Finding our way in a chaotic post-undergraduate world

“Do you need any help?” I ask the group leaders in front of me. We’re at a busy intersection, waiting for the crosswalk to turn white. It’s a welcome reprieve from all the walking we’ve been doing the past few days. Our days on the trek are packed in one tightly concentrated schedule, so every break we can get is a welcome retreat. Behind us, ten more Amherst College students congregate, chatting about the latest event in our trek – a group luncheon we had with several Amherst alums at the World Bank.

“No, it’s all right,” one of the leader says, “I’ve got this. Thanks for offering though.” She waves her iPhone at me, smiling. Google Maps gleams from the smartphone’s sleek shiny screen. A robotic woman’s voice sounds from the speaker: “In one hundred feet, turn left.” “See,” the leader says, “We’re right on track.”

Today, Lumi and Sharlene are in charge of leading and navigating our cohort around Washington D.C. We just finished our tour of the World Bank and now will be visiting the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Senate, before travelling back to Adams Morgan – a region in D.C. – for dinner and a debrief.

In our nation’s capital, where streets and avenues and boulevards intersect and twist and turn like the ends of a labyrinth, GPS technology like Google Maps is a must for the intrepid traveler. I discovered the hard way just how difficult it is to navigate without the aid of modern technology.

Yesterday, I along with my partner Victoria were the group leaders in charge of navigating our cohort through the day. I don’t have cellular data – I can’t afford it. I relied heavily on my partner for all the navigation help. When it was my turn to navigate, I quickly pulled up an archived map of DC that I had saved for this very situation, only to discover that without cellular data, I couldn’t find the nearest bus stop. My plan failed. We nearly missed the bus, and the ride back to our inn, I simmered in regret and shame.

In many ways, being lost in a busy city is not too different from feeling lost after graduating from college. There is a similar regret and shame when one can’t find one’s way through adult life. There is a similar envy when one discovers that others with more money can better navigate the post-collegiate world. There is also a fear – the fear of being stranded – as everyone moves up through Wall Street or Main Street and builds their career to success.

The Non-Profit Government Trek offered by the Career Center is arguably one of the Career Center’s initiatives to help students find their way through post-college by connecting students with alumni’s who’ve already experienced what it’s like to work for a government or non-profit institution. During our pre-trek orientations, our trek-guide, Laura Litwiller, mentioned that it wasn’t uncommon for students formally committed to working for government to discover a passion for non-profit during the trek, or vice-versa. In many ways, the Trek itself was an orientation for students interested in the broad areas of government and non-profit.

The Trek is offered by the Career Center to a select few students annually. It was started last year by Amherst Alum Samuel “Sandy” Rosenberg who is currently a Delegate for the Maryland House of Delegates. The Trek itself takes place over spring break in two locations, our nation’s capital Washington D.C., and Annapolis, Maryland, where Mr. Rosenberg works as a State Delegate. The Trek has numerous functions, one of which is to introduce Amherst students to possible careers in state and local levels. During our stay in Annapolis, Delegate Rosenberg mentioned “Potomac fever”, a-not-uncommon phenomenon among college graduates whereby they overlook local and state careers in favor for working at the national level in D.C. This Trek was, in many ways, intended to show that change actually occurs at the state level, and that if one were to pursue a career for the purposes of creating change, a profession State level might be a more appropriate fit.

During our Trek, we surveyed a vast diverse cast of Amherst Alumni working for a wide-range of organizations, from the AARP, to the American Friends Service Committee, to the U.S. Department of Justice, and even more. A wide number of alumni reaffirmed Delegate Rosenberg’s advice to seek opportunities at a local and state level.

“I wish I had known that more when I was younger,” one alumnus said, “Because where else would a young graduate be entrusted a large amount of responsibility, other than the local levels?”

At Keys for Homeless, another alumnus agreed.

“Looking for a job? Go local. There’s no substitute for that kind of experience.”

Almost every alumni also emphasized the importance of staying involved in politics.

“Run for office,” one of the alumnus we met at Keys for Homeless said, “Go out and vote. No matter what job, be a part of politics.”

Senator Chris Coons, U.S. Senator for Delaware and Amherst alumnus, also emphasized that point in the short time he was able to meet us.

“I wish more young people cared about social security,” he said.

Social security was just as much a young people issue as it was an issue for elderly. Young voters tend to have lower voting turnouts, but politics governs and shapes our lives just as much as it influences any other demographic.

Many of Amherst’s young alumni seemed aware of that fact.

“Please vote,” they exhorted us when we met with them for dinner over a series of networking events, “It’s important to be a part of the political process.”

But the most important lesson I took away from the Non-profit Government Trek wasn’t the politics or the importance of being involved.

It was the commonality of not knowing where one will be in the future. Almost every person we met throughout the trek emphasized their struggle to arrive at their current position. Not one person said they absolutely knew what they were going to be when they graduated college.

“If you had asked me whether I’d be working at the World Bank right after college, I would’ve thought you were crazy!” a World Bank employee told us when we met for lunch on Wednesday.

What’s important was to find something that was meaningful to you. Make your own work. Make your own impact. Learn to think fast, don’t restrict yourself to any certain path. Keep in touch with people. Learn how to fail. Find some place you belong. Follow your passion.

And if you don’t have a passion? Explore. Change your surroundings.

Because that’s common too. Because you aren’t alone in not knowing. Because you aren’t alone in not having discovered where to go.

For a low-income student like me, these testimonials were groundbreaking.  I had grown up with very few role models, and very few examples of success that I could follow and imitate. There were no paths trail blazed before me, and I thought that was a quality symptomatic of my socioeconomic class.

But I discovered throughout this trek that there are no set career paths. That no one I met became the successful person they were because they followed or imitated a common career path or conventional career trajectory. The common career path is a myth. It is an extremity, an unlikelihood, an outlier – an anomaly. What remains consistent amongst all the accomplished and rising alumni we’ve met is their unending passion, and wanting, for something greater, whether it’d be wanting change, wanting a certain position of influence, or wanting to create. That is path one should – indeed can only – take.