Sunday, October 30, 2011

How four students turned chance encounters into incredible opportunities (and how you can too)

Picture this: you’re a college student working at an athletic shoe store arriving for a normal shift at work. You’re ringing up purchases, straightening sneakers, and then you offer to help another normal customer. You start up casual conversation as usual, but instead of the conversation turning to whether the customer wants black or brown shoes you find out he has a career very similar to one to which you aspire (e.g. orthopedic surgeon). What do you do?

You can brush by the detail and continue talking about shoes. 

OR. You can tell him you really want to be a radiologist and ask his advice if you are in the right major for what you want to do.

If you do the latter, you will get great advice, build a relationship, and get invited to observe an orthopedic surgery.

How do I know?

Because this week a student - Milva - came bounding into my office saying “Isa – guess what?! I’m going to get to observe a surgery!"
 Now even though I’m squeamish and would never personally want to observe a surgery I leaped for joy because I knew how important this opportunity was for someone interested in the medical field.

And even more than that I was so proud of Milva for taking the chance, making the leap, and having the courage to boldly proclaim her future goals and ask someone for advice.

Because having the skill to ask adults in professions to which you aspire for advice almost always leads to incredible opportunities. Think back to some of your greatest opportunities to date - how many of them evolved from similar “chance” happenings and connections?

But of course – they aren’t simply left up to chance. There are a million ways Milva could have handled the situation. Not to mention if she had no idea what she wanted to do or had at least not made the effort to research a variety of prospective majors she wouldn’t have been able to proclaim to the surgeon that she had similar interests.

And more than just getting to observe a surgery, she now has a possible surgeon mentor and connection. This is huge. Because this is how internships, opportunities, and jobs happen.

And the earlier you can start the better.

Connections and opportunities like these also give you the chance to learn more about your prospective career and decide whether or not it is right for you. If it is, then you have incredible mentors and connections that will guide you towards resources and opportunities that you don’t even know exist right now. 

And if it isn’t, then you get to find out before you’re stuck in a job that wasn’t what you thought it would be.

Are you taking advantage of every opportunity you have to ask others for advice and get to know people in professions that interest you? It will literally change your life.

How do I know? Because it changed mine and I am seeing daily how it is changing the courses and the lives of the students around me.

Edwin (who aspires to be an engineer at Lockheed Martin) was honored at a Hispanic scholarship gala where he met a guy from Lockheed Martin who offered him an internship on the spot.
Jessica wants to be an event planner at Disney and after getting an hourly job at the park doing quick service food she expressed her future aspirations to her manager who arranged for her to job shadow an event planner inside the Cinderella Castle.
Erica wants to be a lawyer and possibly a judge and after volunteering to help with check-in at a big college dinner she checked in a judge. After striking up a conversation she was given the judge’s contact information and e-mailed her a few days later inviting her to lunch in order to ask her advice. Erica now has a mentor who is a judge.
 For some students these stories may not seem like a big deal. Some students know plenty of judges and engineers and surgeons. But if you’re a student like me  a first generation student, a minority student, and/or come from a low-income family – you don’t know people in a lot of professions. You don’t know a lot about these types of jobs. And you don’t have the connections you often need to get ahead.

These students now have these connections and have engaged in incredible experiences that have energized them further towards their goals and have ingratiated them to these professionals. Because as a professional there is nothing more gratifying then having a student truly care about what you do, want to hear your advice, and then actually take it.

So what do you need to do to make these connections? The answers are in the stories, but let me break it down for you as well:

1. Choose a major that you truly find interesting
What all the students above have in common is that they are truly excited about their majors. They have done research, they have asked many people for advice, and they have figured out their personalities and learned what professions really suit their strengths and interests. They are genuinely excited about their futures and their future fields and thus when they meet a professional in that field they can easily hold a conversation because they instantly have something in common with that person – they are both interested in the same thing. 

If you’re truly interested in your major it will be much easier to strike up conversations with strangers who also share that interest. And they will respect you much more than if you’re like “ya I’m majoring in this because, ya it seems like it’ll make money….so…..ya….”

2. Ask people for advice
When in doubt just ask people you meet who have a job or a major you find interesting what advice they might have for you. You will always learn something – and it’s an easy way to break the ice and genuinely connect.

3. Put yourself out there and have courage
All of these students didn’t just sit around waiting for these opportunities to knock on their door. They volunteered for random events, they were involved in student activities, they were student leaders on campus, they were fully present and engaged in their side-jobs, and they all took chances in order to meet the people that they did. Above all, they had courage to speak up and ask for help. And that my friends, sums up my book and everything else I’ll ever tell you – constantly ask for help.

Despite this crazy and often cruel world we live in you’ll be amazed at how many people will bend over backwards to help you if only you genuinely ask. 

Whether you would love to observe a surgery, run a special event in the Cinderella Castle, or anything else in between – most of those opportunities will come from connecting with other people and learning their advice.

You may think today is just another day – but if you’re living your life with some semblance of passionate pursuit you never know who you might meet or where your life might lead. You have to be ready. You have to have courage. And you have to ask. 

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