As a college student, I was both honored and completely overwhelmed to attend the University of Virginia. I arrived at Mr. Jefferson’s University as a proud graduate of Jefferson County (Consolidated) High School in Shenandoah Junction, West Virginia. Less than a third of my graduating high school class went on to any form of postsecondary education. Only a handful of us left the state for college.
When I arrived at UVA, I was utterly lost. I quickly learned that there were more students in my first-year class from Sri Lanka than there was from my home state of West Virginia. I would hear countless students talk about how they were from “Nova,” and had no idea where that city was and how it sent so many kids to UVA (I later learned it was the shorthand for Northern Virginia, the wealthy, DC suburbs). And I was too introverted and too unsure to ask the sorts of questions or find the sort of guidance that would make my transition to college what it really should have been.
Last week, I had the opportunity to visit my alma mater and speak with a collection of a wide range of student groups, including the Bolivar Network, designed to support Latinx students there. The visit forced me to reflect on some of those more painful times, while allowing me to celebrate those experiences in a way I hadn’t previously.
It’s always special to go back to one’s alma mater, and doubly so when you are asked to impart some wisdom. For me, though, it was even more exciting as I brought my 12-year-old son with me. He had never been to UVA before. And he had never before seen a gathering of smart young people on the path to success who, as fellow Latinos, looked just like him. That’s why it was so, so important to me that he join me, beginning to see what his future might be like.
As I looked across the room that evening, I saw a collection of faces sharing many of the same emotions I had more than a quarter century ago. I also saw a group of amazing young people who needed to hear truth, learner to learner.
I never turn down the opportunity to talk to students about their futures and about the opportunities ahead. Whether it be in formal events or in one-on-one conversations resulting from a LinkedIn message or a career office connection, I will always take the time to do what I can to help. I also know that most of the advice they get is boring. A lot of it just doesn’t relate. Too often, students just receive the trite responses adults think they should receive — study hard, plan your future, be careful what you put on social media, earn top dollar.
I learned long ago that that just isn’t me, and that was reflected at the University of Virginia last week. Over the course of two hours, I offered some advice today’s students often don’t hear. But there were three items in particular that seemed to resonate.
First, don’t obsess over grades. Grades mattered when it was time to apply for college. Now is the time to make the most out of college. For me, that meant investing all of my time and attention working for The Cavalier Daily, one of the nation’s top collegiate newspapers. By the end of college, I was the managing editor of a daily newspaper, overseeing 150 volunteer staff and a $500,000 annual operating budget. We published 16 pages of news five days a week. That experience — and the internships and writing that came with it — led to my early jobs. One has to make the most out the college experience, and that includes diving deep into experiences outside of the classroom. In the nearly 24 years since I graduated from college, I have never once been asked my GPA as I pursued a new job.
Second, life isn’t fair. The perfect job likely won’t be offered. The salary you think you deserve may not be available. A great professional opportunity may end up being a living hell, as you work for a bully of a boss. It’s not fair, but it is life. Remember, you can do anything for a year as you plan the next step. In the early stages of your career, you need to practice the mantra of “positive and flexible.” Find the positives in a not-so-great experience. Figure out what you can learn from even your worst mistakes. I can look back at a truly horrible work experience I once had and can say I would do it again because of what it taught me. I may approach it a little differently now, knowing what I know, but even if the experience wasn’t fair, it was important in shaping who I am, professionally, today.
Finally, you be you. True success in life comes from knowing who you are and where your interests and passions lie. One of the worst things you can do is head down a professional path because you think it is what is expected of you. As I was leaving college, I fully expected I’d go to law school because that was what most arts and sciences grads at UVA seemed to do. Fortunately, the summer between college and law school taught me that I could do what I loved without earning a law degree. My career highlights have been the result of following my true passions. My career lowlights have been the result of just chasing a paycheck or a job title. My work has to be about me and what drives me, not just about what I majored in.
As we were walking away from the student union, I asked my son what he thought of the evening. A quiet boy who usually doesn’t share much, he opened up by telling me, “that was awesome.” He then explained that no one had ever told him some of those things and that he had never thought about a lot of what he heard. We began talking about his own postsecondary education, and how he will be empowered with more choices and options than he could ever imagine. That is mom and I would be there to help guide him, but the decisions would ultimately be his. I could see he was both enthralled and overwhelmed, probably just the mix he should have as a seventh grader.
We talked mostly about him needing to be him, and how he needs to continue to learn where his interests and passions lie, and we will help him find pathways to pursue them. If I got the wheels in his head turning — as well as the wheels in many of the Latinx students I met with — then I am doing my job and acting on my own professional passions.