“Experience can be a more expensive way to learn. Learn from the experiences of others.”
Universities spend a great deal in telling young people that they can do whatever they want. That the sky is the limit. Break that glass ceiling. It is as if life after the university is about getting that dream job and finally being able to support a lifestyle that young people aspire for. Pretty understandable as universities have relatively higher degrees of freedom of thought — where people can think of the craziest ideas, challenge paradigms and imagine better. This complements the drive of many young people who, in their age, are hungry to carve an identity of their own and make their mark in the world.
I look back at my time in the university as a senior taking Bachelors-Masters (BA/MA) track where our exposure to professors who were leaders in their fields and being given the opportunity to interact in discussions and fora with eminent individuals in politics, diplomacy and business, have created some kind of a bubble in which I was living — thinking that I could be like them immediately as I moved out of the gates of the university. And I couldn’t be more wrong with that!
Here are some of the lessons that I have learned after I graduated.
(1) You will face many rejections
Coming out of the university, I was naively confident that having a graduate degree and training from a good university will land me in the job that I want. As a political economy graduate, my natural tendency was to look for jobs in the development sector such as the United Nations or the Asian Development Bank, which is a stone’s throw away from our campus in Ortigas, Metro Manila.
One of my first job applications were sent a few weeks before I graduated. I sent emails as a program researcher for a major television network, a staff for a global consultancy and accounting firm, and as an English editor and writer for an international organization. And the response? Well, I can’t remember them ever responding to my applications. I spent the next few weeks, sending out my curriculum vitae to embassies, non-government organizations, newspaper and other media organizations, multilateral institutions, and more, which I can scarcely remember now.
The first few rejections were bearable but I slowly became frustrated as time passed by. Many of my emails were unanswered or if they were, what I had was the classic phrase “we regret to inform you”.
There was one particular interview for an international NGO where I had to go through three or four interviews on separate dates. Worst, it was located in an area in Makati away from major thoroughfares so I had no option but to walk. This, on top of dealing with the unimaginable traffic in EDSA and the crowded MRT during rush hours. It did not end there. I would normally arrive more than half an hour before the schedule, usually in the morning. But for some reason the person who would interview me was not available so I had to come back in the afternoon. I had no choice but to wander around Makati and spent what little remained of my allowance from my parents. At the end of it all, I wasn’t accepted. Charge to experience!
Reflecting on that now. I realized how little job opportunities there were for people in the development field. With so many graduates contesting for so little jobs available, it makes finding a job fit to your academic training difficult. If there are any jobs available, they are usually entry level. Something which many fresh graduates especially those from top universities would not even want to apply. Thinking that they spent tons of money and effort to graduate only to end up in those positions.
Not that I agree with it at all. In fact, I have learned humility the hard way. Usually jobs with value both in terms of personal and professional growth are not often determined by the rank or salary level. While we need some bottom line as to the salary we can accept to make a decent living, to frame job hunting from a salary perspective alone misses many opportunities whose values are not immediate but substantial in the long run. These include the ability to learn skills such as qualitative/quantitative techniques for research and impact assessments, networks and connections, and of course virtues and habits that make you a good person in an organization.
(2) It is better to be rejected in a job application than be stuck in a job that you don’t want
One of the common mistakes that I and so many others have committed is to think that job hunting is about being accepted to whatever you applied for. But imagine being accepted and stuck in an organization where you are unhappy. It can be because you have a hard time loving what you have to do even after trying it so many times. Probably, because of office politics and organizational culture that do not match your personal values? Or maybe the location is just isn’t right as you have to spend hours in traffic to and from work? It can be a lot things. There were times early in my career when I would seem to drag myself to work and walking back home wandering aimlessly, thinking what I was doing with my life.
I learned it the hard way to not always aim at getting the job but consider value fit, opportunities to be mentored, among other things that would make you thrive in the organization. I do not regret that I experienced them but as one school mate a few years older, told me, “Experience can be a more expensive way to learn. Learn from the experiences of others.”
(3) Volunteer work provides benefits that are useful later on
While I was starting a career, I had my side hustle in the non-profit world. My time as a student leader never really took off because I became engaged in organizations later during my last year in the university. By some standards, I was a late bloomer. So when I had the opportunity to join an international youth-led volunteer organization, I took time, resources and effort in it. With the volunteer organization, I was surrounded by like-minded young people whose passion for development work was infectious. Being exposed to facilitative leadership, to be able to deliver talks, co-design frameworks, engage in community activities, do networking with small and big organizations, it was (sorry-for-the-word) addictive. I would like to believe that my intentions that time was genuine but it was also my much needed morale boost at a time when I was struggling early in my career.
One very memorable experience was an international conference that lasted for a week. Within the event were a series of not so “mini-events” that we had to coordinate with different organizations as our delegates came from different Southeast Asian countries. We executed the project in a month’s time or less. To coordinate with many volunteers which we just met recently meant that we immediately had a baptism of fire altogether to pull the event (P.S. this experience deserves a separate article). But we managed to pull it through — not without glitches — but we made it.
All throughout those two years, I would usually squeeze in time after work for meetings. Do the talks and events on weekends. I would give what little I earned to the cause and pay for my food and transportation when we would organize talks or deliver one somewhere in Manila or outside. But it was great fun. I actually consider it as one of the best years of my life. The network I have built from those two years are precious not just professionally but personally as well as many of them became very close to me. More importantly, it is in volunteer work that I learned to commit myself to something bigger than myself, to be more patient and accepting of diversity in an organization, to maintain grace under pressure, and be humble enough to be challenged and get corrected with my decisions and ideas.
I reap many of the benefits from that experience now that I am working in the academe and in my volunteer work with Rotary. Yes it was an unpaid job. We even gave money for it. But those years made my life richer both in terms of having gained genuine friends and learning important life lessons.
(4) The career that you’ll get to love may come when you least expect it
My original plan was to either enter public service joining one of the country’s major national government agencies (NGAs) or to work for multilateral organizations such as the UN and ADB. Metro Manila was my comfort zone because it was closer to my friends and a lot of organizations are based there which would make moving around a lot easier.
Yet in one of my job searches, I saw that the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) had a job opening for a faculty. So I gave it a try. The campus is two to three hours away from Manila. While I had friends from my volunteer work who were based in the area, I had never been to Elbi. Also, teaching of all professions was far off from my career plans. But I gave it a try because with volunteer work, I was surprised to find it a lot easier to facilitate a learning session than sitting all day in my desk writing reports.
Eventually, I got accepted. The first few months into the job was challenging as I adjusted to the culture in UPLB and the organizational structure. However, to my surprise, I didn’t feel tired as much. Contrary to it, I was actually looking forward for the work week to meet the students and learn with them.
The surprises didn’t end there. I moved to another College after a year and found that my interest in disaster risk management which developed during my internship and carried into my Master’s thesis would be career defining for me. Much of my work revolve around that and the subject makes me excited even until now.
And to be able to perform the quad function of a UP faculty means that I can teach a few hours a week (9 or rarely 12 hours + 10 hours for consultation), devote a significant time on research, extension in policy development and community development initiatives, as well as engage in resource generation. I am still learning until now but I am thrilled and excited despite the work that my job entails. I wouldn’t have gotten it if I refused to go into an interview simply because Elbi is in the province and a place where I am practically a stranger. Showing up in that interview was perhaps one of the best decisions I have ever made so far.
One of the biggest lesson I learned in the few years after graduation is that we may be lost with regards to what we want to do with life, but we need to grab opportunities and try them. Take calculated risks. Show up in an interview and make decisions afterwards rather than not coming at all. Sometimes the career that we will learn to love comes in ways we don’t expect and in the most peculiar of times.
(5) Be patient. Be kind. Be humble. Pursue excellence in the ordinary.
Skills are difficult to learn but character is much more difficult to mold. The early part of our career is the stage where our values and character are being shaped. Having the patience to look for jobs, learn new skills or show up at work even if we don’t feel like it are essential in our development as a person.
One of the hard won lessons that I have learned is to remain kind to others and to ourselves. How to be remain a good person by treating our family, colleagues and friends with kindness despite our own internal struggle to find out what we want in life is such a difficult thing to do — but not impossible.
I have often failed and yet I strive to unlearn the victim mentality. That I was wronged by others and the world, and I was faultless in all of it. To a large extent what happens to us are shaped by the systems and people around us, but we also exercise our freedom in every decision we make. It takes prudence to see how the things beyond us and the things within us interplay in our lives and make things happen the way they are. I am still learning this very hard until now.
To be able to learn takes humility. The rejections I faced somewhat forced me to be humble and made me realize that I was not entitled to get a position when I wanted it. That it takes hard work and dedication while not being blind to the presence of systemic barriers that prevent us from having an equal footing in life: from employment to career mobility.
Lastly, while my perspective in the past of what constitutes a good work is measured by its grandness, this has changed. It is not only the scale but also the quality of the ordinary, everyday, work we do. Not that I am flawless in every single work that I do, but there has been greater appreciation of the need to pursue excellence in the ordinary and in the everyday. If we do our work well, it leaves a mark on the people we work with who might help us later on. It also gives us a sense of fulfillment that we might not be able to change the world on our own, but we make the space that we occupy in our part of the world a little better, a little kinder and a little more just.