Learning Lessons Post-Graduation

My major in college was Communications, with a focus in Public Relations. In the first two years, a lot of what I learned within my field was what some might refer to as “the basics.” Most of the information included swivelvocab words I aced on a test but would forget two weeks after the final exam. Don’t get me wrong, these classes were important in that they were an overview of the subject to which I was about to devote 4 years of school, not to mention the rest of my foreseeable career.

Later on, classes became more “practical.” Lessons referred to actual case studies. Our minds were tested on more than just words, but rather the application of techniques. In my senior year I took an extremely beneficial class that included all hands-on PR work. We even ran our own campaign for the local branch of the East Coast Greenway (and so I continue my “mandatory boasting”).

Obviously all my classes were important (in their own special way…), but I always found that the teachers who best knew how to teach Public Relations had actually worked in Public Relations. There is a difference between studying and doing, and when a favorite professor of mine failed to get a promotion simply because she didn’t have a Masters degree, I felt outraged! There was no doubt that her 20+ years of experience had proven more helpful to her students then any textbook teacher.

Well, I seem to be going off on a tangent from my original point of post.

I’ve been in the “real world” for about 2 years now, which means I’m just new enough to remember school, and just old enough to realize that there were some key points that our Communications lessons failed to mention. And so I have compiled a nice little list of things I wish I had learned in school, though perhaps some of these are merely lessons we each have to learn from actual experiences.

1. More Microsoft Suite, please.

I will admit that I’m grateful for having been trained to work on both Mac (my preference) and PC while in school, but despite what I had considered a thorough training in each field, I find that there was much still to learn. In particular– Microsoft Office. Let’s face it, unless you’re working for some fancy-pants (exaggeration) company, you’re probably dealing with Office ’98 on a PC from an equally distant past. Now here’s the thing– I thought I knew Excel pretty well. Nope. Barely scratched the surface. And don’t get me started on Publisher, a program I have since learned to worship as a god of efficiency. Oh, and Mail Merge. Mail Merging documents is a glorious time saver and I shudder to think of my life without it (I recently had to print out 800+ personalized letters…imagine typing each name and address…one at a time…I feel sick…).

2. Customer Service a.k.a. basic manners and tact

I don’t care what job you have, 95% of us will have to deal with customers/clients. Honestly, the majority of ‘customer service’ is basic etiquette. Watch what you say and the tone you say it in. Also, it extremely important that you learn to read people– position your statement or argument by what they value or feel. Simple social interaction is very important, especially in situations when you find yourself addressing someone who keeps you employed and helps pay your salary. The customer may not always be right, but you sure as hell should pretend they are.

The other half of social interaction, especially in the not-for-profit field, is the schmoozing. You may be making a measly salary, but you’ll often find yourself around the kind of people who spend the equivalent of your monthly income on one night of drinks. Here is where you must become a human chameleon; once again– read the audience. Fit in, but don’t put on airs. Be yourself, but maybe not the same self you present when hanging out with friends. Oh, and it’s probably a safe bet to say you should steer away from commenting on your own pile of student loans…they may be rich but they’re actually not looking to adopt a 25-year-old drowning in debt (drats!).

3. Writing. Editing. Simple, right? Wrong.

Years of writing classes, essays, and research papers– All for what? Well, I promise you one thing, practice makes perfect with writing and all that ‘practice’ will sure as hell come in handy in the career world. You will find yourself writing, no matter what your job:  composing an email to your boss, a proposal for a new program, a post for the website. You will write, and you will be judged. Perhaps one of the most disheartening moments of my (albeit brief) career thus far was finding out that one of my bosses, whose tactics and work ethic I admire, was an incredibly terrible writer. My respect for her didn’t decrease, though I will admit a slight wavering. Anyway, one of my personal favorite things to do for work is write. Because of that, I’ve been given more and more responsibility in different spheres of the organization. People take notice when you can write well. It will get you places and it will get you things– possibly just more work for the same salary, but you can’t beat the respect that goes along with it. So take advantage of all the writing you will do in school– not necessarily that paper about John Milton’s Paradise Lost; teacher’s should stress the different forms of writing, and how to make your point clear and concise (I always fail at the concise part).

4. Office Environment 101

Perhaps this is where the mandatory internships and learning from experience come in, but I don’t think I got a full dose of the Office Environment until my current job. So what is the “Office Environment”? Basically it’s another version of entering a new school: Where do you eat lunch? Who can you complain about work to? How should you dress? What sort of supplies do you need? Of course, the Office has a whole new set of learning blocks, for instance: How do I use a fax/copier/printer? Who handles my paycheck?  What’s the difference between vacation days and personal days? What are these mysterious “benefits” I suddenly have as a full time employee? How do I navigate the computer system? Most of these things are answered easily enough (hint: befriend the HR department), but its just the idea of playing by a whole new set of rules that can be difficult. So what should school have taught us about ‘Office Environment’? Basically that we just when we thought we were out of middle school, we get sucked back in. Minus the detentions, but plus the overtime without extra pay. Oh, and expect drama. Always with the drama.

5. How to work on a zero dollar budget

Okay, this is more of a personal one. Or perhaps other not-for-profit workers at small organizations can relate. I have literally been told to plan events on a $0 budget, to “use what we have,” and to somehow make money off of it. Pinterest is a saving grace, as is a vivid imagination. And then, of course, there is my own wallet which, when all else fails, sometimes comes into play. Thankfully, nowadays I’m usually given a small budget or reimbursed for my contributions, but never underestimate the importance of being able to work with barely a dime.

 

Remember, this list applies specifically to my own experience. I’m not attempting to rewrite any Senior Year curriculum, nor panic any soon-to-be-grads. In fact, I would be very interested in hearing what other people have encountered as educational blind spots– What is something that has proved so crucial in your career, that you didn’t learn in college but wish you had? Then again, maybe some of these things can only be learned from actual experience. What do you think?

Recommendation Letter Recruitment

Nowadays, most job applications are submitted online. In many cases, they allow for you to attach ‘any extra materials’ that you think might be of importance. I’ve translated this to mean: include recommendation letters or perish into nonexistence due to  conformity. Recommendation  letters, though more of a staple, are certainly a necessary step in helping applicants stand out in a crowd.

In preparation for the submission of my job applications, I’ve been in correspondence with a couple of professors in hopes of their writing me recommendation letters. The last time I went through this process was in high school, when I mustered up the nerve to ask my teachers for college recommendation letters. I ended up getting a pretty by-the-book, fill-in-the-blank, generic recommendation from one of my favorite teachers (talk about a disappointment), and what I can only imagine was a glowing recommendation from my (overly?) complimentary guidance counselor (I never got to see that one, which is a shame because I’m always good for an ego boost).

But that was then, and this is now– a whole new ballpark. I’m asking these individuals to assist me in finding my way in the real world. I’ve received pretty positive responses so far, at least from one professor, who, despite not being within my major, I did a lot of work with, including an independent study (within my minor). It’s been wonderful getting back in touch with her, but I almost feel guilty asking her to write this letter. It occurred to me: think of all the letters she must have to write? What a pain!

Well, my other professor has found a way around such tedious tasks, and has actually told me to write my own recommendation letter. She’ll read it, approve or disapprove, hopefully edit it a bit, and then sign it. Now, I’m not one of those people who is their own biggest fan (see above mentioned comment about ego boost), so writing that letter was probably more of a trial than it would have been for her to have composed it. When constructing your own endorsement, you feel that you owe it to yourself to be a bit modest. But, at the same time, not overly modest (it is, after all, suppose to recommend you for the job…hence the name). It’s also hard for a person to see their own strengths, and equally difficult to identify one’s own weaknesses. I haven’t heard back from the professor yet, but I hope she takes some liberty and revises my muddled thoughts. It is, after all, difficult task to write a perfectly balanced review of oneself.

I like to think of these recommendation letters as an addition to my own cover letter. They highlight my strengths, passions, and past projects in a way that a resume just cannot. But this time, instead of singing my own praises via cover letters, a much more impartial audience is asked to solo.

The Musings of a Recent Graduate

My blog absence of late may or may not have gone unnoticed, but either way I’ve decided to try to sum up the reasoning behind it. You see, my dear readers, I am now a member of a group of people known as “Recent Graduates,” and thus feel a bit discombobulated and unsure of things. Let’s see if I can explain…

I’m at this awkward standstill in my life right now. I’ve freshly graduated college and now find myself flooded with mixed messages on the appropriate next steps. On one side, there are those who suggest taking time off and relaxing for a bit before diving into a full-time career. To me, this sound like a euphemism for what they’re really thinking: “You graduated with no job lined up? Oh how sad.” On the other hand, there is the constant societal  (not to mention parental) pressure to find a job, start a career, and start work on the rest of my life.

And so I’m at an uncomfortable, and unique, point in my life where the trail seems to fork and I know I must choose one or the other, the detour or the straight path. Yet, I can’t help but dillydally on my current path of indecision. I look around me and I realize how truly rare of a situation I am in.

For the majority of my life, summers were a time of limited work and of much need relaxation in between a regularly scheduled school year. Now, summer has become just another time when I should be employed—but I’m not.

I just recently accepted to work full-time at my back-up summer job—you know the deal: the place I’ve worked at since high school; the place that has no bearing on my real career, but at least provides me with a constant stream of minimum wage paychecks. My immediate thought upon accepting to “work everyday” in response to my bosses oh-so-professional text message was my own very eloquent: “Shit, I’m screwing myself over, aren’t I?” What happens if I get stuck in this rut?

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been steadily applying to jobs, but with no success. It’s gotten to the point where I yearn for even a rejection letter. The application process is so impersonal, most of which is done online by submitting word documents that will some how accurately reflect who you are to a future employer.

With the economy and the influx of new graduates, I can only assume that companies are swarming with excess applicants—myself included. After all, how do you make yourself stand out from the crowd? A witty cover letter? A spectacular list of work experience? All of this requires the hirer to look beyond an initial scan of the hundreds/thousands of applicants.

People are constantly assuring me that “something will show up” and “good for you, take some time off.” Little do they know how uncomfortable I feel about the whole situation. I feel like a disappointment for graduating without a job—I was a great student who really excelled in classes and graduated top of my major. While I am happy to have some rest and relaxation (interspersed with the good old ‘summer job’), I feel so unsteady. I want to settle back into some sort of routine in which I know where I’ll be come fall.

Ideally, I would still be in classes, but school is expensive and I’ve got enough loans to pay for the time being. And so I just sit around, waiting for my real life to start, and in the meantime I’ll go through the motions I’ve gone through every other summer. In addition, I’ll diligently apply to more and more jobs where I will undoubtedly be overlooked for a more qualified and experienced candidate. So as my friends carry on with their regularly scheduled lives—jobs, training, school—I find myself in this uncomfortable slump wondering: just where do I belong?

ECG PR: Some Mandatory Boasting

Yesterday was the culmination of our semester long PR campaign for the East Coast Greenway (see previous post). We held an event called Mother’s Day on the Greenway, celebrating families everywhere and encouraging them to get out, spend some time together, and take a walk/ride on the ECG. I was happy with the event, mainly because people seemed to be thoroughly enjoying it. My group and I worked very hard to put everything together and couldn’t have done it without the help of the ECG Alliance.
To top it all off, we got some great media coverage. Not only did we get great support and coverage pre-event, thanks to email listings, community calendars, and local papers, but we also managed to make it onto the news.
WPRI Fox Providence news showed up and did a 45 second slot on our event. Group member Samantha Eckel did a great job handling an interview and we’re all very proud of how it turned out. So, for the sake of bragging, I’ve embedded the video into this post. I couldn’t be more proud of our group and the work we did for, and leading up to, this event. Rarely has a group worked so well together– meshing perfectly by each bringing our own specialties to the table.

For more information about the East Coast Greenway I urge you to check out their website.

Lessons Learned: Gotham Inc.

Remember this post? Where I gushed on and on about how neat it was that Denny’s was doing a web series for their social media campaign? I mentioned that DumbDumb, a group started by actors Jason Bateman and Will Arnett, was responsible for the videos. Apparently, however, I failed to dig further and discover the true group responsible for bringing this hilarity to the web.

Then, yesterday, I attended a guest lecturer at our school–an alumni who has made quite a name for himself in the marketing and advertising industry. His name was Peter McGuinness and his company is Gotham Inc., an integrated marketing company. The presentation was spectacular and thought-provoking, and while it’s hard to pinpoint a favorite part, I was especially interested when McGuinness started talking about Gotham’s own work. Lo and behold, they were the masterminds behind the Denny’s campaign.

McGuinness and his group were given the daunting task of completely revitalizing a great American brand that had lost its heat. Focusing on the idea of “openness,” the group enlisted social media, marketing and advertising. The success was evident and the media were enthralled.

For my part, I was bit starstruck when I found out they had been responsible for the “Always Open” videos that I love so much. It took all my willpower to resist shouting out: “I blogged about that!” I managed to resist making a fool out of myself, while taking away a few valuable lessons in the process. Here are some of those lessons:

  • Evolution and innovation are continuous
  • Social media is more than a fad. It is pervasive and powerful– and here to stay.
  • Brands have become democratized: The consumers are in control and companies must work to “earn” their time.
  • The foundation of a successful brand/consumer relationship is reciprocity.
  • When executing a campaign, truth is more important than ever.
  • It’s important to remain curious, personally and professionally. Broaden your perspective and horizon.
  • And finally, when applying to jobs “package yourself in a unique and compelling way.”

While I never got to ask the most burning question on my mind (Is your company’s name a reference to Batman?), the event was certainly valuable. In the end, it got me all the more excited to enter the career world!

A Professional Student’s Laments

Please forgive the lack of modesty here, but I’m a good student. Or rather, I’m good at being a student.

I breathe ‘A’s and eat compliments for breakfast, lunch and dinner. These things are simply important to me, and thus I’ve taught myself to be the best possible student I can. I’m not trying to say I’m smarter than all of my peers who get ‘B’s and ‘C’s, for I certainly know that is not the case. I am, however, saying that I’ve mastered the skill of studenting (let’s pretend that’s a verb for a bit).

Maybe it’s my PR mentality, but I’ve learned to position each assignment to the professor who has assigned it. I don’t mean this in a manipulative sense, since I never lie, cheat, or steal to get an ‘A.’ I simply observe. I realize that in one class, including a paragraph about politics in an essay would be beneficial, while if I had that same assignment with a different teacher, I might use an example tied in with family. You can learn much about teachers and their values by simply paying attention. I don’t bend my own beliefs when I position my work, I simply highlight what I know they would find most important and appealing.

More than that, I’ve perfected my own personal studying techniques. I know what works for me (writing, and rewriting, and rewriting my notes again), and I put effort into it.

I guess what I’m saying is, it took me long enough, but ever since I’ve entered college I’ve developed into what I can only refer to as a “Professional Student.”

And now it’s time for me to retire.

I graduate this upcoming May, and while I’ve been liberally applying to jobs, I’ve been unsuccessful as of yet. My fear, even if/when I  get a job, is that I simply won’t excel at it. I know how to be a good student. Years of training and practice and I’ve mastered the art. But now I’m being thrown into a whole other shark tank, where a  high GPA  could quite possibly be as meaningless as a bicycle to a fish (I hope everyone enjoys the aquatic theme of that last sentence).

I know many of my peers who, despite being nervous about getting out into the real world, are incredibly relieved to be done with their school careers. I, however, am hesitant. What if I can’t find success in a workplace? What if my best talents are those of being a student? I’m sure some of my skills will transfer, but I’m going to need to learn to play by a whole different set of rules.

While the concept of being  a Professional Student for the rest of my life has crossed my mind (think Buster from Arrested Development, minus the mother complex), I realize that I’ll be broke enough after graduating from my 4-years here to even think about any more schooling for a while. I may go back to graduate school, but I can’t go simply because I want to stay in school. I need to have a reason and a goal. I need to find a specific area of work that I enjoy and, hopefully, excel in. Then I can build on that.

So while I enjoy my last couple months of professional studenting (again, we’re pretending it’s a verb), I look with trepidation upon the future. Is it possible that I can someday drop the ‘student’ and learn to simply be a ‘professional’?