This is a guest piece by Elizabeth Santoro, a senior at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, who will begin her career at a technology company upon graduation.
In my experience, college leaves you with more questions than answers. Entering college you may or may not know what career you want or what direction to take. Either way, college seems to be anything but linear, — it’s more a series of switchbacks and loops.
I thought I would work for some Condé Nast beauty magazine among New York City’s skyscrapers or, on the flip side, dig deep as an investigative reporter. Graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, I’m on a different spectrum entirely and accepted an offer to work in product marketing for a tech startup.
Establishing our career aspirations may feel like we’re on deadline to get the answer right before graduation. So how do we navigate college when we may feel pulled in a career direction or just blindly wandering? For me it was two-fold: pursuing my interests at that moment and just going with my gut. While the latter is pretty self-explanatory, the former could use a backstory.
Contouring my career
In my not-so-trivial pursuit, I started with extracurricular activities and classes. Freshman year I was eager to get involved in the journalism world. My classes taught me the skills, but I used my extracurricular activities to explore my interests within this broad career choice. Since working for a beauty magazine was my goal, I wrote for the school newspaper as a beauty columnist. Tips and tricks from your fellow peers once a week written by yours truly. This experience helped introduce me to the field and gave me the confidence to intern at a beauty magazine to further explore my initial interest. And my internship was rewarding! It opened me up to how a beauty magazine operates and what it means to work there. As my first formal internship, other learning experiences included how to receive feedback in a work environment and being independent while also codependent in your work. But most importantly, this first taste widened my perspective to learn what aligned with my values and interests and what to keep searching for. For example, I realized I liked writing self-help articles, but didn’t think beauty was my topic of choice. Questions answered. More questions arose. Interests changed.
Lights, camera, action!
Pivoting at the start of sophomore year, my classes were heavy in video journalism. Open for a new path, one that would satisfy my itch of “feeling right,” I thought to try broadcast or video journalism. So I again pursued it. Signing up with the news broadcast club on campus, I got more video experience. Learn by doing, right? Something else I was learning was how to manage. As an editor for an online school publication I enjoyed, I had my quota of stories to publish during the week and a staff of writers to manage. With that came developing professional skills like team collaboration, delegation, and communication. Turns out the editing gig seemed to pull me in a stronger direction. I left the broadcast club to devote more time as an editor, yet I still wanted to know about working in broadcast.
So I started a broadcast internship in my hometown. Apart from knowing the city I grew up in, I knew nothing when it came to working in real-world broadcast journalism. That first week, confusion and masked anxiety dominated VO/SOT/VO… wait what? But step by step I became comfortable in this new area. In a rotational sequence, my internship started with me calling and confirming facts. Eventually, I was editing clips, filming, and covering my own stories.
I left the internship recognizing what aligned with my values and interests. I decided that though I enjoyed my broadcast experience, it wasn’t for me long-term. But where to search next was messier. In the back of my mind was ruminating another emerging interest from the marketing analytics class I took at the end of my sophomore year. Marketing fascinated me. It was different and nothing like what I learned before. But it also worried me. After all, I went to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism for journalism. The plan was to be a journalist. Could marketing really be something I’m meant for?
And well you guessed it — I deep-dived into the marketing world to learn more and, of course, that meant trying yet another club.
Finding my brand identity
Anxious about this umpteenth (really 3rd) pivot, I got a break from it all when I studied abroad the beginning of my junior year. A longer story short: That time taught me to enjoy the present. You don’t have to figure out your entire career path while still in school, and are not expected to. Give time for yourself and for exploring areas that might interest you even if you aren’t sure.
Upon my return, I joined the marketing club, was named a managing editor of my only steady club during college, and had a full course load. While getting experience in my areas of interest was helpful to make career choices, I was stretched thin for 11 weeks. Ready for a balanced lifestyle, I applied my lessons learned abroad to re-prioritize my activities in school, so I could have the time for exploration and not be stressed with too many commitments.
I left the school publication editing position to pursue this marketing interest where I became a team leader in the club. I knew I wanted a marketing internship to learn about the real world, but first I needed to educate myself about the industry through my classes and school experiences. This leadership position provided some experience, while continuing to develop those professional skills of team collaboration, delegation, and communication.
Using my school career center, writing cover letter after cover letter, and attending fair after fair, I succeed in getting a marketing internship in a planning role (the area I wanted) in a unexpected field, pharmaceutical marketing.
Leave it to good luck
Pause here for a necessary digression about luck. The story thus far shows that staying motivated and seeking new experiences is a way to get internships or professional experience. A bit of luck is also necessary. While I believe your luck gets better the more you try, sometimes downright being in the right place at the right time lands you the opportunity. I applied to well over 20 internships my junior year and at times felt pretty discouraged. To eventually receive an offer within my peak interest involved some luck.
Evaluating the research
So returning to the story — with my little marketing experience, I didn’t know anything about pharmaceutical marketing or how to be a planner. But my little experience made me excited to learn more. And just like you walk before you run, this internship combined my skills from past extracurricular experiences and internships to continue growing my professional development. As a part of the intern team, we were tasked to ideate a treatment adherence product and present this to the executive team. Team collaboration, delegation, and communication — yep they were all there. And just like my other experiences, I saw what aligned with my values and interests and where I could go next. My conclusion: I liked the researcher role I played as a planner and wanted more of that, so maybe I would enjoy a market research firm. I also wanted to stick to working in health somehow. This area was the closest yet to align with my self-help value I started with freshman year. It all seemed to fit.
Sticking to my values
Pivoting once again, I became more and more specific when looking for post-college career options. While by senior year my interests had drastically changed from beauty journalist to marketing researcher, all my experiences helped reveal my career values: help people, do meaningful work, and continue to learn. Realizing my values were constant, I first used them to guide my job search with my interests a close second.
So when a job in the tech industry in a completely different area of marketing came along that seemed to match my values, I applied. Despite my three years of experience-driven, know-before–you-go mentality, sometimes you have to just think, “Why not?” I applied and one thing led to another, ending with an offer. The opportunity seemed to align the closest with what I valued, and I saw this job as a great launching point. Like I said college has its switchbacks: magazine, broadcast, marketing, oh my!
Pen to paper
Well now here comes the loop — back to journalism. Settled with post-college plans by fall of senior year, all should be smooth sailing, and for the most part it is. But still I needed to finish those degree requirements and one included completing a journalism residency. Instead of doing more marketing, I remembered my time editing in class and extracurricular activities, something I thoroughly enjoyed but never fully pursued. I thought, “I came into this university to do journalism might as well finish with journalism. Why not try working in editing?”
Working for a health publication, I mixed two interests that blended from my journalism and marketing experiences: editing and health. The result was I found that niche in journalism I’d been craving since freshman year. How could this be? I thought I loved marketing and made it my path. But if college and my experiences taught me anything, it’s that not just one path exists. I enjoy editing; I enjoy marketing; but my values extend across them. And with my experiences, I developed my values just as I changed my interests.
Starting work after college, I feel ecstatic. But I also feel content knowing to have multiple paths is fine. I’m 22. I’m still in launch mode when it comes to life’s voyage.
So if there really is a pattern and moral weaved into this collegiate story it is to explore your interests to find your passions. If you don’t find your passions, it’s ok — you still learned something from your experiences, and this exploration helps you identify your values. It’s also better to explore different paths while you’re still in school, before you take that first job. I started small with extracurricular activities, worked up toward an internship, and then repeated until I found what was right for my values and interests. With experience, I learned more about what I wanted for myself and that I could have multiple passions, not just one set path. And the best part? The journey isn’t over. This learning was and still is a stepping-stone, exploratory process.
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