Students who have been successful in academics and leadership roles in college have a very tough time in their “dream jobs.”
Here is a tale of two May 2009 graduates who have been communicating with me for the past six months. The first is a Teach for American Corps member. Most of the 35,000 who applied were stars in college, but she was one of the 4,000 who shined the most brightly. The other is in a corporate training program with a very small acceptance rate. Both had outstanding academic records and met every challenge they faced in college, or at least they thought they did. Now in the real world, they are faced with one setback after another. It did not take them long to realize that college is a day on the beach compared to the world of work, especially work in high performing organizations.
The First Year Teach for America Corps
Katelyn Hancock was a superstar who maintained a high GPA while accomplishing a lot outside of the classroom. Just to give a brief taste of her accomplishments, she single handedly developed a website and a fundraising campaign for the John Dau Foundation, which built and supports a clinic in a remote part of South Sudan. Her work led to contributions in excess of $100,000 the first year. The Board tried to stop her from taking the TFA position. Sometimes I think she wishes she had. Two sections from her blog Katelyn Today reinforce my point. The first is entitled “Crazy Overachievers” in which she writes:
Throughout my life, people have often called me an “over-achiever.” However, at Institute (summer training program for TFA) I am just average since every corps member here is also a hyper over-achiever. In fact, compared to some people, I actually feel like an under-achiever. There are some crazy corps members here who I have no idea how they are doing Institute on top of other demands in their lives.
The other statement comes from her blog entitled “If I were a quitter”:
After 2 ½ weeks as a teacher, I have decided that this is the hardest and most exhausting, humbling, time-consuming, stressful and high-stakes job I will probably ever hold. After completing my two years with Teach for America, everything I will ever do again should be relatively easy in comparison. In fact, if I was a quitter, I’d quit this teaching thing. Sometimes, in the moment, all of the trials and stress just don’t seem worth it.
Yes, I agree. I want to quit. However, I’m not a quitter and there is too much at stake for my students if I quit. Therefore, I will continue to teach for the next two years no matter what- through plenty and in want; in joy and in sorrow; in sickness and in health; through bad days and good days. Somehow, I will make it.
A Recent Grad in Corporate America
The Corporate Trainee, whose name or affiliation I cannot reveal, not only maintained a high GPA, he was president of his fraternity as a sophomore and won a prestigious summer fellowship at a foundation as a rising junior when the foundation almost always gives it to a rising senior. He was leader on campus in many different venues. He writes the following:
Life has been a roller coaster ride to be honest. Some weeks I do not do much reflection, other weeks I think too much. I am going through a phase, not sure how its defined, some sort of transition though, where I am asking a lot of questions. First, I realized I know nothing. Second, I realized I know nothing.
College is good because it gives you a taste of what it would one day feel like to be powerful and successful and rich and happy. It is like a teaser. You finally get there senior year. You got to be the president of this, the adviser to that, the delegate to this, the candidate for that, the manager for him or her. You were chosen to do things, your voice was needed, your ideas were fresh and new and acted upon. You were actually special.
Exit fantasy. Enter reality? College Ends. WORK begins.
You join a program with everyone else who lead, managed, chaired, ran, developed, succeeded. You were a big fish now your fish bait. Actually, you don’t get to even swim in the pool. Not because of anything you did but because of the nature of this phase of life. But everyone goes through this phase right?
There isn’t a warp zone like in Nintendo games where you go through a special tunnel or take a secret road and by-pass this part of your career? When will I be good enough again? When can I lead like I know I can? When does the change ever happen when can I once again become important?
Even though I warned them, they seemed surprised. Where would we be without potential leaders whose naiveté allow them to take risks that will eventually lead to their triumphs?
Bill Coplin is a professor of public policy at the Maxwell School and The College of Arts and Sciences of Syracuse University, and author of “Ten Things Employers Want You to Learn in College” (Ten Speed Press, 2003) and “25 Ways to Make College Pay Off: Advice for Anxious Parents from a Professor Who’s Seen it All” (AMACON, 2007). Readers may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.