Nov 24 2008

DC v. South Bend: does location really matter?

by at 2:39 pm under Sherry and Mark

There were a few points during my presentation at the University of Notre Dame’s “Contributions” career event last Tuesday when I wondered if I’m really a lot older than I like to think. Case in point: I wove into my presentation, when talking about the importance of trying to uncover your cause when you search for a job, this clip from the influential and timeless cinematic classic, Office Space:

I showed this not only because it is actually relevant to a point I was trying to make (in Working World, Sherry and I talk about two different ways to go about finding your cause: the “Magic Wand Wand Test” and the “Million Dollar Question”), but also because I think it’s pretty damn funny. Now, I know Office Space is (it’s hard to believe) more than ten years old, but I also thought it was one of those cult classics that regardless of age is something that every college student has seen and would appreciate. Thus, I expected laughter, or at the very least some amused and appreciative chuckles, at my inclusion of this video.

Instead the reaction I got was: blink, blink. I admonished the crowd: “Come on, you guys have got to know this movie. I’m only 28. I’m not that old.” But I later realized it wasn’t just my (sometimes lame) attempts at humor and levity that got little reaction. The audience spent most of the presentation in what looked like a state of semi-stunned silence. It’s not that they weren’t listening or engaged, I don’t think– they were just listening and engaged in a way that I wasn’t quite accustomed to after having done a number of similar presentations to students and interns around DC.

At first, though, I thought the presentation hadn’t gone over very well. That wasn’t the case, Anita Rees in ND’s Career Center assured me: “We saw fewer [students] leave at the dessert break than in past years,” she told me. (When you’re just as popular as the snacks, that’s a solid indicator of success.) The 29-year old director of ND’s brand new Center for the Study of Languages and Cultures, Lance Askildson, also told me he thought the presentation had been well-received; he thought that what I perceived as disengagement from the students was actually them just trying to take it all in and process it in their heads. They’ve got so much on their minds already, he said, and so much of what you’re saying is new to them, they’re trying to make space for it and figure out how to apply it to themselves.

Which got me to wondering: if much of what I was saying—including the examples of international job search engines and websites and international organizations that I made sure to include—was new to this audience in South Bend, IN, how much of it is new to an audience in Washington, DC? Do audiences of students and interns in DC seem more engaged to me than the audience at ND simply because they have more access to what is going by virtue of their location? Because they are closer to the action? Even in the age of the internet, does proximity matter when it comes to your international job search and career pondering?

On the one hand, I tend to think it does. For example, the questions asked at ND sharply differed from those asked at events around DC. The ND students were most concerned with issues like “How much does my major matter when it comes to getting a job in international affairs?” and “How much does my GPA matter when applying for jobs?” In contrast, the questions at DC-based events have tended to be much more macro: “What kinds of additional skills do you suggest I develop to make myself more attractive to [insert specific subset of field of specific organization]?” or “What kinds of skills will be most important in the fields in the future?” or “What is the mark of a good mentoring relationship?” I wondered if the difference in the timbre of questions and the feel of the event overall came not from a difference in passion or skill (because the ND students I encountered are an incredibly passionate and skilled bunch), but from a difference in location.

Living in DC, it is that much easier to become involved and embedded in the culture of international affairs, much more so than in small, out of the way locations like South Bend. It is much easier to figure out what organizations are out there because, in general, they are right here. You are then able to, because everything is happening right around you, have an informational interview with the leader of an organization, volunteer at a conference, do an internship, attend a lecture or other event. As the groupies say in Almost Famous, “it’s all happening,” and it’s all happening right there. It seems to me that this level of engagement due to proximity can be a great help to a young person seeking to channel an interest or passion into a job/career. When you are easily able to see the various concrete and specific avenues by which you could turn your passion for international issues into a job by virtue of being in a place that has countless international organizations, not to mention Capitol Hill and the government, you are relieved of a certain burden. Surely you still have the burden of pursuing those organization and jobs, but you are at least relieved of a burden that I remember having my senior at Notre Dame: the burden of having absolutely no idea how your interest in things international might translate into any kind of post-college plan.

And I think that burden is much more acute in a place as “far away” as South Bend. Because when you are not surrounded on a day-to-day basis with possibilities for your future career in international affairs in the same way students at Georgetown and American, etc., are, then it becomes that much more difficult not just to get a job in international affairs, but to even envision one. And maybe that in the end was what I experienced out of the students at Notre Dame—not any sort of disengagement, as I had perhaps thought at first, but almost a sort of hyperengagement in which they were trying not just to hear what I was saying, but also to envision in their heads some sort of post-graduate reality which could somehow satisfy both their craving to follow their international passions and their parents’ craving to have that $160K investment pay off.

In the end, though, while location does play some sort of role in the way I’ve just described, perhaps it doesn’t come to mean as much as I’ve been implying. Because even if you live in DC and are surrounded by the international world, it is still on you to make the moves and put yourself in the right position to take advantage of all that surrounds you. And even if you live in South Bend, IN, you still have the ability to envision an international career for yourself via web searches, online networking (LinkedIn, Facebook, or good old fashioned email), informational interviews via phone, talking with alumni or others who are in the jobs and fields that interest you.

So no matter where you live, and what advantages/disadvantages might come with that location, it seems there are still two things (at minimum) that you’ve got to no matter what: search far and wide to see what is out there, to see what channels there are for you to funnel your international passions; and talk to the people in those fields and find out what they do and how they might help you to get there too.

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