They have come in the night, in the dark, crunching through snow, faces strafed by the wind. And now they sit in a LaFortune meeting room, long tables arranged in a big square, to hear a panel of people speak and answer questions, give pep talks and offer advice.
They are mostly Arts & Letters majors and we are all here because the University’s Career Center has brought us together. It is a support group of sorts.
There are 30, 40, maybe 50 students here. Mostly young women. They all look bright, hopeful, expectant, ready to listen and take notes and find out what to do.
But there is no formula, no career path, no tried-and-true first step. These are the students — English and history majors, the ones interested in communications, publishing or writing — for whom no recruiters come, for whom further schooling is a fall-back position, not a launching pad toward medicine or law or finance or a corporate board room.
The Career Center — most notably Anita Rees and Bridget Kibbe — does its best by them: encouraging, equipping, outlining options, identifying internships, networking, putting them in touch with those who have been there before them.
So we panelists try to do our part. We have been in their seats, too.
In fact, the young woman to my right, Kelly McGauley ’11, sat with the students a few years ago and is now back to share her story. The former English major went through the Denver Publishing Institute and is now associate manager for advertising and promotions with the Macmillian Children’s Publishing Group.
I’ve done this maybe a half dozen times and each year there’s an alum who’s gotten into book publishing through the Denver program and returns to show the way. Others offer different routes; most are circuitous, bending on serendipity and hard work, talent and persistence.
I usually start by congratulating the students. Their presence here, I say, suggests that they have taken seriously the advice that college is a time to learn — regardless of vocational training, the utilitarian approach to getting a degree. A liberal arts education is its own reward, and a treasure that will enrich their lives.
I know their parents will question such impractical loftiness. I know mine did. But I am not their parent. I can espouse such valorous ideals, try to give flight to youthful dreams, affirm the notion that higher callings do still call, and get answered.
But I also know the ledge on which they perch. These students have been super achievers all their lives; they have hurdled every obstacle on the course. But the game board ends here, and an unchartered future is scary — especially when their classmates still have new game boards with clear next steps and clearly defined paths to success (law school and med school admission, an entry-level foothold in accounting, marketing or banking).
They — and their parents — have also invested heavily in their education. Hundreds of thousands of dollars. Plus daunting debt loads. They can’t afford to pass the time finding themselves. Or take jobs that don’t provide a lucrative wage. Moving back home feels like failure, like a total waste of two decades’ worth of sacrifice.
Most students don’t get that far, don’t venture too far into junior or senior year without altering dreams for pragmatism, infusing realism into their expectations, tempering the dreams they had for a life of service, creative expression and other roads less traveled. And that’s too bad.
So we panelists — with no child of our own looking back at us — encourage those visions, stress the benefits of personal relationships, tell stories of successes large and small, offer some hows and reinforce the whys. Because happiness and fulfillment matter, we say, and there are good people out there — to work with and help you find work.
These students, of course, are also caught in a distressing limbo. Their friends are getting acceptances and job offers from companies targeting springtime graduates. The students sitting here tonight are generally looking at employers who fill positions as they come open; it’s hard to apply for a job months before you’re available. Waiting agitates the mind.
So does the economy and the job market and the revolution in the world of communication. But the world will always need storytellers and your Notre Dame degree will help and there is no black hole or abyss you will fall into, I have said. This adventure could have a happy ending.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.