The Real Education

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I enjoy nothing more than visiting with my former students. Like a mama bear I want to know that they are doing well. Whether by way of Facebook or through lunch or dinner dates I keep up with many of the young men and women who were once students in my classroom, and I always walk away feeling quite proud of them.

Sometimes they are apologetic that they are not working in their field of study. I can tell that they worry that I will think less of them. What they don’t realize is that I understand all too well the serpentine routes that life and careers often take. I know how difficult it may be to find that sweet spot that makes waking up each morning something to enjoy rather than dread. In my own case it took until I was in my thirties before I was certain that I had indeed chosen the right kind of work. Even then it took a few more years for me to develop confidence in my abilities.

In college I changed my major so many times that I ended up with over one hundred sixty hours of course work. For the longest time nothing seemed to fit, and even when I neared my graduation date I was being lured by professors who thought I might be a good candidate for the creative writing major at my school or even for a degree in art, both tempting ideas. I finally had to tell myself that enough was enough and I launched a career in elementary education that actually never really gelled. My first position was in the intermediate grades teaching mathematics. I became sought after for my minor rather than my major and my one foray into the lower grades demonstrated that I was meant to be a teacher of older students. By the end of my career I was teaching high school freshmen and sophomores and loving every single minute of the day. Eventually I mentored teachers and found my real niche.

My husband was a sociology major who went into banking. His best friend, also a sociology major, went into sales. One of my brothers was a marketing major who became a firefighter. In fact, the vast majority of the people that I have known ended up doing things that might never have occurred to them had not some grand opportunity presented itself. For most of us the world of work takes many different twists and turns.

These days it’s more difficult than ever for college graduates to find jobs that ideally match their interests and coursework. It used to be that a liberal arts major was a great way of entering a wide variety of careers. Now such a degree is far less valuable and sometimes even those who earn honors in college find themselves working in jobs that they might have landed right out of high school. The days in which diplomas from universities were a sure thing are long gone, and it is quite distressing to young graduates. All too often they find themselves having to be incredibly creative and flexible in finding jobs unless they have extremely high grades and particular skills.

We hear a great deal about careers in the STEM fields but the reality is that the technology and engineering majors provide the best prospects for jobs while the science and mathematics positions often require more advanced degrees or special training. Many who earn diplomas in these very difficult fields find themselves falling back on careers in teaching which are sometimes not particularly satisfactory to them. because of this there are a few too many educators who are simply marking time until a better offer comes along and then they are quickly out the door.

I always recommend that young men and women be open to careers that push them a bit out of the boxes that they have created for themselves. I also want them to understand that in today’s world they will most likely find themselves continually seeking new educational opportunities. Things are changing so quickly that they will never be able to simply be content with what they learned in a distant past. They will be trained and retrained again and again. Much as with limits in Calculus they will slowly approach closer and closer approximations of what they really want to do but may never actually finish the learning process.

I have a student that I thought might one day become president. Four years at a school in Washington D.C. taught him that politics is a cut throat business in which he has no desire to engage. He is now coding software. Another student with a business major worked for a time in corporate America and actually did quite well, but he now uses his acumen in his own thriving furniture building business. A student with an accounting major is managing several companies for an entrepreneur. An architecture student is building and renovating houses. A psychology major is successful in real estate. In other words, so many of my students have learned that their degrees have taught them how to think and to quickly learn knew skills and ideas which they are parlaying into interesting professions that they never considered entering but they truly enjoy.

I would tell any young person to think of college as a stepping stone. The degrees that they have earned demonstrate that they are able to learn a variety of information and that they have a willingness to work hard, forego instant gratification, and complete projects in a timely manner. Those are invaluable abilities that will serve them well regardless of the kind of work that they ultimately do. Those who will be successful are the men and women who show up ready to work day in and day out. They learn something new wherever they go and use that information to continuously improve themselves. They are ready to take risks and give it their all. Getting the degree was just the training. The real education comes on the job.