THIS is networking.

Working as Director of Career Development, 2005

Working as Director of Career Development, 2005

The interview process for my new job began 10 years ago.

My new boss, Steven Rothberg, President/Founder of College Recruiter, presented the keynote address at the Arkansas Association of Colleges and Employers Conference in 2005. I’d just entered the world of higher education as Director of Career Development at my alma mater. At that conference, I met two people who later proved to be crucial in my career—my new boss, Steven, and my career mentor, Samantha Hartley.

My boss, Steven Rothberg, circa 2008. :)

My boss, Steven Rothberg, circa 2008. 🙂

While listening to Steven speak at the AACE Conference, I soaked up his enthusiasm and insight like a sponge. His passion for College Recruiter made quite an impression upon me. I became a fan of College Recruiter’s work.

True to my networking-is-all-about-genuine-relationships mantra, I kept in touch with Steven over the course of the past decade. When I learned he was the keynote speaker at the AACE Conference this June, I had to be there, even though my role as an English faculty member didn’t afford me the opportunity to participate in AACE any longer. Thankfully, many of the speakers and workshops pertained to curriculum, so I made a case for my attendance and was able to drive to northwest Arkansas for the day.

At the AACE Conference in June 2015 with my friend and former student, Kelsey Lavigne

At the AACE Conference in June 2015 with my friend and former student, Kelsey Lavigne

When I began teaching as a faculty member, I truly never planned on doing anything else. I felt I’d arrived. However, some switch flipped in me when I reconnected with Steven at the AACE Conference. Feeling inspired, I immediately came home and wrote a blog post, which Steven shared on Twitter. A few weeks later, he invited me to participate in a webinar with College Recruiter. The right doors kept opening, and I kept walking through them. I had a gut feeling that if I were ever to do anything other than teach, working for College Recruiter would be my dream job. What would that look like? What exactly could I do for them? I had no idea. I just prayed for God to work things out as He saw fit.

At the beginning of August, I saw opportunities for improvement in content on College Recruiter’s website. I felt torn about whether to mention this to Steven, though, since he was my “ideal boss.” My career mentor asked me if my ideal boss would be offended by my suggestions for improvement.

“I guess not.”

“Well, there’s your answer.”

So I emailed him. Several emails and phone calls later, Steven and his wife Faith, CEO of College Recruiter, offered me the position of content manager.

Morning view from my soon-to-be office

Morning view from my soon-to-be office

This morning, as I drank coffee on my back porch to the sound of a few chilly birds chirping in the distance, I realized that still, soft forest would be my vantage point every single day. In January, I’ll be exchanging my office on campus for my office at home, which is currently being constructed and greets the sunrise.

I won’t go on and on about the variety of ways my new employer rocks. I won’t tell you about how funny Steven and Faith are.. I won’t yack about how amazed I am each time they remind me how important it is to maintain balance and prioritize my family. I won’t brag about the flexibility, the support, or the leadership… okay, maybe I will… just a little bit.

This process has proven these three things to be true.

  • Networking pays off.
  • When in doubt, listen to mentors.
  • English majors can do much more than teach, and earn a great living, too.

Although I do not practice the Jewish faith, I did find it cathartic to give my official “I’m leaving” notice today, the day after Rosh Hashanah began. I have a feeling this will be a particularly good and sweet new year. Shana tovah u’metukah, my friends.

I can’t wait to get started.

Making the magic happen

I’m constantly keeping my antennae up for eye-catching bits regarding retention, the workplace, professional development, and careers. I came across an article by Jean Martin and Conrad Schmidt in Harvard Business Review entitled “How to Keep Your Top Talent” which identifies six common mistakes employers make in retaining employees identified as “top talent.” The article defines top talent as ideal employees with three primary characteristics—ability, engagement, and aspiration—and describes the magical sparks that fly when employers foster all three calling cards rather than focusing on one or two.

As a faculty member, I plan to use the article as a class exercise (spoiler alert for my Comp I and II students this fall) because it’s a great piece, is recent enough to be considered relevant to the world of work, and is interesting enough to avoid inducing lots of yawns and eye rolls from my students.

At the 2015 AACE Conference in Springdale, Arkansas

At the 2015 AACE Conference in Springdale, Arkansas

I benefited professionally as an instructor from reading the article. But I also read the article because as a former director of career development who is still enamored with the field, demonstrated by my choice to spend a day of my summer vacation at the Arkansas Association of Colleges and Employers conference learning from experts in the fields of recruiting and career development, I must also think about how this applies to me, my journey, and my career circles in higher education.

I do believe there are some corporations, and perhaps some universities, with excellent recruitment strategies in place and with even better retention plans. These organizations value their employees and can afford to spend time recruiting great employees, training employees once hired, and then building the morale of their employees on a regular basis through various means. Perhaps these types of corporations read the article “How to Keep Your Top Talent” and belly laugh, point fingers at the other corporations with problems, and go enjoy a game of pool after work together.

Based on my experience—having worked in a fairly wide variety of non-profit organizations, large corporations, small businesses, and private and public universities—I’d guess the number of corporations able to react to “How to Keep Your Top Talent” in this manner is teeny tiny.

All companies and organizations have problems and are, whether we want to admit it or not, dysfunctional on some level. They’re just trying to do the best they can with what they have.

So if you’re top talent, what do you do with THAT? What’s your part in it, if you’re holding the three magic cards? Just accept that you’re part of a screwed up organization, and deal with it? Accept that the company you work for sucks, will never pay you what you’re worth, may never provide you with opportunities for growth or advancement, does nothing to boost the morale of its employees, and keep suiting up and showing up?

Not exactly, but sort of…

I know. That’s not what you were expecting me to say, is it?

First, as a disclaimer, let me state that I self-identify as top talent. I believe my current and former employers will cosign this statement. I have great ability, am highly engaged, and aspire to accomplish great things. I’m always labeled as the over-achiever (okay, super nerd, maybe). The “highly engaged” part has varied depending on the organization and its level of ethics and commitment to me. I’m probably most engaged with my current employer… and more on that later.

So back to the question at hand. If you’re top talent, and you’re in a not-so-ideal situation with a corporation making at least a few of the mistakes mentioned in this article, how do you deal? What are your options?

  • Get out. Pack your bags, give your notice, and go on vacation. Or at least begin searching for gainful employment elsewhere. I’ve gone this route before—multiple times, actually. It’s not a terrible plan. The problem is that wherever you go, there you are. If you think you’ll find a better fit, you might be right. However, having run the gamut of work environments as previously mentioned over a decade and a half, let me gently warn you that you might also be wrong. But go ahead and find out for yourself. Some of us—if you’re anything like me, anyway—have to learn things for ourselves, even if that means doing it the hard way, over and over and over again. And really, the worst thing that can happen is you wind up with a resume full of short stints you’ll have to explain later and lots of interesting work experiences. Join the club.
  • Look at ways to grow within your organization. Does your organization offer opportunities for professional development (which are often free or at reduced rates)? Many employers encourage employees to take courses, even on the clock, or go to graduate school. My employer, for example, will reimburse a certain percentage of college tuition if I attend a school within the University of Arkansas System. The AACE Conference I mentioned earlier? This is a professional development opportunity, too.
  • If you have ideas and feel your creative juices flowing, take that good stuff to your leader. If your leader isn’t receptive, take it to your leader’s leader. What do you have to lose? You’re bored anyway, and you were thinking about packing your bags and taking your talent elsewhere. You might as well try to utilize your ability and creativity where you are right now before moving on. Who knows what changes you could implement? My old approach when I took a new job was this: find the holes and problems, and fill them and fix them, and then move on. That typically took me one year to 18 months. I got bored very quickly. My new approach is to dig in and dig deep. I teach three courses. I might teach the same three courses for a decade or even longer. How can I become a better instructor within those constraints? How can I collaborate with other departments? How can I create better assessment tools from semester to semester? There is no such thing as perfection when it comes to teaching or interacting with students.
With one of my former students on awards night, spring 2015

With one of my former students on awards night, spring 2015

I often plop myself down in my Vice Chancellor’s office (when he’s available to talk, of course) and share my brilliant visions with him (I’m sure he’s thrilled to see me coming each time). He’s actually really supportive, encouraging, and motivational. If I bring him a bit of a concept for an event, like our first ever Summer Institute for Teaching Excellence (SITE) event I created, which we’re hosting next week on campus, he doesn’t balk and start rattling off reasons why it won’t work. He normally asks what is entailed, tells me to go for it, and asks how he can help.

This is one reason I have finally drawn the magical third card, with no tears or tatters this time, completing the top talent trio for myself and reaching what I believe is, for myself, the most fulfilled professional pinnacle. I am fully engaged with my division, fully engaged in academics, fully collaborating across the lines of staff/faculty, and fully engaged with my students. I’m also fully engaged outside of campus, attempting to maintain connections with recruiters, employers, and other contacts in order to better serve my students. Is my campus perfect? Absolutely not. I’m just making the choice to engage anyway.

So back to my personal response to the question: “What’s your part in it, if you’re holding the three magic cards, and your organization isn’t perfect?”

You get busy. You do something about it. You stop whining and gossiping and belly-aching and sitting on your tail in your office and doing the same old-same old-same old day after day. You accept the things you cannot change and ask for courage to change the things you can. And by all means, seek wisdom to know the difference. You smile often even if others don’t. You spend your time around elevator people who bring you up and avoid basement people who drag you down. You pour yourself into what you love.

The choice is ultimately yours. Sure, those around you will always make mistakes, including your company or organization. But are you going to let those mistakes determine and affect your daily choices regarding your own ability, engagement, and aspiration?

That’s your mistake to make—but since you’re top talent, I’m sure you’ll focus on making the magic happen.

Leaning

Our voices reverberated off the cold concrete walls of the isolation room. I held my favorite patient’s trembling hand, his wrists shackled to the hard restraint bed. He swallowed tears while he choked out the lyrics to his favorite song.

Lean on me when you’re not strong. And I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on . . .”

His deep chocolate-brown eyes welled up again as he glanced over at me. He gazed at the ceiling and wept without making a sound.

It was my first real job after graduating from a small, private liberal arts college. I’m sure no one deliberately saddled me with delusions of grandeur, but I somehow came to believe that I’d enter the world of work like a boss (literally), wear a suit every day, stomp around in fierce heels, and edit interesting novels while sipping gourmet coffee and eating fluffy muffins every morning. Think Anne Hathaway post-promotion in The Devil Wears Prada.

The site of my first real job :)

The site of my first real job 🙂

As is the case with almost all new college graduates, reality steamrolled me into submission rather abruptly. After applying for countless jobs and receiving not a single phone call or interview, my friend Mike told me about a treatment facility for emotionally disturbed teenagers. Sure enough, the facility was hiring behavioral staff. At first, I shunned the notion. I’d just spent four years studying English literature and creative writing. Babysitting bad kids could not be God’s will for me. However, after three weeks of relying on my graduation gift money to provide groceries, I desperately drove out to the campus for my interview, the winding, quiet road a reprieve from the busy interstate.

“Now this job’s not for everybody,” Don Ray, the supervisor, mumbled through his thick beard. “You just follow me around for an hour, and you’ll know if you can take it or not.”

He fumbled with a monstrous set of keys as we approached one of the houses where 10 female patients resided. As he turned the knob, incessant shrieks and a cacophony of curse words assaulted my ears.

“What in the world is that?” I gasped, turning to Don.

He half-smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

“Your job.”

The door opened, and one of the female staff members greeted us, her legs propped up on a metal folding chair, arms crossed as she faced a closed door with Plexiglas separating us from the screams, insults, and punches of a wild-haired 13 year-old girl.

I couldn’t help but stare. This was the stuff of Girl, Interrupted.

A week later, I tried on a straight jacket for the first time during training. It was not exactly the type of suit I’d envisioned myself wearing at work.

I’m not sure if it was due to my petite 120 pound frame, Don Ray’s infinite wisdom, or God’s intervention, but I luckily landed my first stint at the facility in a boy’s house working alongside a slew of former football players and one woman, a middle-aged mother figure beloved by all the patients. I watched those former football players mentoring the male patients in every arena of life. They epitomized the father figures and role models the boys had missed before developing severe behavioral and emotional problems. They taught the boys to play basketball and Spades, to fold their laundry and dust the tops of shelves, and to treat others with the same respect they desired. They also didn’t hesitate to dish out serious consequences for undesirable behavior.

One of the male patients quickly became my all-time favorite. His cheerful smile, polite words, and hopeful attitude melted my somewhat Stoic—but ultimately fearful–exterior. “The Reverend,” as he liked to call himself, dreamed of becoming a preacher someday or a modern Martin Luther King, Jr. He inhaled history books and recanted stories of heroic men like Abraham Lincoln. He kept his room tidy and prided himself on his neat, well-groomed appearance. If I’d met him on the street, I would have assumed he had been blessed with a loving family who had taught him how to live the life of a model citizen and future change maker.

But he had no father, and his mother had abandoned him. Aside from his pastor and church family, whom he occasionally visited on outings, he was alone in the world.

And though he did his best to avoid dwelling on the truth of his situation, it occasionally got the better of him.

And so we found ourselves in that concrete room the week after his birthday. Six days in a row, after several apologetic conversations with his mom over the phone, he waited and watched for her face to appear through the tiny pane of the locked metal door to the house. But it never did. So for six days in a row, the two other staff and I winced as we watched the anger, hurt, and loneliness work its way out.

Even though singing with patients was unorthodox at best, I couldn’t help myself that day. I had to reach out to him with a thin thread of hope, just enough for him to grab hold of for a few moments. I wanted him to remember the people who were there with him and to help him forget about the faces that never materialized outside the door.

That day we developed a closer bond than before, and after that, he always held the door for me and went out of his way to make me laugh. He was different from the other boys.

One afternoon, while walking back to the house after playing cards in the gymnasium on campus, I heard him whispering to another male patient in a stern voice. I almost corrected him for reprimanding his peer, but when I heard the words, I paused.

“Look at that ass. Dang.” The other male patient snickered.

“Stop that. That’s Miss Bethany you’re talking about. She’s a lady.”

I smiled and kept walking.

At my 30th birthday party, a fundraiser in memory of my favorite patient

At my 30th birthday party in 2009, a fundraiser in memory of my favorite patient

That boy, that abandoned boy who loved God and held out hope in the midst of his messed up life, was special to me. So special that I once tried to find a way to bring him home with me for Thanksgiving or Christmas break. I guessed that the facility’s rules wouldn’t allow it, and that the red tape of the government agencies responsible for his care wouldn’t even consider it, but I asked anyway.

When that boy died a year later, I was glad I’d tried. Seeing his dignified, lifeless body lying in a casket broke my heart. I held his hand again one last time. This time, it was my tears that spilled over, leaving dark stains on the satin lining surrounding his still frame.

I stood there for a long time, just leaning on him.

Impeccable

As many times as I’ve doubted the impeccable quality of God’s timing (and trust me, folks, I’ve doubted it plenty of times . . .  Thomas might as well be my middle name), there have been as many times (or more) during the past few months when God has dispelled my misgivings.

With my tiny package, May 2012

This might surprise some of you, particularly those of you who are secretly judgmental but outwardly loving and supportive (as we all tend to be), who are wondering how someone who got married two months AFTER getting pregnant could possibly claim that God’s timing is impeccable.

Nevertheless, it’s true.

First of all, I decided to go back to school to pursue my Master’s degree in October 2011, on somewhat of a whim, I might add. After mentioning the idea in passing, flippantly at best, I found that I had strong support emotionally and practically from my partner in life to pursue this dream. Pleasantly surprised, I decided to go with the notion that I’d keep walking through open doors until they closed in front of me. I prayed continually as each one swung open without any resistance.

I’m so grateful I decided to go back to school. When I found out I was pregnant at the end of March, I had moments of this-was-not-planned-and-I-am-a-planner panic attacks, but ultimately, I realized that I’d be able to very easily complete my Master’s degree within 18 months, despite the arrival of our bundle of joy this coming November. I know myself, and I know that if I’d hemmed and hawed any longer before going back to school, I would have managed to rationalize my way out of it. God knows this about me, and He hewed together the perfect combination of inspiration, confirmation, and support to nudge me in the direction of “DO IT!”

The beauty of completing my degree before my child is a year old is that it will allow me much more flexibility in career options, allowing me to teach as an adjunct and stay at home to raise my child, which has always been my Plan A if possible.

With my friend Nancy at Weaver Family Medicine, February 2011

Secondly, after relocating to my hometown in December 2010 in order to be with the love of my life and my family, I felt God discouraging me from accepting a follow-up interview for a grant-writing/fundraising position with a great local organization. Anyone who knows me knows that this is precisely the kind of position suited for me. However, something didn’t feel right, and I declined going any further in the process. I’d spent the past 10 years pursuing higher paying, more impressive jobs (which resulted in higher stress and a diminished ability to enjoy life). I knew it wasn’t right for me. Instead, I accepted a lower-paying but much more flexible and fun position at a friend’s medical practice. After less than a year, a part-time position opened up at the community college where I’m now employed. This was a no-brainer, and again, after praying for God to open the right doors and close the wrong ones, He guided me into the place I currently reside. Had I taken the grant-writing position or kept applying for similar jobs, I’d be tied to working full-time, relying on my job for its salary and benefits, and afraid to take the plunge into full-time motherhood this fall.

Lastly, those who’ve known me for years may recall countless times when I scoffed at the idea of having children, or at best, questioned the logic of doing so. While I have been cursed with a healthy dose of tokophobia, the true root of this fear of having children stemmed from two places deep inside of me: the lack of a strong, healthy, and supportive partner, and the untended weeds of grief choking out my inner joy and contentment, subconsciously and quietly. This grief grew from unbearable sorrow inside of me, a sorrow unto death, that I’d buried within me after being raped at 16 the first time I had sex. The grief continued to rear its ugly head in all sorts of sad ways throughout my life for 16 more years until finally, after hearing God very clearly urging me to uproot it, I sought counseling. I finally told my mom, which was honestly harder for me than any counseling session I’ve ever experienced. I made peace with the rapist in an odd turn of events, thanks to someone very brave who knows him well. God effectively excavated the grave I’d dug inside myself years ago and cleared away the debris, making room for new life.

Photo courtesy of Phoopla Photography, April 2012

Finally, going through two divorces didn’t entirely fix my partner-picking problem. I also benefited from a few years of intense soul-searching and behavior-modifying in a twelve-step program and am eternally grateful to the people who repeatedly assured me that if I took the actions, the feelings would follow. I did, and with the help of the program (and God, who worked seamlessly through it), I found myself making better choices. A few years later, I’m married to the man of my dreams. By writing that, I’m not exaggerating or throwing in a cliché in order to avoid searching for a more accurate description. He is literally who I have always hoped for and never believed God would provide me with; I didn’t even believe men like my husband existed. A month after we started dating, I tentatively showed him my “list” of qualities I preferred and needed in a man, which I’d worked on for months after getting divorced in 2009. He met all 32 of my criteria, even the silly ones.

I would never wish to erase my past experiences because they taught me invaluable lessons about myself which I desperately needed to learn. I also gained the love of a 16 year-old girl, formerly my stepdaughter, who I will always consider my first child, who I will always support and never abandon.

But I do believe there’s a reason I never conceived a baby until now, and part of that is because I believe God was watching over me and doing for me what I could not do for myself. He miraculously fit the pieces of this complicated life puzzle together so that when He began knitting together the priceless creature in my womb, there would be no need for a plan. And no unrequited dreams.  And no room for fear.

What a difference a decade makes

Graduation, 2001

11 years ago, I graduated from a private four-year liberal arts institution with my bachelor’s degree in English. At barely 21 years old, I was NOT a portrait of patience, responsibility, or professionalism. However, like most new college graduates, I managed to wriggle my way into the adult world of work without any total catastrophes. I worked in a variety of fields, ranging from the non-profit social services sector to the specialized industry of Autodesk software sales. I worked for all kinds of bosses, including one of the most supportive and encouraging individuals I know to one of the most territorial and manipulative people I know. I’ve worked in jobs which required a heavy reliance on my English background (technical writing and teaching English) as well as jobs which required me to step entirely out of my comfort zone to learn a whole new repertoire of skills (non-profit fundraising).

Through it all, I learned countless lessons about myself, others, and the world of work. I also discovered a true love for higher education and student services. One of my favorite positions was as Director of Career Development at my alma mater. I loved helping students, connecting them to employers, and finding ways to convince them that they needed help preparing for life after college. It was probably in this position when I determined that higher education would always be part of my life and probably always part of my career in some way.

I didn’t know then where I’d wind up now—back in school myself. I’m working at a community college which is no surprise to me or anyone who knows me, but the return to student status came about somewhat haphazardly, at least from my limited perspective on the grand scheme of things. I’ve always loved learning and have wanted to pursue a graduate degree for years, but I’m also a pretty practical person. Each time I’d look into a graduate program, I’d eventually come back to the question, “Does this make sense financially? Will I earn enough to compensate for the cost of going to school?” And each time, the answer was “probably not.” The fact is that in some fields, having a master’s degree doesn’t mean much more than having a bachelor’s degree. Some of the most successful people I know, many of whom own their own businesses, have no degree at all. If finances were going to be the determining factor in my pursuit of a master’s degree, it didn’t seem likely that I’d ever pursue one.

This fall, after returning to higher education, I mentioned in passing to James that I’d love to go back to school someday. He said, “Why don’t you just do it?” So, after doing some research and praying daily for God to open the right doors and close the wrong ones, I walked through the open door in front of me.

Coming back to school after an 11-year hiatus has been amusing, interesting, and sometimes frustrating. I’ve learned some valuable lessons so far. Here are a few:

1)      Having a 4.0 matters much less to me now than it did then. I still care about my grades, and currently I’m on an all-A streak, but I’m not concerned with continuing that streak for the next year and a half. I want to do my best, but I also want to have a life. I work part-time, and I am in love with the most wonderful man in the world. Life is short. I want to spend time on things that matter, and when multiple things matter, I can’t devote all my time and energy to just one thing. If I wind up with a 3.0, that’s fine. If I wind up with a 4.0, that’s fine, too.

2)      All the things I learned in undergraduate school have paid for themselves now. I used to detest learning about “cultural literacy” in one of my favorite professor’s courses. I’m pretty sure this frustrated him. I didn’t see why it mattered. I do now. I also understand how much that little workbook of woe in Advanced Composition has benefited me. Since undergraduate school, I haven’t had the opportunity to compare my writing abilities and talents to those of other people. I do now, and I’m happy with where I’m at and grateful for how I got here.

3)      Never say never. After teaching English in a private high school setting for one year, I vowed to never teach again. A few years later, I taught summer courses to high school students. Now, as a graduate student in English, I’m toying with the option of teaching college someday. While I still cringe at the idea of ever having to teach high school again, and would seriously rather work at the Waffle House, the idea of teaching in a different setting with adult students appeals to me now. Go figure.

4)      My procrastinating days are over. When I was in undergraduate school, if I had a paper due at 8 a.m., I’d wait until 9 or 10 p.m. the night before to work up a topic. I’d hammer it out on my word processor—yes, word processor—and print it, slide it under the door of my professor at 3 a.m., and crash. A few times this bit me in the behind. My disk malfunctioned, or the building was locked, or something went wrong, and I hadn’t left myself time or room for error. Fortunately, over the years, I’ve developed quite a bit of self-discipline and now prefer to complete my tasks early rather than barely on time. There’s something to be said for the feeling of accomplishment I get when I hit “submit” two days before an assignment is due.

While I still have days when I don’t feel like studying, or assignments I just don’t enjoy, I’ve learned to truly appreciate the opportunity to learn and to immerse myself in the moment. I’ve managed to let go of my need to be perfect, and that’s enabled me to enjoy the process. And most importantly, I’ve struck a harmonious chord of balance between doing my best and leaving well enough alone.

And those lessons will live on even after I eagerly accept my diploma next summer.