A few months ago, I got a phone call asking if I would be interested in participating in a Career Day at my high school alma mater, Martins Ferry. I was flattered, but also quite surprised. For the life of me, I couldn't understand why anyone would want to use me as a model for a career.
Not that I don't have a good career, but what brought me to this point wasn't exactly an ideal career path. What in the world was I going to tell these high school kids that would inspire them to someday become a journalist or a graphic designer?
And that was the other issue. I was asked to speak about being a journalist, but my degree is actually in graphic design. So the Career Day folks listed me in both categories. Well now they were really making things complicated for me!
When I walked into my "new" old high school last week, I wasn't really nervous. I am comfortable speaking in front of people, although I wasn't sure what I was going to say. Some other participants in Career Day had prepared handouts or presentations. I was going in with a blank slate, planning to speak off-the-cuff.
At first, I paid little attention to the fact that I had nothing prepared. I was totally enthralled with the new Martins Ferry High School. I'd been up on the hill a few times, but never actually entered the school complex. The brightness inside the school struck me the most - not just from the lights and windows, but from the mood of the students and teachers. They all were happy to be there and seemed quite proud of their school. I thought about that dark, dreary old Charles R. Shreve building where I attended high school - God rest its poor soul - and I honestly couldn't imagine going to high school in a building like they have today. I certainly hope those kids appreciate what they have!
Maybe it was good that I wasn't going back to my old high school building, because I didn't feel like I was back in school. Although, maybe that's also what 21 years out will do to you. At any rate, I was paired up with my former art teacher in the art classes, so I felt compelled to speak more about the design side of my career. On the other hand, I was introduced as an editor at the paper, so I also somehow needed to weave in the journalism aspect. I sort of felt sorry for these kids having to listen to my insane ramblings. How was I going to turn this into something workable?
So I put myself at one of those art tables (both figuratively and literally). If I were still a student, what would I want to hear? What would hold my attention? I decided against getting technical and detailed, and instead, I decided to just share the story of how I wound up working at the paper with a graphic design degree.
When I was a high school senior, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do after high school. I knew I was going to college. And I knew I liked art, English and math. I also knew I didn't want to teach. In 1992, graphic design was probably not even a career yet, or at the very least was in its infancy. I didn't even get my first computer until about 1994 or 1995. I really wanted to do something with art, but I couldn't think of anything except architecture. And I didn't want to do that at all. Way too many straight lines. I like to curve a little.
So, I went to school, changed my major a dozen times, and ended up getting a bachelor's degree in chemistry, as I was under this delusion that I wanted to work in a lab. Perhaps that was the creative part of me trying to manifest itself with something tangible.
I did the chemistry thing for a few months but knew immediately it was not right for me. To really do anything in the field, I needed to go to graduate school, but none of the branches of chemistry appealed to me. Luckily, I acquired a job that offered tuition reimbursement, so I cut my losses on the chemistry degree and went back to school to get my MBA. Again, that creative part of me desired a marketing job, as I envisioned myself working for a company writing slogans and catchy jingles. But that didn't really pan out the way I wanted either.
While I was miserable in a job that supposedly utilized my MBA, I learned about an online program through the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. I could take 12 specialized graphic design classes and earn a digital design diploma. Hmm. ... Well, I was pushing 30, but really, who cares? I was not prepared to spend the next 35 years of my life hating to go to work each day.
Once I finished the program, I worked at the paper doing layout and then had a few graphic design jobs until I ended up back at The Times Leader. And how was it that I made it work since my degree was in design and not communications? The message I gave to the students: No education is wasted. You acquire skills as you go through school and life, even if you don't know where you're going. But at some point, something will come along to match the skills set that you've developed over the years. For me, my background in marketing helps me understand how to relate to the people in our "market" or area, while the design background allows me to do page layout - which I really enjoy - and photo editing. And as an added bonus, I've always loved to write - I've been writing since I was a teenager - so the reporting part was an added bonus.
Therefore, I suggested to the kids that they find a job that matches their skills set and personality, and they're certain to be happy. Trust me, I know what it's like to dread getting out of the bed in the morning to go to a job I didn't like. You don't have to work a day in your life if you like going to work or if you think, "I can't believe I'm getting paid to do this!"
Overall, I feel pretty successful with my Career Day talks. Even my former art teacher told me what an engaging speaker I was and even reinforced my message to the students about matching skills to a career.
Maybe I really do know a thing or two about careers. After all, I've gained quite a bit of experience over the years.