, check on me, and reassure me that I’m right where I’m supposed to be. And for the well-established professionals, they were happy with their careers today because they listened to their passions and were open to risks and detours.
A second fundamental I’ve learned is the importance of opening up. I found that networking shouldn’t be a transactional, materialistic, career-driven relationship. Networking should be an honest and human conversation with people who have their own stories and lessons. That means don’t just reach out to professionals with careers you want but see the human before you see their title. There will always be people willing to share with you what they wish they knew. Find them and appreciate them.
A conversation I had with a coworker so good that I took better notes from her than I do in class was the same Afro-latina woman that hugged me on my first day at the office, as if I was her little sister visiting after years away. She taught me that you don’t have to leave your true self at the office door. She is who she is “unapologetically, both professionally and personally.” When you show up as you, despite the stigmas and the expectations, you allow your personality to become a resource. Your authenticity is a resource. You thrive when you can invest your energy into your work and not in maintaining professional molds. In the case of Kathy Guillame-Delemar, responsible for securing multi-million dollar donor relationships, being her authentic self makes a lot of money for grassroots, community development efforts. Wealthy investors appreciate her realness more than the formalities.
Another thing she helped me realize was that I’m allowed to not be perfect. Some may presume me to be fundamentally flawed (due to my color, my race, my financial bracket, my neighborhood, their own insecurities). But I’m more than capable of being successful. Yet, I don’t have to succeed at the expense of my health and my peace. I’ve been under the impression that I’m supposed to handle and execute every task perfectly and alone. But asking for help doesn’t make you weak, it lessens the burdens you carry and can be an opportunity for growth.
The third fundamental I learned was that your career isn’t your life. In DC, it seems the first and most important question is “what do you do” or “where do you work?” Some ask genuinely, as a typical conversation starter. Others ask with the implicit assumption that my career defines my personhood. The more important questions for me this summer have been “what do you care most deeply about” and “who do you aspire to become?”
To be candid, a large part of my undergraduate studies have been pursuing what people told me I should do. I’ve been convinced that since I’m not in STEM and chose to be a humanities major instead, I need to be a lawyer so I can actually make some money. I’ve been convinced that since there aren’t enough Afro-latinas in academia and I’m pretty smart, I should devote the next 5-6 years to getting a PhD. I don’t blame the mentors that offered the support needed to pursue these things. They empowered me to pursue what previously seemed inattainable. Yet still, I didn’t allow myself to pause and consider what I actually wanted, only what seemed outwardly successful.
I planned to apply to several graduate programs, study for the GRE, write my thesis, and work a full time internship all in two summer months. But I felt stuck because I was neglecting self-clarification on what I care about and who I wanted to be. I’ve had to take a step back to evaluate if accomplishing these goals would get me there. In the process I’ve affirmed a couple of things about myself: I need to be in community, serving community, working in partnership with community and not independently. I want better opportunities, resources, and pathways for my community. I like using my voice and helping others use theirs. I also need a 9-5 pm I can clock out of because I miss spending time with my family. I’m open to learning the many ways that could look and where it could take me.
But most importantly this summer, I started asking myself “what does your soul need?” At times when my mental health waned, I was forced to put work on the back burner. But my life experiences have made me remarkably resilient. The work will get done. The connections will be made. And it will be good. But first I must give myself the grace to log off and rest so I can keep showing up in the name of the communities I love for years to come.
If I could capture this entire rant into one statement, I would share the following to my fellow first-gen, low-income college students/young professionals of color. Yes, it’s important to start defining our career paths in this period of our lives. Yet, it’s also crucial that we give ourselves room to learn and grow boundlessly without a perfectly curated mold overlaid onto our lives.