As most of readers of this blog are already aware, Jonathan Kozol recently came to UM-Flint to discuss the destructive stratification he sees in the United States education system and its stifling effect on students’ potential. A standing-room only speaking event, Kozol’s message clearly struck a chord with many in the Flint community.
The “system” that Kozol describes is certainly unfair. People from different socioeconomic classes do receive different opportunities. This is something that I have experienced myself. As a student from the Flint area, I have had to work twice as hard to receive a quality education and develop a career. The inequities within our educational system certainly must be addressed. In the meantime, we must make do with the opportunities that we have been given. I have chosen to share some things that I have learned in the hopes of helping someone else. Not all of the following recommendations are applicable to each individual, so please modify them to fit your own situation.
- Invest in Yourself
Maximizing your natural attributes is critical to success. Find what you are passionate about and develop this interest. If people are telling you that you are crazy, then you are probably doing the right thing. Success requires innovation and being different is practically a prerequisite.
Value your time as a student and learn everything you can about your chosen field. Take your courses seriously and build relationships with your professors. Always try to be the best at whatever you choose to do and never do the bare minimum. A good work ethic is respectable in itself and people will recognize you for it.
- Be Financially Independent
Avoid student loans whenever possible, even if that means working throughout college and/or finishing later. Excessive debt reduces your ability to take risks that could pay off in the long-term. There are far too many people who have felt like they had to choose between realizing their dreams and making their student loan payments. Don’t spend your career as another unfulfilled, indentured servant to the banks and the government. Being debt free (or close to it) gives you the freedom and flexibility to chart your own course.
- Network, Don’t Schmooze
Don’t chat someone up just because you know they have ‘connections.’ They will immediately dismiss you as a sycophant. Reach out to people you personally admire and like. Make it clear who you are and what you want to accomplish. Remember that networking is a mutual exchange; always have something to offer the other person.
Do not pretend to be something that you are not. People respect honesty and the humility to express your own limitations.
Most importantly, find people and organizations who appreciate you for who you are. Do not sacrifice your identity just to fit in. You are valuable because you are unique.
- Extracurriculars are Just as Important as your Degree
I realize that not everyone has the time or resources to devote themselves to many volunteer opportunities. However, the skills that you can develop as an event organizer, blogger, or advocate are all useful to potential employers. Find something that you find personally fulfilling and invest your time in that. Be selective. If you try to be involved in everything you could appear indecisive and you will likely stretch yourself too thin. People value leadership, dedication, and results- not simply participation.
- Think Outside the Box
There are no longer any ‘safe’ paths to success. Do not choose a degree program just because an advisor told you “this is where the money is.” How do you expect to stand out from the pack by listening to the same advice and choosing the same generic degree program as everyone else? That much-dismissed liberal arts program, for example, might give you the skills necessary to be successful in a variety of careers.
Look outside the usual avenues for internships, volunteer programs, and networking. Sometimes the best opportunities are hidden where no one else is looking. Do a little independent research, make a few phone calls, and write some emails. Just the act of contacting people directly shows initiative and makes a good impression.
Long term success requires tenacity, creativity, and relationship-building. While coming from an economically depressed area can be an uphill battle, people will respect that you persevered despite these difficulties. Work hard, make a good impression, and don’t give up.