The summer after I graduated from college, I packed my white Ford Blazer and drove from Madison, Wisconsin to Lake Charles, Louisiana to serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) member. Thus began my career journey of transitions and growth.
I was assigned to the Calcasieu Women’s Shelter and during that year, I conducted workshops at the community college on how to break the cycle of violence, I visited rural congregations leaving literature about the shelter’s services, and I developed a teen-dating anti-violence curriculum for the local high schools. One of the teachers was so grateful someone was sharing such information with her students that she gave me a silver letter opener as a gift. It sits on my desk today.
In that first role, I interacted daily with women trying to better their lives and those of their children. The yearlong experience was incredibly powerful and enabled me to learn about myself in the service of others. With that knowledge in mind, I jumped in my Ford Blazer and moved to Washington, DC, a city full of nonprofit organizations, the federal government, and other do-gooders – I figured it might be a good place for me. After temping for six months (including a job where I had to salvage the gasoline-soaked files of a pest control company that had been burned by a competitor), I landed my first “real” job at the Points of Light Foundation. It was there that I discovered the cross-section of business and nonprofits.
My move to DC was in the 1990s, a time when “corporate volunteerism” was becoming more common. Companies rewarded their employees for volunteering, some encouraging them by offering paid time-off. Samsung, Disney, and Pitney-Bowes were some of the big names I worked with, and a thought popped into my head: perhaps I could take my experience and actually work for a corporation. Seemed like a good idea, and it was, for a few years. A lot can happen when you take the power and efficiency of a for-profit entity and partner with a mission-driven organization.
The late-90’s were all about the big box stores …and dot com, so my first position in the corporate world was with a national book retailer in a community relations role. While I enjoyed that role immensely and had the opportunity to partner with local organizations and schools, I was intrigued by what was happening with all of these new internet companies. I made the transition to an e-business consultancy through an entry-level marketing role. However, that quickly went from dot com to dot bomb, and I was laid off.
With time to reflect, I realized I had more passion for the nonprofit world. After a couple of months of researching and networking, I found a nimble, young organization that partnered with businesses to create cause-marketing campaigns. Handling A-level celebrities at events in New York City to promote literacy, managing a $1 million partnership with a Fortune 500 company, and redistributing new books from major publishers in locations across the country was rewarding and exciting, but something was still missing.
One day at work, we received a phone call from a VISTA representative. She was looking for a VISTA alum to write an article about accessing brand new books for children in need. I raised my hand and volunteered to draft a piece. After I wrote the article, the person I’d been working with shared that she was leaving VISTA and the position would soon be posted. I never thought I could work for the federal government because I assumed my resume would just go down a black hole. It turns out that networking for federal jobs is just as important as in other sectors.
Three months later, I had my federal ID and was working for the program that had inspired my college graduate self. I was excited to promote this opportunity and encourage others to take one year and serve.
My colleagues and I created online resources to help the VISTAs work in local communities, we organized 6 events across the country for VISTA’s 50th anniversary, and we gathered stories and shared them on social media. Then we realized we needed to do more to help our members as they transitioned from service to employment, so we launched our first career fair. We presented to dozens of federal agencies about the merits of hiring our alumni, we hosted webinars on resume writing and navigating the federal hiring process, and we created a “Life after AmeriCorps VISTA” guidebook.
And yet again, I realized that I was still looking for something. I wanted to work more closely with the people that I was trying to help. I started networking and attending career development conferences. On one occasion, inspired by the dynamic speaker, I approached her after the workshop and asked if she would be willing to speak with me about this potential career change. During our conversation a few weeks later, she advised that I get a career development coaching certification. So I did.
Two years later, we were both attending another career development conference. She invited me to dinner with her colleagues. Over dinner, they mentioned an open position on their Employer Relations team focused on finding opportunities for students in social impact.
Three months later, I arrived for my first day at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School.
I’m one year into this role and what brings me the most joy is connecting students to opportunities. We hosted the first “Social Impact Industry Day” with over 50 students attending and nine employers representing all sectors; we’ve held “student treks” in DC and San Francisco, visiting international nonprofits, social innovation incubators, and an NGO started by a Carey alum; and we have created a weekly email sent to almost 250 students who have identified with our social impact network.
To sit down with a student, listen to what excites them, and discuss how they can navigate their journey is where I believe I can make a difference. I hope that I can bring clarity and inspiration to our students to start—or transition—their career paths to social impact.
This time, I have found what I was looking for.