Jumpstart your career with post-graduate service: reflections on trajectory to success

By Laura Castro
CVN Recruitment Associate
Former Cap Corps Midwest Volunteer in Peru

I graduate on May 20, 2012. I have done everything I am supposed to do to secure a well-paying job and continue my climb up the corporate ladder busting through that glass ceiling. I spent my summers interning for a Fortune 500 company and saved the money I earned for the school year; I maintained an exceptional GPA and would receive various scholarships for my commitment to academic excellence, student involvement and community service; I built relationships with key professors who would advise my self-directed study and write letter of recommendations; I studied abroad to immerse myself in another culture and learn Spanish; I had great mentors who would help me strategize professional moves; I even choose a work study that would align with my career goals.

It’s February and I just nailed an interview with my company for a full-time position at headquarters. All my hard work is paying off and I am talking full benefits with a relocation package. I have used the past four years wisely. I am ready to graduate.
This was my story two years ago. I did not have room for error or flexibility and I felt entitled to be recognized. Looking back now I can understand why I felt betrayed when it all fell through and I thought that all I had sacrificed meant nothing. I was the product of a consumer-centric system that promotes merit, initiative and planning as the ONLY means to success. A concept we seem to equate with money and power. This narrow ideology I adopted had me in a constant state of planning and strategizing. Popular culture tokens this as the “rat race” and I wanted to win! Sure I had beliefs and hopes to change the world, but I would hold that journey off until I was at the top. Then I could make the changes I wanted to see in this privileged country.
The idea of not having a job secured after graduation scared me. My sister, a former long-term volunteer, encouraged me to consider service abroad.  I liked the idea but didn’t want to let go of my corporate track until one day I had an epiphany, which unfortunately occurred in the middle of a job interview with a PR firm. I prepared as I always prepared for interviews: I researched the company, looked up LinkedIn profiles of current employees, identified common ground, dry cleaned my suit, knew my resume, contacted references, etc. I was ready to spin whatever question he asked. Then the question came, “Why do you want to work here?” It’s a pretty standard interview question, one that I had prepped for, but for some reason, it resonated differently in that moment. The answer I was about to deliver suddenly felt too cliché and hollow, and not authentic. I was blown away by this epiphany that occurred over an awkward silence, and then I finally said “I don’t know.” 
I couldn’t take back what I just said, and I broke down in frustration. I felt that I had worked so hard. My passion has always been community service but I felt like couldn’t go down that path without first getting a “real job.” It was a hot mess. I am so grateful for the interviewer who was patient and kind in response, “it seems like you are going through something and that you really know what you want, but you are afraid to go for it. Just do it!”
Beyond all I did to secure my future after graduating, I still didn’t do enough. I know now that it isn’t about doing enough or being enough because it’s never enough. I eventually found my way to Cap Corps Midwest, a full-time volunteer program that offered me the opportunity to serve in Lima, Peru. I began as a tutor and mentor for at risk boys at Ciudad de Los Niños, a non-profit I was able to support with volunteer coordination and document translations. Going into my service year I had an open mind that gave me the flexibility to make the most out of my commitment. The 18 months I spent there came with challenges that showed me strength I didn’t realize I had. Amidst the sorrow I witnessed, I also experienced the beauty of community-based cultures where the health of the whole group supersedes the individual. This experience changed me profoundly, and helped my better understand the career path I wanted to take. 
My advice for any college student thinking about their career is to take the road less traveled to stand out. You need to know how to market yourself, present your best strengths and one of the best ways to do that is through a service year. Instead of investing thousands of dollars in a degree directly after college, consider gaining field experience as a paralegal with a legal clinic protecting families from deportation. Instead of taking an entry level position that will bottleneck you at a major corporation, diversify your skill-set as a business volunteer at a fair trade organization. Instead of pursuing a narrow path to idealized success, consider a radical lifestyle change that is simple but more sustainable. Lastly, know that it is never too late. 
With over 200 programs and thousands of placement options, RESPONSE 2015 is the most comprehensive guide for faith-based service opportunities. Catholic Volunteer Network provides the directory online or hardcopy order.
Further Reading:
1.       Invitation to a Dialogue: Working for Nonprofits, New York Times Opinions
3.       Volunteering=Career Development, Idealist.com
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