20something profile: Ellen
I believe I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve known, at least generally, what it was that I wanted to do in life by the time I was 15. It was then, in my sophomore year of high school that I learned about nonprofits and nonviolence in my Social Justice class. I knew; I wanted to help people.
I went on my merry way for the next handful of years, when I ended up graduating from University of California, San Diego in December of 2010. I was sent out into the world with a piece of paper that said “Bachelor’s of Arts, Political Theory” and minimal work experience as an administrative assistant. I still knew; I wanted to help people.
Finding a job was hard; I knew it was going to be hard, but I’m saying it was really, really hard. I resigned myself into an entry-level retail position where I worked alongside 16-year-olds. Within a few months, I worked my way up to a management position, and I thought that maybe I had made it. Was this what success was? It wasn’t the success I wanted; I still wanted to help people.
Many factors impacted my decision to look for another job, particularly the idea that I wasn’t following my passion. I knew about nonprofits, but I also knew how hard they were hit in the economic recession. Volunteering was possible, but a paying job? Not likely.
Once again, I took what I could get — data entry for a food pantry, working 10 hours each week. It wasn’t much, and I kept my retail management job, but it was something. I got an “in” with a nonprofit that was actually expanding, and I expanded with it as they started a Financial Literacy program. I was offered a full time position months later and was finally able to completely quit retail.
Next thing I knew, I was looking around my office, noticing that everyone had their Master’s degree, with a Master’s in Social Work being the norm. I craved those three letters — MSW — beside my name. However, it wasn’t long that I realized that wasn’t the path for me. But I still wanted to help people.
It’s been 15 months since I started that 10-hour/week job. Now, I’m a month from completing a Certificate program in Nonprofit Management and am two months into my MBA program at San Diego State University. My place of employment has expressed desire to keep me moving with the organization over the long-term, and I’m looking forward to getting to help my organization help even more people in the community.
There’s no doubt that finding a job in today’s economy is difficult. Growing up, I was under the impression that once I graduated college, I’d just settle into a job without a struggle; employers were supposed to be begging for college graduates. It’s not like that anymore, and everyone knows it. I was told a degree was enough, but work experience is more highly valued. It’s a catch-22. You can’t get experience without a job, but you can’t get a job without experience.
I think setbacks have become normal for millennials as they move back in with their parents and work part-time jobs alongside high school students. If you have an idea of what it is you want to do, figure out the steps you need to take to get there. Look for volunteer positions; ask to shadow someone with your dream job for a day, and don’t forget to keep networking — even if you’re unemployed.
I don’t make a lot of money; I only make enough to pay my bills, but that’s not what’s important. What is important, however, is being on the beginning steps of a career path. Even if they’re baby steps, you’re still on your way.
And I get to help people.