In this interview, a college career counselor explains how her internship as a college student in the career office at her university became a full-time job after she graduated. She also shares what her work is like helping students prepare themselves for the working world. If you are considering this line of work, read on to learn the ins and outs of the job, including common sources of stress, what education is required, and what type of salary you can expect.
What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How many years of experience do you have in this field? How would you describe yourself using only three adjectives?
I am currently a career information specialist working on a CA State University campus. I have been in higher education in some form or another for 10 years now, having started as a freshman in college. I have been in this role for about 6 years. Three adjectives that describe me are empathetic, positive, and hopeful.
What’s your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you? If you ever experienced discrimination, how have you responded and what worked best? Do you speak another language, and has it been helpful in your career?
I am a Chicana all the way. I don’t know if it’s necessarily hurt or helped me but I love being Mexican American. It’s more what people and/or institutions around me do with that fact that hurts or helps. Discrimination has definitely been a part of my life in one way or another – I remember someone saying “Why don’t you go back to Mexico?” I was thinking “I’ve never lived in Mexico, how am I supposed to go back?” I believe it’s better to find comfort in family and in supporting my community than to lash-out and let ignorant comments get the best of me. Being bilingual is extremely helpful. I don’t use it all of the time at work, but when I do, I’m grateful that I can assist someone who may have had more challenges than others to get the same information. The language is beautiful and being fluent only expands the world that much more. In regards to career, it allows me to target different niche areas and help support the community.
How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail? Are there any common misunderstandings you want to correct about what you do?
I work with college students and staff. I introduce students to career related resources, like resume writing, interviewing, networking, career exploration, choosing a major, etc. Our goal is to assist students in maximizing their academic and volunteer/leadership experience to find their ideal careers, whether it be working on their own or joining a multi-million dollar company. I often find myself motivating, educating, and encouraging students to pursue their goals and to set some if they haven’t already done so. A common misunderstanding is that services offered on the college campus you attend will be there after you graduate. They’re not. Use them while you’re a student, you’re paying for them! I can’t stress that enough. I find that among our culture, too, not many students are aware of the resources available, especially since many may be first-generation students. It’s not fair, but the “institutions” won’t hand hold or promote these services necessarily.
On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What might need to change about your job to unleash your full enthusiasm?
I would say my satisfaction is a 7.5 – 8. I love meeting with students and hearing about their triumphs and marveling at all they have overcome and continue to overcome. In order to be at a 10, I plan on moving more towards working with the Latino community specifically in regards to higher education success.
If this job moves your heart – how so? Ever feel like you found your calling or sweet spot in life? If not, what might do it for you?
I do feel that I am on that track. It is critical to work with and support the upcoming generations of professionals if we ever hope to succeed. I want my family and children to be proud of my work and I want to teach them that it’s not all about making millions. Money’s great, don’t get me wrong – but it’s about what you leave behind and how we improve things for those who stay behind. What would make this a million times better would be if we could get the right people in the right place in regards to policy making. I’m not sure when those in charge forgot that education is the only way to have a solid foundation. We need to value education and share it they way it deserves to be shared.
Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?
My bachelor’s degree is not related to what I do now and my parents still ask me to explain why I pursued that degree and am not in that field. I did feel like a failure at times for not following that route, but I have embraced that what I do now is what makes me happy. I still value the education received during my undergrad career and I am in a situation where I can help others find that missing link. In fact, I wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t pursued a degree, so there are no regrets. If generations before you did not receive a degree, you may get that same question.
How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?
I actually started working in this office as a student assistant. I was fortunate to get hired on after graduation, and I love the team here, which is why I’m still here. As a student though, I would have taken more internships in my then declared major, used the resources on campus and found a mentor. I would have joined more student organizations and been less cautious. Being cautious is good to a certain extent, but I find that it hindered my college experience in a sense. I would have done more research in regards to self assessment and set some goals early on. I knew my goal was to graduate from college and have a degree, but I didn’t really know where to go from there.
What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?
That working hard and working smart are two different things. At first work was hard because I had to learn the ropes. But once I got used to how things were going I’d start looking for ways to be more efficient and effective. That freed up some time to be creative and find solutions to other things.
What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you in this job?
I was recently asked to be on a search committee for a very important position on campus. I was surprised to hear I had been highly recommended by someone in the field. I decided to participate in the committee and it was a very valuable experience. I still do not know who recommended me, but am very grateful for the opportunity. This showed me that when I do good work, people notice and may be talking about me with others.
Why do you get up and go to work each day? Can you give an example of something that really made you feel good or proud?
I go to work every day because I value higher education, my community, and the opportunities that I can provide to others by being where I am. I go to work to show my family that working hard and smart are important to be successful and to be able to provide them the basic necessities. I feel proud when my children come to visit me at work. I feel that they are inspired to attend a university and work with people towards bigger goals. I feel great when someone comes in and says “Thanks to the services offered I got an interview!” or “I got a job because of you guys!” It’s not that they got these jobs because of me, but they were able to fully appreciate their experiences and value themselves to have the confidence to get those interviews or job offers.
What kind of challenges do you face and what makes you just want to quit?
The administrative details and procedures are often challenging. Personnel changes that happen due to forced budget cuts or changes are draining and make me wonder if I am truly valued by the institution. The barriers that continue to grow in regards to accessibility of public higher education is astonishing and often depressing. These things make me want to quit at times, but also serve as a way to encourage creativity in regards to assisting those who are most affected.
How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance? How?
On a scale of 1-10, I would rate the stress of this job as a 6. I am not in a life or death situation luckily. What I do or say though, may have negative affects on students. I would say it’s mainly the administrative things that are stressful. It is highly multi-tasking oriented, but manageable. I do enjoy the fact that it’s never the same thing every day, but I can count on certain times to be slower than others. The idea of work-life balance was not one that was really valued in my home when growing up. I don’t think it’s traditional to take time off if you’re not sick or in an emergency.
What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough and/or happy living within your means?
$38k-$42k, depending on the institution and level of experience. I would love a pay increase, but I think that’s the case for anyone in the education world. I think the perks of this job come in other things though – a set schedule and hours, benefits including reasonably priced insurance, tuition waiver, paid vacation and sick time, etc.
How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?
I honestly don’t take a lot of vacation outside of the holidays that are already on our calendars. I may take a day or two off in the semester, but don’t take enough time in my mind. I’d like to be able to take time off to take my kids somewhere nice, but I don’t necessarily have the financial means to do so. It wasn’t something we did often when growing up though, so I think the concept of taking days off when you’re healthy enough to be at work isn’t a common one to me.
What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?
The position requires a bachelor’s degree in any field really, it’s mainly the experience that I had working in the office that helped me get here. Being able to use a computer fearlessly and intelligently is a must. I have no idea what C++ is or how to change content on a website, but I think the skills that this generation are using every day are what’s needed. Ability to research, be creative and efficient. Being able to work with others is a must and communication skills. The most important I think would be the desire to help students succeed.
What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?
I would tell them that it’s a very rewarding experience. Not necessarily in regards to paycheck, but in the relationships that are built, the ability to impact people’s lives positively, and the ability to meet with people around the world through conferences and shared resources.
If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?
If I could write my own ticket I would be at home spending time with my family to tell you the truth. I didn’t have a very close relationship with my parents because they were working to support me and my siblings. I thank them tremendously for that. I think they worked that hard so I wouldn’t have to. If that’s not a possibility in five years, seeing as how time flies, I would like to be working in a Hispanic serving institution. I am starting the Masters in Counselor Education program next semester, so I think I’m starting towards that goal. If I’ve learned one thing working where I do, it’s that careers are meant to be spent in more than one place. It’s truly meant to be a path that grows when you take chances, embrace change, and follow your gut.