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What To Do When You Feel Left Behind, Professionally.

I am a university second-semester junior, which means exactly one thing: I am terrified of graduation day, in approximately one year. As eager as I am to embrace new experiences and dive into my passion and career path, I’m equally afraid that the real world™ will chew me up and spit me out; or worse, reject me entirely.

I have friends, and friends of friends, who are doing and have done amazing things in their college careers. They joined organizations, took on student leadership positions, and have been flown to countless conferences and events on behalf of our university. Friends who have impressive internships, and mentors to write stellar recommendation letters for them. Stories from study abroad trips to Paris, Greece, and Spain!

I, up until a couple of months ago, had almost nothing in comparison. My freshmen indecisiveness over choosing a major coupled with my generally introverted personality resulted in next to nothing in professional experiences. However, once I came to terms with this reality, I sat down and forced myself to understand what I wanted, and what steps I needed to take to get there. These are the tactics I used, in no specific order.

1. Reach out to clubs on campus

The University of Illinois at Chicago has over 300 registered clubs and organizations. I started by reaching out to and applying for a position on the executive board of a non-profit organization I got into during high school but had since almost forgotten. Not only did I get on the executive board, but the resources that the organization offered me in high school were still there, and newly available in my student leadership position. I found more organizations by simply scrolling through Instagram and searching for anything linked as UIC or following a UIC organization’s Instagram – this way, I found three organizations that I had an interest in pursuing and participating in. After a quick email to their presidents stating my interest, I found myself in general body meetings for organizations I’m truly interested in and passionate about where I can transition into leadership positions.

2. Reach out to businesses and organizations in your area

UIC has the benefit of being in one of the largest cities in the nation – Chicago. But even if you live in a smaller city or town, it is likely there are going to be organizations or businesses that interest you. Due to my interest in public advocacy work, I searched for anything in Chicago that was non-profit, advocacy-based, or developed to help a community. You can look into volunteering in a field you’re interested in, shadow, or have an informational interview with someone from said field. Just send in a email, stating your interest, attached with your resume to the contact person of the company, or the person you’d like an informational interview with. It’ll put your name on the table, and get your foot in the door to industries that you might have never been exposed to before. Almost every single person I’ve emailed has responded, and it has landed me interviews for internships, volunteer positions, and opportunities to shadow those in my field. You can also pay the student fee for memberships to professional organizations in the area, and join committees within those organizations.

3. Find a mentor

I know everyone says to ‘find a mentor,’ and it can feel like a daunting task to go up to someone and request their assistance. However, I found that you can do this in any way that makes you most comfortable, especially with anyone on campus. I reached out to a teaching assistant in a core class I was attending for my major, who had done work in Washington DC, my dream postgraduate city. After class, I had a meeting with her just to pick her brain and talk about her experiences. I found out she had completed a fellowship I was currently looking into. She gave me advice, and suggested weekly meetings to go over fellowship applications and opportunities online. She taught me some keywords to know and take note of. I left feeling very accomplished. You never know who can help you; it’s better to just ask then not at all.

4. Visit the Career Center, and Career-focused organizations on campus

Hardly anyone goes to the career center on campus, and it is not a good move. At my campus student job, my team was recently in charge of hiring students for a summer job on campus with us. So many applicants’ resumes were unfinished, extremely long, and very unorganized. While it was a student position, the resume itself was under little scrutiny; jobs in the real world™ will not be as forgiving. Even if you think your cover letter and resume are the epitome of perfection, ask Career Services for help anyway. They can also point you toward internships and open jobs you’d be a good fit for. Career-focused organizations on campus, like UIC Impact hold events where students can present work on any topic they choose to faculty, potentially win a prize, and then become an Impact Scholar which you can put on your resume as well. Their career building workshops never hurt either.  

5. Get a job on campus

I don’t have time to run around the city after my classes to get to work, and I’m assuming other students don’t, either. I got my first job on campus two years ago, and though I enjoy it, it is not a leadership position or boosting my resume in any way. I applied for and received a second job, where I was in charge of groups of incoming UIC freshmen as an orientation leader. This year, I applied and was given the role of Senior Student Orientation Leader/Director. This gives me the opportunity to directly work with UIC professional staff and deans, supervise 40+ student orientation leaders, and plan, execute, and run orientation programs all summer. It is an amazing experience in leadership. I was also flown to a conference to represent UIC at a Student Leadership Institute, expanding my network and strengthening my networking skills.

6. Check out opportunities on campus from email updates

Universities send out emails everyday to hundreds of students updating them about panels on campus, events, committees, research opportunities and more. By looking through these emails, I was told where to look for research opportunities on campus. By doing research, I received class credit and made a great connection with a professor. One email let students know that a committee on the advancement of women was seeking students to participate, so I emailed back and now attend the meetings and events for that committee. As one of few students on the committee with professional staff, my voice is heard. Panels and professional events are also great ways to network and gain knowledge in your field of interest.

College campuses are exploding with information, events, and resources to give their students the best chance in a competitive postgraduate world. After reaching out to people on my campus, getting my name in the door at various companies, and experiencing leadership opportunities, I am much more comfortable marketing myself. While I’m still terrified of failing, I am comfortable in knowing that the tools I’m collecting now will advance my career and future.

Savanna is a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago who loves to eat fries and discuss policy.
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