Friday, April 20, 2012

So, When Do You Graduate?

Under 30 with a Serious Career

Simple disclaimer: This post is not meant to offend anyone in any way, nor is it meant to brag, it's just based on my thoughts and experiences. 

The title question is one I've heard often at work, but most recently last weekend at UNE's version of accepted students' day, and it is what has motivated this post. Three separate families assumed that I must be a graduate student (one actually thought I was an undergraduate work study student). I was able to laugh it off and say "thank you, but I am actually an Assistant Director and I am not a student here." Someday I am sure it will be flattering to be mistaken for a student, but right now it's actually somewhat annoying and frustrating. More on that later.

This isn't how I normally dress at work. Halloween 2011

For those of you who don't know, I started my career in financial aid as a work study student at UMF (so, if people ask that, they kind of aren't wrong??) and have pretty much been doing just that ever since. At the work study job fair, they were the funniest bunch, and I thought it would be something cool to learn about for my own benefit, so I applied. Not only did I quickly obtain a wealth of useful knowledge that I think every student should have about financial aid, I also learned a lot of skills that are pertinent to any job. I knew by the time I graduated, I'd be well set up with some practical real-world working skills. It was the kind of work study job where there was little time for homework; I was helping out the staff with projects, filing, and later as my skills grew, answering phones and helping students. Upon graduation, grad school at the time seemed scary and I wanted some time to work, so when a financial aid position at USM opened up, I applied. I got the job. I spent only two months a jobless college graduate. I am counting my blessings these days.

Still, if you had asked me then if I thought I'd end up with financial aid as my career, I would have said no way. Let's get real a minute; there's lots of math involved, and I was leaving UMF with an English degree. But, grad school was not an option at the time (I was so burnt out) that I had to jump on a job and it turns out that was financial aid. Thank God for a system that does the math for me, and a working calculator! I like to think I am good at this job, but there are challenges for sure. Aside from federal regulations that seem to change more frequently than we can keep up with, and the occasionally angry student, the biggest challenge is my age. Which brings me to the meat and potatoes of this post. What it's like to be under 30 and on a career path.

Counting my work study years, I've been working in financial aid for 7 years in some capacity. I'll turn 26 in June, and I am trying to figure out at what age I'll be taken seriously. Getting mistaken for a student is frustrating for this reason; it makes me feel like they do not think I know what I am doing, or that I am not reliable. I'm actually really thankful that my students I work with at UNE are almost 100% online, because they only interact with me on the phone and via e-mail; they can't see me and therefore are less likely to tell how "young" I am. It's just just the students and parents though, I feel like colleagues also fail to take me seriously, and this is perhaps the most frustrating. Sometimes in conversation, there's this condescending air about them; they feel like they need to talk down to be me because of my age.

I feel like this is still how everyone sees me (high school graduation 2004)

Now, I'm not saying I know it all already, and I know that 7 years in this business is small potatoes compared to a lot of people. But it's very hard to get respect sometimes, and that's frustrating. I'm very lucky to be where I am, and to know that I can grow and move up. I just know that I have to work a little harder at it than some people. I need to give respect to get it, and I need to be mature and educated in my field. I'm working on those things.

Here are some of the things I do as a young working woman that seem to work in my favor for both getting and keeping my career:

-Dress for success! While the dress code may be business casual, I try to go more professional in most cases. It ages me up a bit and looks polished and serious. I always try to look approachable without being over dressed or stuffy. All I know is, I certainly don't wear my casual weekend clothes or something I'd wear out on the weekend. 

-Write like you mean it!  What I mean by this is, write and speak professionally. Internet short hand has no place in the work world (or anywhere for that matter, really). If you're writing an e-mail to a prospective employer, you should be articulate and professional. Know the difference between you're, your, and there, their and they're. These basic mistakes make anyone look bad, but most especially young people.

-Ask for help when you need it!  Like I said above; I don't pretend to know everything. I know when  need to ask for clarification or help completing something. Asking for help looks better than guessing and then making a mistake. 

-Educate yourself! I try to keep up with what's going on in my field, to be reading regulations and asking the right questions. I follow work/industry-related Twitter and Facebook pages, read articles, etc. If you can contribute to meetings, discussions, etc. you'll look and be in the know!

-Be responsible! My days of weeknights out are pretty much over (trust me, I am okay with that). I try to remember to keep myself healthy, be well rested, and focused. Showing up to work on a Friday, groggy with Thusday's debauchery may be okay for showing up to class, but I would never dream of doing so at work. These days, I'm too tired to go out period, let alone during the week. I'm not saying don't enjoy happy hour, just remember what happens at 8am the next day!

I know that someday, probably when I'm 30 and over, I'll be so flattered when people look at my youthfulness and assume I am a student. But for now, it's mildly frustrating. I want to work hard, continue to grow in my career, and then sit back and enjoy being knowledgable and educated in my field, and being mistaken for a student.