One of the most challenging (and most fulfilling) parts of my job is knowing when to inject a career advising session with motivation and inspiration and when to be a little more realistic. See, I work with highly motivated students in two highly competitive fields–STEM and music. These fields are not for the faint of heart–they require an enormous amount of discipline, persistence, intelligence and hard work.
Every semester, I meet with dozens of students who are coming to an thorough understanding of the (sometimes) harsh realities involved in pursuing these types of careers. It’s one thing to like math and science and be the best in your small high school–it’s quite another to realize that every student around you was also considered the best. When the passion is still there, but the skill just isn’t (or vice versa) what’s a student to do?
I often walk a fine line in these meetings–see, I too reap the benefits and suffer the consequences of the “You can do anything you put your mind to!” rhetoric of the late 80s and 90s. I don’t want to be the dream crusher who says, “You know, if you are working this hard and studying this much and still not making a C in your first semester of calculus or music theory, maybe you need to think about other careers.” Personally, I love the TV show Grey’s Anatomy. I love the idea of being a surgeon and saving lives. But I’m terrible at math, I can’t remember names of body parts in Anatomy, and I have barely functional motor/mechanical skills. I could spend ten years working like crazy and studying every hour of the day, but I simply don’t have the skills or natural talent required to be a physician.
So, how does one help a student to figure out what they’re capable of realistically while also challenging them to explore and find new dreams, skills, and passions? With my students, I work on identifying and discussing their strengths, discuss other classes, interests, etc. they enjoyed during high school, and talking about every possible major that they express an interest in. I never want a student to walk away from a meeting feeling as though they’ve lost something without also feeling like they’ve gained something else. I do not ascribe to the idea that I must be a “no person” to be realistic and honest with my students. Instead of using the tired notion that we can all do or be or accomplish anything (which has proven to be untrue time and time again) I utilize the theory that we all have strengths, interests, values and capabilities that can and will guide our careers–if we open ourselves up to this.