Dear Graduate,

This letter is not going to be about how to find a job. It’s not about the merits of working for a cause that you care for passionately. It is not a letter that will give you answers. In fact, I hope it will inspire questions, instead. Here’s a question: How do you care for your soul?


If this word, “soul”, sounds a little intangible and vague, think of it as pure love. Think of it as the part of you that is infinite, the part of you that gives from a place of abundance, that nurtures yourself and those around you without judgment or praise, that feels connection to your neighbors and the birds and the rivers and the stars.


In our academic lives, we learn to view ourselves as engineers, athletes, artists, scientists, writers, etc.  We think of ourselves in terms of our major, the grades we earned, the honors and awards we received or the activity that kept us awake until sunup. But we are so much more than these things.  Your graduation is not just a celebration of your accomplishment but a right of passage into your own life — free of externally imposed structure. Welcome to your life, it’s all you now!


Since I graduated from college in 2011, I have held five different jobs. (My sister, who graduated in 2014 and works freelance in theatre and live events production, has had nine). None of these jobs were perfect and at the same time, they were all perfect. I worked as a leader of wilderness and service trips for high school students, a researcher for an environmental and peace building institute in Israel (service year story here), a trip leader again, a farmers market vendor in New York City, a math and science tutor for middle school girls and a project manager on the construction of a drinking water treatment facility for NYC.


I am someone who strives to contribute positively, and each of these experiences provided me with countless opportunities to do that. From what I have seen, there are infinite opportunities to influence our environment around us, and they are not always the ways in which we think we are contributing. Sometimes the hug you give someone, or the way in which you listen to a story that a co-worker needs to share, can bring about more good than anything else we do in a day.  Any measuring stick we try to create in order to gauge our success is misguided.  We don’t have all the information.  Ultimately, the ripple effect of our participation goes beyond what we can see. Our words and actions trickle into the lives of those we touch like streams meandering through valleys eventually flowing into rivers and seas and oceans.  How big is your imagination?


What I have learned from the time I left the safe, familiar structure of school and waded out into the vast unknown is that my work experiences have constituted only one part of my life. They are not my whole life. Instead, they have provided context for my character, a setting for my story.  Your first job does not matter in the way you think it does. It is a time and place where you will learn about yourself and the world, where you will experience joy and satisfaction and frustration and disillusionment and inspiration. Your resume does not matter in the way you think it does. The things you write on this single page are not what you will remember, nor what others will remember about you. Your job description does not define you.


I want to tell you, beautiful creature of the universe: There is no one you need to impress. If you are looking for a job or about to start working: There is no amount of approval or recognition from parents and teachers and friends that will make you feel good if you do not feel good about yourself.  Approval, I have learned, seems positive, but it is still judgment. There is nobody who has the answers or knows what you should or shouldn’t do. In fact, there is no right answer.  I recently received this text from my mom: “There is no such thing as failure; only failure to take care of yourself well, gently, respectfully, truthfully.”


This is what being in my 20s has been about. Learning how to listen to and care for myself is the hardest job I know. In January, I left my home in New York to travel with my boyfriend. The journey was not what I wanted it to be, and on some level I knew this before I left. After four months on the road, I finally decided to honor and support myself.  I got on a plane and flew home.  On some level, I am heartbroken. And on another level, I know that I made a courageous decision and I am stronger for it.


Life (or my life, at least) is not a straight path. If it were, that would be boring, and in the end, the struggles we overcome serve to expand our capacity for compassion.  As you embark on this next great adventure of your life, I hope you approach it with a wide-angle lens.  Focus not just on finding a job that will lead to the career you desire but on creating a life that will help you to become the person you aspire to be.  Surround yourself with people who radiate uplifting energy. Do things that bring you joy: read good books, take care of your body, spend time outside, work with your hands, express yourself through art, dance, poetry and song, cook dinner for yourself and for people you love, say yes to new things, embrace your fears, question yourself lovingly, share hugs.


For us to love and serve other people, other communities, and the world, we have to first learn to love and serve ourselves.



Erica Spiritos

Class of 2011

Read More By Erica Here.

Dear April Ludgate-Dwyer…We have a job for you!

Have you watched Episode 8, Season 7 of NBC’s Parks and Recreation? Always featuring both the triumphs and defeats of public service, it highlighted April’s discovery of the “American Service Foundation*”, which as she explains to her mentor Ron: it “takes people who don’t know what they want to do and puts them to work doing cool stuff all over the world.” This, in different words, is EXACTLY what we do at Next Generation of Service.


A bit of background on April:

April is a classic Millennial…with an added strange, dry humor. She graduated from college with a “create your own major” (Halloween studies), a sign of wanting to do something different. At 19, she took an unpaid internship at her local Parks and Recreation office. Now in her late twenties, she is disenchanted with her government job and is trying to find her passion. To help in her journey, April’s proactive former boss, Leslie Knope, prepares a binder for April that included a 5-year career plan for working in government. However, like most millennials, April is not enthused with such a practical plan. Leslie then suggests that April check out the American Service Foundation.

american-service-foundationHow the Next Generation of Service is like the  “American Service Foundation”:

Leslie explains that the foundation “takes young people trying to explore a new path and matches them with one of the thousands of jobs across the country that help communities.” NGS guides young people to service opportunities through our database featuring hundreds of organizations, one-on-one guidance sessions and workshops.

Leslie even mentions some of the organizations we match young people with: Teach for America, Habitat for Humanity and organizations working with animals (April’s passion).

Millennials don’t want to settle on a job – they want a purpose-driven career. Like Ms. Knope, NGS would suggest Ms. Ludgate-Dwyer participate in a service year which would meet all of the characteristics of her dream job:


Be My Own Boss:

The majority of not-for-profits around the world are under-funded and under-staffed. This means that long-term stipend volunteers can be assigned leadership roles despite a relative lack of experience. Over the substantial service period, volunteers are provided opportunities to work autonomously and make significant contributions to the organization’s mission.


Passion and Interest in the Subject:

There are service year positions available at organizations that address almost any issue and cause. April is passionate about protecting animals…check out these two AmeriCorps members who work for the Humane Society in Diamond Springs, CA here.


Creative Problem Solving:

Worldwide, not-for-profits are providing creative solutions for some of the biggest problems of our time: poverty, disease, climate change; and most are doing it with very little money or resources.  There is creativity, passion and action EVERYWHERE, whether they be in a social media campaign revolving around pouring ice water on your head or in a charity concert.

If you relate to April at all and are still figuring it all out, we hope you will join our movement!


Sign up for a session

*From what Google tells me the “American Service Foundation” does not exist. If I am mistaken, please let us know.

Co-Writen by Anna Lenhart and Nicole Campbell

Breaking the Glass Ceiling with Service Years: Our Contribution to the Women’s Movement

Debora Spar’s book Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection takes an insightful look at the place of women in today’s world and workforce.  She talks about the age-old issue of women in leadership (or lack of women in leadership) in her passage (below).  I was struck by something so obvious that I hadn’t thought about before. Women are not opting out before reaching executive positions just because work is too stressful, not child-friendly enough or because current male leaders are sexist, but because at the end of the day, they don’t love their jobs.  They don’t love their jobs enough to endure the issues previously mentioned.  This makes me think: what if encouraging young women to integrate purpose into their work is actually an answer for breaking the glass ceiling?


“[W]hen the choice is between compromising a family, women seem more inclined to focus on the family, men to stick with the job that pays the bills. Perhaps this goes back to our vestigial roles as feeders of children and killers of meat. Perhaps it is the media, still hammering stereotypes into our brains. Perhaps it is the modern workplace’s stubborn refusal to create schedules or structures that are even vaguely conductive to the rhythms of family life. But when push comes to shove –and it can, and it will- women are the ones who more often walk away. Not necessarily because their husbands push them to or because their employers are unwilling to accept a modicum of flexibility. No, because the kids are wearily and the dinners are rushed and the job, after ten or twenty years of working, has ceased to deliver the thrill it once did. If a job is truly satisfying to a woman, or if she needs the income it provides, she will strive to stay in the workforce. But if she doesn’t need the income, and she doesn’t love the job, it becomes tougher and tougher for a working mother to undertake all the juggling that comes with her role.”


As I was reading this passage, I remembered this amazing woman I met at a conference a year ago. She was the executive director of an influential education foundation in Minneapolis, founder of a pro-bono law group and mother of two.  As we ate dinner, she shared with me all the work she had done, education she had completed and organizations she had started. I was in such awe, I blurted out the controversial question, “How do you do all that and have a family?”  I will NEVER forget her response.  To paraphrase, she said, “When my boys are sad to see me leave the house, I tell them about the work I am doing, the injustices I am righting and about the children less privileged than them who need me.  I want them to understand that I would not be leaving them if I did not believe in my work… and they do understand.  They are proud of me.”


I am not a mother so I can not speak from experience, but I can say two things: 1) I want my children to be proud of my work in the world, and 2) I want to see more women leaders in executive positions, myself included. This means young women need to spend their early twenties exploring how to have work with purpose and connecting to social causes where they can leverage their skills. Volunteering for a year at a nonprofit provides an opportunity for women (and men alike) to learn more about social issues affecting a population they care about and how their specific skill sets can be used to address these issues.  If more people participate in service years, who knows, it may lead to more diversity in the board room.  What do you think about this connection between purpose, service and the role of women leaders?


Dedicated to all the ladies applying to service year programs!


Written by Anna Lenhart

Edited by Kelly Scanlan

10 Tips for Living on a Stipend

When people hear the words “service year”, the first thing they think is often:


“Work for almost nothing- for a year”.

And this is a justified reaction when there are many costs to consider in just going about your daily life.


As an AmeriCorps VISTA member, I struggled with making the living stipend work for my costs of living expenses. I got through it, just as thousands of others members have (not to mention the hundreds of thousands of Americans who live below the poverty line -not by choice). In writing this blog post, I asked for tips from my roommate (critical to helping me saving money) from that time, Whitney, a fellow AmeriCorps VISTA. Below are a few of Whitney’s suggestions with my anecdotes.


1.Budget (Plan ahead!)

This might seem tedious and boring, but it’s your starting point to draft a plan for your service year. Your parents were right about budgeting. A budget gives you a sense of your fixed expenses and the expenses where you have some wiggle room. Check into the specifics of your program and whether housing, transportation are covered by the organization.


2.Keep Rent Low

Housing is often the largest fixed expense you will face, often between 25 to 50% of your budget. If your program does not offer housing and you cannot live at home or with a family friend, consider roommates. The best place to start on a roommate search is by looking for other long-term volunteers, either in your program or a different program in the same city. It is always easier to forget you are living on a limited income when you are surrounded by other people in a similar economic situation (See here). Plus, living with a roommate who is participating in service means they are more likely to share your values and provide further social support.



Cars are expensive. They require maintenance and insurance, and yet they spend most of the time just parked somewhere. If you can live without a car, do so. Whitney and I shared a bedroom (college dorm style) so that we could afford an apartment located 2 blocks from the non-profit where we served. Before deciding where to live, look into other options like mass transit (a great way to live like the people you serve) and Car2go (or another ride sharing program). Going the car sharing or public transportation route is environmentally conscious to boot.


4. Food & Drink

Buy food in bulk. Chances are someone in your community will have a Costco card (ask around) or other access to discounted grocery stores. Work with friends, co-workers or roommates to buy products everyone needs and split the costs. For fresh food, consider volunteering to work at a local farmers market (volunteers often get free produce that goes unsold). Only eat out for special occasions and don’t order drinks. If you want to indulge in libations, consider “2-Buck-Chuck” from Trader Joes (~$2.99 now but still does the trick).


5. Buy Only What You Need

One of the best practices you can pick up is to only buy what you need. Whenever you see a nice pair of shoes or top you want, ask, “Do I really need this? What old items am I willing to donate to make room for this?” Chances are if you are not willing to get rid of something currently in your closet, you don’t really need the item. Learning to ask these questions is a skill for life in balancing needs and wants.


6. Thrift Stores

When you first move in to your new place, avoid stores like Target with a plethora of low-to-moderately priced items. I don’t mean to call out a specific company, but we all know that when we walk in there, we walk out with way too much stuff. Instead, when you are looking for furniture and pots and pans, go to a thrift store. People are always donating these things and sometimes you can negotiate the price. Tip: research the more effluent neighborhoods and look for the thrift stores there – you may land yourself some Pottery Barn items.

If you are volunteering abroad, find the expatriate community. You may find a recent expat will be preparing to head home and will donate household items to you.


7. Home Exercise

We know how important exercising is and, luckily, it does not need to cost money. In the first week of my service year I swam in an open water race and ended up winning a year-long gym membership! If competition events are not your thing, you can always use park recreation equipment or pick up jogging; that is what Whitney did and she ran her first marathon during her service year. You can also use workout videos, search on iTunes and YouTube for free, DIY routines. I used to wake up every morning to Whitney in our living room wearing a Jazzersize tank top punching the air. Priceless!


8. Look for Free Entertainment

Find your neighborhood’s local newspaper (e.g. San Diego’s City Beat) and look for music, festivals and other cultural events in local parks and recreation centers. Many of these events are free and open to the public. Go hiking or swimming at the beach, river or lake. Some museums even provide free admission several days throughout the month.


9. It is All Relative

The most useful tip to living on a stipend is remembering that wealth is all relative and to give thanks for what you have, even if it does not feel like much. Savor the moments you feel wealthy. My service year roommates and I would drink water out of wine glasses to feel classy.


10. Sign Up for Our Living On A Stipend Workshop

Every semester we offer a workshop that explores your fears and beliefs around living on a stipend during your service year. NGS offers advice on how to make the most of your service year.



Follow us on Facebook and Twitter to read our future blog post on the benefits to living on a stipend.

Also, if you are a service program alum, share your tips in the comments below!

Written by Anna Lenhart

Edited by Nicole Campbell



Today, October 25th, 2014, millions of volunteers across the country will make a difference in their community by planting trees, building homes, and filling food banks. If you are one of these volunteers, we applaud you! If you were unable to get out in your community today, not to worry! You can still make a difference today (and everyday). Here are some of NGS Movement’s ideas to contribute:


  1. Offer your best advice for a twentysomething by commenting on this post— we will make sure our students and guides see it.
  2. Everyday you are surrounded by people who are serving you (partner, friend, store clerk, etc.). Stop right now and text or call someone who you are grateful for; it makes a difference!
  3. Consider donating to your favorite cause (in case you can’t think of anyone, click here). The organizations serving communities today need volunteers and resources for equipment, services and full-time personnel. This is a great way to #MakeADifference.


Thank you for being a part of our community!

Making Philanthropy Cool #ALSIceBucketChallenge

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has stirred up supporters and naysayers of nonprofit marketing tactics through countless Facebook posts, news pieces and celebrity endorsements. Are we perpetuating “slacktivism” where participants are no more knowledgeable of or actionable to a campaign’s true message? Is ALS a critical illness worth all of the fuss, or are we just wasting water?


Regardless of where you stand, this one hashtag has contributed to a rise in philanthropic giving, especially among the millennial generation [1]. In fact, the ALS has raised over $12 million for ALS over the past 6 weeks [2]. (I think we can all agree this is positive)


How do we sustain this level of philanthropic giving among young people? I foresee several more social media hashtag campaigns that will grow and further the mission of amazing organizations across the country. But we need to do more to sustain interest and involvement in our causes for the long run. What if some of the young people who dumped water on their head and/or donated a few dollars to ALS decided to donated their time to volunteer (through AmeriCorps or self-stipend)?


Of course, there are many ways to show your support for a cause. However, think about how a year of service with ALS could make a difference for both the individual and the organization:

  • ALS would gain organizational support that allows them to grow sustainably and organize more viral fundraisers.
  • The volunteer would learn more about ALS and about themselves and their skillset as a young professional.
  • The volunteer would donate more money to ALS, their alma mater, and other organizations and causes they care about… for the rest of their lives.
  • The volunteer will go on to be a leader in industry, politics or activism that carries a true understanding of one specific social issue (ALS) and all the systemic issues surrounding it (health insurance, access to research dollars, etc)– when leaders understand a problem they can solve the problem.

Just something to think about…#DumpAndDonate


ETA4: Founder Victor Wilson’s Thoughts on Starting an NGO

The following blog article is written by Victor Wilson, a young social entrepreneur who founded his very own non-profit organization dedicated to the development and implementation of innovative English summer camps in Southeast Asia. You can find out more about ETA4 by visiting their website. The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

The world has never been closer together than it is today. Humans have the ability to, with a single mouse click, connect with people and places that would have been nearly impossible just 50 years ago. Our interconnectivity, interdependence, and interaction have never been more prevalent.

Because there is such a desire to connect across borders and boundaries, the value of being able to speak the current “global” language has never been higher. Both academically and professionally, being able to speak English has a multitude of advantages, and in some instances is a prerequisite to development of an education or a career. Governments across the world recognize the advantages an English education gives their populace, and so have either made English a compulsory subject in school, or at the very least offered it to students eager to learn.

But there is a problem with this method. If you treat English (or any language) like any other subject, many barriers to learning that language arise. Languages are meant to be used in a way that the traditional classroom environment doesn’t reach. They are meant to be spoken loudly, with conviction, not hidden in a thick coursebook; they are meant to be sung, not only written down on a piece of paper; and they are meant to elicit a response, spark a discussion, and foster greater understanding, and not just be a repetition of words or phrases.

One of the things I am most proud of was that the ETA4 team recognized this right away. The most effective way to teach English, we determined, was to interject it into the daily life of the student – a life that undoubtedly includes songs, movies, sports, games, art, poetry, books, and actions. While our curriculum doesn’t ignore the benefits of a traditional academic approach to teaching and learning, it also cultivates a holistic view of the language – and, as it turns out, makes it a lot more fun for the student.

Since 2009, ETA4 English programs have been held each summer, often in multiple locations. What started as one small program in Hue, Vietnam with only 350 students has blossomed into 8 total programs in 2 different countries (Vietnam and Taiwan) over 3 years, with our last program teaching over 950 students. This past summer, we taught our 4000th student, a milestone of which I am immensely proud!

Although the program is only 5 weeks in length, one of the benefits of the approach that we take is that it inspires students to continue the learning process far after the volunteers have left: by showing them that English can be fun, they take it upon themselves to incorporate it into their daily activities. Our goal is not to teach the entire language from A to Z, but rather to give the student a starting point and an inspiration to continue studying a subject that will be of immense value to him/her in their future.

As great as the impact on our students has been, I believe the summer programs have had as equal an impact on our volunteers. Everything that we do is driven by the desire for “cross-cultural connection”, because being able to understand and learn from each other is truly what will continue to drive the world forward. Some of our volunteers have never been out of the country; some are seasoned travelers looking for their next adventure; and some are returning to their parents homeland for the first, fifth, or tenth time. By the time the program is over, though, they share a common trait: after embedding themselves in the culture and traditions of their students, they leave with an enhanced understanding and connection with hundreds of people they spent their summer interacting with. I won’t speculate why many of the volunteers re-apply for second and third years in the program, but I’m confident this is one of the (many, I’m sure) reasons.

Our goal is pretty straightforward – to provide students with a life-changing ability while giving volunteers a life-changing experience. I believe that so far, we’ve accomplished this, and am looking forward to many more years of growth that even 5 years ago I never could have imagined. The world gets a little bit smaller every single day – our goal is to just bring it a little closer together.gyg-logo-teal-transparent1

Guest Blog: Andres Pena, TeachSummit International

gyg-logo-teal-transparent1Andres Pena was born and raised in Los Angeles, CA and is currently a senior at Pitzer College, where he is majoring in International Political Economy and pursuing a minor in Italian Studies. He is involved in various community organizations, enjoys advocating for youth participation and leadership across the world, and plans to become an international lawyer one day. He currently serves as the Linguistic and Cultural Advisor for TeachSummit International. He can be reached by email.

Andres at the conference

Youth 21 Conference on Inclusive Governance

Nairobi, Kenya: The Youth 21 Conference that I attended brought together many youth representatives (delegates) from all UN Member-States, where we provided specific recommendations to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on his appointment for a Special Advisor on Youth. I would have never imagined myself being part of an enormous organization that supports the ideas of youth inclusiveness in governance, NGO’s international support, sustainable development, education, poverty eradication, and environmental justice. This event also served as a networking opportunity for me, and thus I got connected with other NGO’s that were represented by wonderful youth who shared similar interests as me.

As an executive member of TeachSummit International, I was able to share our project’s purpose in order to connect ideas and share information on how the project can benefit a wider-range community, the world. I was mostly excited when I joined various committees and parallel sessions during the conference, which were based around the idea of Youth Leadership and Challenges in Entrepreneurship, Employment and Community Development. After sitting-in numerous sessions, I was able to conclude that both governments and societies must increase the level of awareness and knowledge about the situation of marginalized youth and their contributions to society, especially by integrating human rights principles in the process and standards of policy content. TeachSummit’s mission goes hand-in-hand with these factors, as youth will be playing an enormous role in the decision-making process, in the collaboration with other programs, and in the process of creating a curriculum for the schools that we will be working with.

Overall, I came to realize that today’s youth are volunteering their time and skills not only to assist their local communities but also to build social networks, develop confidence and relevant experience which could potentially enhance their career opportunities.

Career Center Rebel- Journey of an Unconventional Engineer Part 2

Career Center Rebel is a guest blog series written by Erica Spiritos, a Soul Searcher and Idealist. Erica is bold and silly and in 2011 she started her journey to uncover her passion and place in the world as an unconventional engineer. We are re-posting pieces of her journey for other recent grads that can relate. Views expressed in these posts belong to Erica and may not reflect the views of the NGS Movement.


Read Part 1 here.

Pesto on my Fried Egg Sandwich?

Originally written on December 13, 2010

I like to think of myself as an eggspert. No, seriously, I really love eggs – scrambled, over-easy, poached, soft-boiled – and I think I’m pretty adventurous when it comes to cooking eggs. I know most people stick with the traditional cheese (I’m lactose intolerant so I don’t typically do this) and tomato… maybe you throw a little onion in, or some peppers and mushrooms. But as a college student who makes it to the grocery store once every two weeks, I’ve learned to eggsperiment (haha, I know I’m so cheeeeesy).

The other day, I was making scrambled eggs for dinner, and as I scanned the shelves of my refrigerator, I realized I didn’t have any traditional egg add-ins. But I had pesto, and I decided to give it a shot because, heck, what’s the worst that could happen? Well anyway, I was slightly nervous because my roommate was also in the kitchen cooking pasta as I was cooking my eggs, and I noticed her eyeing my creation rather skeptically. And so I almost felt like I had something to prove. Like, “I know this looks weird (I had whisked the pesto into the eggs) but I’m really hoping it’s going to be great so please refrain from making any remarks just yet.”

Well, it was amazing!! And I was so excited by my successful attempt at an unconventional creation (can you see where I’m headed with this?) that I started to eggsperiment even more! Today I put tomato sauce on my fried egg sandwich (delish) and all of a sudden I have all these ideas for foods I can start adding to my eggs. Why didn’t I think of them sooner? And why was it only after I was willing to try something different was I exposed to an entirely different, potentially superior, world of eggs? Well then I realized, as I was flipping my eggs with my egg spatula, that thinking outside the carton (box) transcends the kitchen – it applies to my job search!

This morning, as I was (not) studying for my Spanish final, I came across a website called Matador Network – the world’s largest independent travel magazine. After getting lost in some really incredible essays on this website, I stumbled upon an article featuring Sean Aiken, a guy who took one year after graduating from college to find his passion by working 52 different jobs in 52 weeks. I was really blown away by this, and I think what inspired me the most was that he came up with an idea that worked for him.

This is a guy who was not afraid to put pesto on his egg sandwich, even as people watched skeptically. He didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life, and so instead of sticking with the traditional cheese and tomato (9-5 desk job), he broke the mold. And I think that is totally awesome.

An Exercise in Accounting: About as boring, yet informative, as the title.

Originally written on Sunday December 25, 2010

A couple of months ago, my Dad visited me in Pittsburgh to spend some one-on-one time talking about “job stuff”: what I was looking for, companies I might be interested in, contacts and resources that I have collected over the past four years. Truthfully, the weekend was not so successful in this regard because we were searching the Internet (Google) before I really started to get in touch with me Innernet. Nevertheless, as one of what seemed like a thousand unanswerable questions, my dad asked me how much money I thought I would like to make next year.

This is a really loaded question.

My first reaction was, I’ll admit, one of disgust. I was upset that he was asking me about money when I felt that this was really the last item on my list of priorities. I want a purpose, a reason to get up in the morning, and to be a part of something that is larger than myself, my company, and my financial needs. I felt like he was missing the point. I didn’t see how money factored into the equation at all, because, the way I saw it, I would make it work! Maybe it would even be fun for a little while… to be forced to be creative and resourceful. So what If I have to live off oatmeal? That builds character, right?

But I couldn’t shake this notion that perhaps I was being slightly Romantic, and perhaps elitist? After all, a Carnegie Mellon education costs a small fortune. Was I selling myself short in my willingness to live so minimally? Maybe I don’t feel compelled to compete with my friends who will earn upwards of $80k in their first year of work as a Chemical Engineer, but livin’ isn’t exactly $Free.99. Do I have to resign myself to a low salary in order to do the kind of hands-on, small project, start-up work that I want to do?

While I am not aiming for the status or security that comes with a large salary, it is naïve of me to think that I could (or should) live paycheck to paycheck. I decided to actually try to answer the question: How much money would I like to make in my first year of work? As in, how much money does it cost to LIVE? I didn’t want this number to just come from out of the blue – plucked from the list of average starting salaries for engineering majors graduating from Carnegie Mellon, or an amount similar to what my friends would be earning next year doing more traditional engineering work. For now, all I would like is to be self-sufficient. So this is how I broke it down:

It seems to me that housing is by and large the most expensive part of living. It’s also probably one of the factors that vary the most depending on where one decides to live after graduation. Over the past couple of years, I’ve realized that environment matters to me. Ask my Mom and she’ll tell you that the happiest she’s ever seen me was during my time in Montana, where I could run and bike and ski and go for a hike whenever I wanted… where I found peace connecting with myself in nature.

So, here’s my thinking: I don’t want to live in New York City (my hometown, if you can call NYC a hometown). I don’t feel compelled to stay in Pittsburgh, and at this point, my gut tells me that if I don’t end up moving to some country in South America, I’ll probably move to some place in or near the mountains. In Pittsburgh, I live with four roommates and my portion of the rent is $450 per month, plus utilities. In Montana, my rent was $367 per month. But to be on the safe side, let’s say I end up living in an outdoorsy city (Portland, OR?), so maybe rent costs $800 per month (utilities included).

I will be the first to admit that I love food, and farmer’s markets, and cooking, and having people over for dinner. But as a student, I don’t have the time to have as much fun in the kitchen as I might like, and so I keep it pretty basic. When the farmer’s markets are in season, I’ll buy produce from Jeff (my favorite farmer) every Wednesday outside of Phipps Conservatory, but in general, I shop at Giant Eagle and Trader Joe’s. This is a typical shopping list: granola, yogurt, oatmeal (once every couple months), apples, bananas, eggs, soymilk, quinoa (in bulk from the Co-op), lots of greens, squash, sweet potatoes, chocolate covered something (raisins, pretzels), and maybe a couple other things that look interesting. I probably spend a little over $100 per month on food. But hopefully in the future I’ll have more dinner parties, and maybe I’ll drink some wine, so let’s budget for $200.

Clothing. I really hate shopping, and I am not the biggest fan of the American consumer culture that we’ve gotten so accustomed to. I buy clothes when I am home in New York over winter or summer break when there are things that I really need. I’m learning (from my mom, who is a pro) to make economical purchases – to invest in a few great things that I will have for years, rather than to buy cheap stuff that won’t last. I don’t even know how to budget for clothing, because I really think that depending on where I’m working, I could go all year without buying a single thing. But, let’s say I need to buy a pair of heals (god forbid) or some nice dress pants or a blazer or a handbag. I will allocate $100 per month.

As someone who thinks showers are often over-rated, this is an expense that I originally overlooked. But have no fear, my Mom reminded me that I do need to wash my clothes, and I do still need to buy toilet paper. And I’ll need soap, shampoo, razors, deodorant, tampons, toothpaste, and maybe a new toothbrush every once in a while. What sounds reasonable for personal hygiene? Let’s say $100 per month.

The idea of owning a car is very scary to me, on several levels. But if we disregard the fact that I have only been a licensed driver for five months (thank you very much!) I just don’t really see myself as a car person. But what if I live in the boonies? I’ll need a car! Having grown up in NYC, I am quite fond of public transportation, although I will admit that the inconsistency of the Pittsburgh bus system has inspired a romance between my bicycle and I that is infinitely more personal and reliable. All this just goes to say that I have no idea how much I will need to spend on transportation. Will I need to buy a car and pay for gas? Will I need to buy an unlimited ticket for public transportation? Will I only need to buy spare tubes for my tires? Again, I’ll be conservative and assume the worst: $200 per month. (editors note, this is not conservative, try closer to $600, this would include a car payment, car insurance, oil changes and repairs)

This is another expense that almost slipped my mind, until I remembered that I would like to be able to visit my family and friends, wherever they and I might be. Granted, if I’m on another continent it won’t be so feasible for me to just go visit a friend one weekend. But if I am in the states, it is worth it to me to spend some money on airfare or a train ticket to go visit the people I love. How often I visit depends on where I relocate, but hopefully I see my peoples at least a couple times a year! I don’t know how to budget for this because I have no clue where I’ll be, but let’s just say $75 per month.

This category would include going out for dinner and/or drinks with friends, occasional live music, movies, etc. Does $200 per month sound reasonable?

Phone. This is the final straw. If I want to be completely self-sufficient, I will have to pay my own phone bill. Skype will prove to be a life (read: money) saver if I live outside the U.S., so I think it’s safe to assume that all calls will be domestic – $50 per month. (editor’s note: Unless you plan on having a “dumb” phone that you purchase minutes for, better make this $120)

I made this category because I have learned that in order for me to be a productive person out there in the world, and to make meaningful contributions, I need to take care of myself. This part of the budget includes all purchases that serve my physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing: Yoga classes, running sneakers, books, and music, for example. Yes, I could choose to limit myself, buy yoga videos on DVD and practice in my living room. But for me, part of what makes Yoga so special is the community, and the energy in the room that radiates from all of the other people who I don’t know a thing about, but to whom I feel connected. I would say that yoga also counts as my healthcare, but my guess is that I’ll probably (hopefully) be insured. Some things, I think, are worth the extra money: $200 per month.


Monthly Expenses:

Housing: $800

Food: $200

Clothing: $100

Toiletries: $100

Transportation: $200 ($600)

Travel: $75

Entertainment: $200

Phone: $50 ($120)

Wellbeing: $200


Monthly Total: $1925

Annual Total: $23,100

Salary: $25,000 (Editor’s Note: Erica did not account for taxes, you would need a salary closer to $33,000 to take home $23,100)

This number looks really low, but it’s pretty amazing all that it can buy. I’m not saying that, if asked in an interview how much I would like to earn, I would say $30,000, but it’s helpful to know that if this is all I made – or if I earned less – I would be A-okay.

Searching for Jobs á la Smorgasbord

Originally written on Thursday, January 6, 2011

Last night, I read the following passage from a book my mom gave me to read, Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés:

“Imagine a smorgasbord laid out with whipped cream and salmon and bagels and roast beef, and fruit salad, and green enchiladas and rice and curry and yogurt and many, many things for table after table after table. Imagine your survey it all and that you see certain things that appeal to you. You remark to yourself, ‘Oh! I would really like to have one of those, and one of that, and some of this other thing.’ Some women and men make all their life decisions in the way. There is around and about us a constant beckoning world, one which insinuates itself into our lives, arousing and creating appetite where there was little or none before. In this sort of choice, we choose a thing because it happened to be beneath our noses at that moment in time. It is not necessarily what we want, but it is interesting, and the longer we gaze at it, the more compelling it becomes.”


I thought about the times I have done something because it was convenient, all the while subconsciously convincing myself that it was exactly what I wanted to do. I thought about how easy it is to get sucked into this trap in which what is available is more enticing than it would otherwise be, just because I am desperate for something. I thought about relationships I have had not because we were compatible, but because I wanted a boyfriend, and he was there. And then I thought about Teach for America, a program I applied for because it looked interesting, and I felt I needed a plan.

Sometime around October, my friends started getting job offers. All of a sudden, it seemed that people had plans for next year, and that my friends and professors and family expected me to have an idea of what I was going to do after graduation. But I didn’t have a plan, and what’s more, I hated answering the “future” question with an apprehensive, “I don’t know yet.” I wanted to be able to provide an answer just so I could rid myself of the uncertainly.

I first entertained the idea of applying for Teach for America at a time when I thought I wanted to spend one year doing non-profit, water-related work outside of the U.S. before applying to graduate school. All of my googling had left me disillusioned when I started to realize that non-profits don’t typically hire students straight out of college. And even if I could land a job, or secure an internship, how would I possibly choose between the thousands of non-profits that do the kind of work I might be interested in?

Suddenly, a two-year teaching program in the U.S. that was actively recruiting engineering students (an opportunity that did not line up with the priorities I had previously laid out for myself) started to look really intriguing. After sending in my application, and being selected for a phone interview, I felt the excitement building: I was finally close to having a plan! I thought about how awesome it would be to teach math and science to disenchanted students. I thought about interactive learning experiments we might do, field trips we could take, and how I would decorate my classroom. I thought about the impact I would have on the future leaders of our country, and how it would be an incredible learning opportunity for me to work in this environment.

My fantasies put me in a state of denial about what I truly wanted to do next year. Teach For America appeared on the smorgasbord alongside roast beef and yogurt and green enchiladas, and I started to realize that I never asked myself what I was actually hungry for. As you might have guessed, I was not accepted into the TFA program. For various reasons that I attribute to fate, (because I was too blinded to differentiate between what I wanted and what was convenient) my phone interview was a disaster, and only after I hung up the phone did I admit to myself that it wasn’t what I wanted, after all.

Clarissa Pinkola Estés says that most of the time, what we want is probably not on the smorgasbord. “We will have to quest for it a little bit – sometimes for a considerable time. But in the end we shall find it, and be glad we took soundings about our deeper longings.”

I’m the kind of person that will make the most of any situation, and I know that Teach For America would have been a meaningful experience. But I’m realizing that I don’t want to live the kind of life where I’m making decisions based on what’s easy and accessible and possible at the moment. I think, at least for now, I’d rather sit with the uncertainty and know that when I do finally decide to reach for something, it will be because I have been honest with myself about what I want.

Dear God, It’s Me Erica

Originally written on January 18, 2011

I feel, and fear, I have reached a bit of a standstill in my Innernet Search, and in my ability to turn my personal goals that float in and out of focus inside my head into something REAL. I fear I’m hiding behind “I don’t know again” – telling myself I don’t know what I want, or how to find it and go after it. Part of me thinks this is an excuse, and yet part of me really thinks that this is the truth.

In all honesty, I feel like I’ve been running on autopilot for four years –going through the motions of college life. I arrived at Carnegie Mellon four years ago already having selected a major!! This sounds totally ludicrous to me in retrospect, but it is completely 100% normal at this school. I became a Civil Engineer, I think because other people suggested that I might be good at it, or that I might like it. My dad is a Civil Engineer, and some part of me probably wanted to gain his approval. All of the other reasons I mentioned in my first blog entry are true, but just not the whole truth. In four years, I never strayed. Not even once, to see if maybe I would prefer something else, and now in January of my senior year, I don’t feel like a Civil Engineer, and I don’t really feel like much of anything.

I get that this is a self-deprecating thing to say, and maybe it’s not entirely true and I am just being hormonal right now. But the funny thing is that I feel a bit like a broken record when a new acquaintance asks me what I study – is it really Civil Engineering? Or is that just the department in which I took the most classes because at 18, I had no f*ing clue what else to do? Last night at 1am, I was filling out a profile for myself for a Newsweek Women’s Leadership conference that I was nominated to attend in New York this weekend, and I was asked, in 250 words, to explain my vision of a better world 30 years from now. I feel like I have answered some version of this question eighty-two times: in my Truman and Udall Scholarship applications, in interviews, at other conferences I’ve attended. At this point, I hardly have to stop and think about the answer because I can so easily just write what I’ve been writing for the past few years. Write about the environment. Write about sustainable development. Write about water. These are things I care about, but I am starting to feel that at 21, I have already put myself into a BOX!!

I have always had long, flowing hair that everyone loved. People said, wow, Erica has such great hair. It was always about the hair, and in my freshman year of college, I was so SICK of being defined by my hair that I chopped it all off. That is what I feel like now. I feel like I’ve been packaged to fit nicely on a one-page resume, and sometimes (like right now) all I want to do is just say, screw it! I’m shaving my head. I’m starting over. I AM GOING TO UN-PACKAGE AND UN-EDUCATE AND DECONSTRUCT MYSELF, AND FIGURE OUT WHO I REALLY AM.

But for some reason it’s not that easy to undo 16 years of schooling in which I’ve followed a structure that has brought me to the place I am at right now. Is it reasonable or responsible for me to start questioning every single thing that I thought I cared about? I feel I’ve gotten so good at doing what other people suggested that I do: apply for this scholarship, apply for that summer program, send that extra email, don’t you really want it? Maybe I want it. Maybe I’m tired of applying for external approval and recognition for things I may or may not love, for things that may or may not be true to ME.

I’ve felt lost before. And in these times, I have friends and family who try to “get me back on track” and remind me of the things that I care about (or the things I’ve said I cared about). Don’t worry, you’ll figure it out… you always figure it out and you always do something great. Talk about pressure.

I guess what I’m saying is that I really want to stop asking people, and listening to people about what I should do. I want to stop reading self-help books about other people who have figured it out. I want to stop applying for things because the opportunity showed up in my Inbox, and it matches all the other things I’ve done before so why not.

Over break, I had many, many, many conversations with my sister Hillary (currently a freshman at Duke) about her path. She was afraid that she did not have a clear path, worried about not having picked (like a flower) a major, and she wanted to make sure that she selected a set of classes for her spring semester that were really representative of the things she is interested in. My initial reaction was to say that the classes one takes in his or her freshman year of college don’t really matter so much, and so there’s no need to stress about creating the perfect schedule. But I realize now that it’s not about classes. It’s about striking a balance between who one is as a person, and what is expected of members of a college community. Sometimes it’s so difficult (at least for me) to shut myself off from all of the voices that constantly surround me, and play over and over in my head about what I should do. I practice yoga so that I can learn to find my own voice amongst all the others, but I’m not quite at that point where the volume of my soul is loud enough for me to hear over all the noise.

I don’t necessarily want to “tie up” this entry with a nice little bow, because that is exactly what I am trying not to do with myself. So, I’m just going to leave you with those thoughts…

What I Do ≠ Who I Am

Originally written on Sunday, February 6, 2011

February feels like spring – like a new beginning, because I think my breakdown (refer to previous blog post) might have sparked the beginning of a new perspective.

I left Pittsburgh for winter break on this self-prescribed mission to connect with myself, and figure out what I want to do next year. Time alone for personal reflection sounded exactly like what I needed to figure myself out… but in all honesty, I think I ended up feeling more lost and more confused than when I started the process. So, in the midst of my confusion, I found it cathartic to vomit my feelings all over my blog. And in the following couple of weeks, a series of conversations and events occurred (oh, the universe!) that have channeled my thoughts in a bit of a different direction. So, let me tell you what happened:

When I first got back to Pittsburgh, my friend and I went to eat gyros (my first experience eating at the CMU trucks, something I felt I needed to do before graduating), and he mentioned that he had read my latest post. Oh god, I thought. I was still feeling self-conscious about my public display of self-doubt, and after clicking “Publish Post,” I almost wished I hadn’t… But I did, and there was no going back, so I said, “Oh yeah, what did you think?” And he said something to the effect of, “Labels are the problem”. I thought about this for a moment, and he continued, “I really hate when people say they’re a vegetarian. No! You eat a vegetarian diet.” I could see where he was going… “I study materials science and engineering, I’m not a material scientist.” Maybe this distinction seems obvious, but it felt great to hear someone articulate this idea out loud. Maybe this societal tendency to tag ourselves with label upon label upon label (I’m an engineer, I’m straight, I’m a Jew, I’m a Mac person) – to define ourselves by the things we do, or the things we believe, or the things we like – is at the root of my self-doubt.

If I am what I do (or believe, or like, or…), then what happens when I wake up one day and decide, “Actually, I don’t really know if I am passionate about civil engineering.” Such a thought would have the result of effectively stripping me of a concrete definition of myself. And then, completely naked, I’m left to wonder: “OMG, Who am I?! I don’t even know anymore!” The funny thing is that, regardless of what I am studying in school, or what I want to do with my life, I am and always will be ME: Erica Spiritos… which leads me to the second in this series of events.

The other day I was fiddling around on Facebook, and a little chat window popped up on my screen – a friend from high school who I hadn’t spoken to in four years wanted to say that he had read my latest blog post, and was grappling with some of the same questions. (As a side note, I think if we allowed ourselves more opportunities to have these kinds of discussions, I/we might not feel so alone. In fact, I’ve started to realize that most people are dealing with these issues). So anyway, we started talking about how so often, we feel defined by our major or our job. At school, for example, “What’s your major?” always seems to be one of the first questions asked in a conversation with a new acquaintance. And in a lot of ways, this piece of information is revealing: our major dictates how we spend our day (which classes we take), the people with whom we spend it (other kids in our department), what we think about (issues relevant to our field of study) and possibly what we hope to do in the future (typical career paths).

All of these things are consuming, and so they are easy to mistake as defining. But maybe they’re not. Maybe this whole concept of ‘who we are’ is the root of our tree, and ‘what we do’ is just one branch, one manifestation of who we are – but not who we are. What lies above the surface (the tree and all its foliage and flower) is what we present of ourselves to the world: what we do, what we eat, how we dress, with whom we interact. Underground, the roots are tangled and complex, just like this elusive definition of self. They are messy, but they are what allow the tree to stand strong and tall during stormy weather. Okay, I know I am being a total hippie, but it makes sense in my head: everything (the roots and the tree; who we are and what we do) is connected, but in order to feel complete, we have to grow down into the Earth as much as we need to reach toward the sky.


Career Center Rebel- Journey of an Unconventional Engineer Part 1

Career Center Rebel is a guest blog series written by Erica Spiritos, a Soul Searcher and Idealist. Erica is bold and silly and in 2011 she started her journey to uncover her passion and place in the world as an unconventional engineer. We are re-posting pieces of her journey for other recent grads that can relate. Views expressed in these posts belong to Erica and may not reflect the views of the NGS Movement.


Post Numero Uno: The Cause

Originally written on Sunday, November 28, 2010

I am on a mission to do something TOTALLY AWESOME after I graduate: to explore my passions, to travel, to be inspired, to reflect on what is important to me, and to learn in a non-academic, non-corporate setting. I want to work on meaningful projects with motivated people, and I want to wake up in the morning every day and feel that my work has a purpose, and that I am part of a larger, global effort to affect positive change in this world.

That said, I am just beginning to scratch the surface in uncovering what possibilities exist, or what kinds of experiences I might be able to create for myself! So, I plan to use this blog as a record of my personal quest to seek out those opportunities, and I invite you to come along for the ride! Hopefully, if you are on a similar mission, we can take on this search together – I’ll post my thoughts, and I would love to hear yours. :)

A little bit about me:

As a senior in high school, I read a Wired magazine interview with a man named Larry Brilliant that changed the course of my academic career. At the time, Brilliant had just been appointed the director of Google’s philanthropic branch, (after having spent the early years of his career working to eradicate smallpox and polio in India), and declared in the interview that engineers were the best source for solutions to the world’s biggest problems. So at 17, I decided that I was going to be an engineer and change the world.

As a student at Carnegie Mellon, I sought out opportunities to do this type of work through an organization called Engineers Without Borders that works with communities in developing countries on small-scale water, sanitation, energy, and construction projects. And in May, I will graduate with a degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering. My college career has provided me with opportunities to explore my interests through research, through travel, and through meaningful discussion, and I truly feel that after four years I will have acquired a concrete set of analytical and technical skills that I can take with me wherever I go. I will admit, though, that it is not my fondness for fluid mechanics that has kept me on this path for nearly four years.

Instead, I am fueled by the fact that nearly 1 billion people on this planet lack access to clean water; that 2.5 billion lack access to sanitation; that children in developing countries across the globe are not in school; that we are cutting down trees more rapidly than we are planting new ones; and that we are consuming the earth’s resources at unsustainable levels. I get excited about straws that filter river water, and merry-go-rounds that generate electricity. I jump at the mention of bamboo schools and urban farming.

I love interacting with people – I find that my level of happiness at the end of the day is a function of how much time I can spend engaging in interesting conversation, cooking dinner with friends, and collaborating with other students (and not staring at a computer screen).

I love nature, and playing (biking, running, hiking, skiing, star-gazing) in the mountains. I spent a summer and the second semester of my junior year in Bozeman, Montana, and fell in love with the lifestyle and culture that is so intrinsically rooted in the natural environment.

I’m also an idealist. I view the world from a place of opportunity for a more equitable, more respectful, and more peaceful future, and I want to be a part of this movement for real change.

No, I am not the same girl I was when I ripped out the Brilliant interview and pinned it above my bed. But at 21, I am just as eager as I was at 17.

And so it is with this mission that I take the plunge into the unstructured and uncertain world of infinite possibility upon graduation. I don’t intend to sit in a cubicle and work for The Man, and so the search for a high-impact, global, socially and environmentally-conscious, potentially technical opportunity for next year begins…



Regionally written on Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A few weeks ago, I was brainstorming ideas for how to make the CMU Engineers Without Borders website more useful to our members. It occurred to me that it might be helpful to compile a running list of resources for students who are not interested in working for an engineering firm during the summer, or after graduation, and instead want to work for a non-profit organization, or for a start-up company – for a cause that means something to them. This list would include (but would not be limited to) organizations similar to EWB (non-profits, start-ups, etc.) that focus on sustainable international development; Carnegie Mellon faculty and alumni who are doing this kind of work; relevant books, websites, TED talks (I’m addicted), Nicholas Kristof columns (I heart him); and fellowship/scholarship opportunities for service-oriented engineers.

In discussing this idea with some friends, it dawned on me that this list might be a valuable resource for many students, and not just members of EWB. Perhaps there is a real need for an alternative career center (at Carnegie Mellon, and at other universities) that would provide a supportive environment for students who seek an unconventional career path, or want to try something different before settling into more stable employment. Well this was kind of a crazy thought, but it stuck with me, so I decided to engage the Career Center at CMU to see if there was a mutual interest in exploring this idea further.

Turns out, there was! Farouk, the Director of the Career Center, immediately took to the idea. He understood that for such a cutting-edge and interdisciplinary university, we could do more to help students reflect on their priorities and come up with out-of-the-box opportunities for employment. The initiative is still very free form right now, but the point is that times are changing. The idea of a career is quickly becoming outdated: less people are working for the same company for 40 years, and more are hopping around from one opportunity to the next as their own interests and needs evolve. Now, with the Internet and globalization, there is literally a world of opportunity available to us, and our generation has the opportunity to break the mold and pursue a different kind of career that is more in tune with the rapidly changing environment in which we live.

So, what do you think? What’s the next step? How should this alternative career center operate, and what should be its purpose? How can we show students that it’s okay to do something a little on the edge, and provide resources and networks for us to tap into that will propel us forward on this path?

Searching the Innernet

Originally written on Thursday, December 2, 2010

I think I realized why all of my googling for jobs has been largely unsuccessful. What I’m looking for may very well be out there (and it might not) but the point is that, for the time being, I’m looking in the wrong places.

Today I met with Farouk, the Director of the Career Center, to discuss my personal quest to figure out what to do after I graduate. (I don’t really have a name for this search… any ideas? I don’t want to call it a job search because that title seems too rigidly defined). Anyway, I was anticipating the typical routine of sorting through opportunities to apply for, and instead I was greeted with something totally different…

After inquiring about my life story, why I decided to come to Carnegie Mellon (a question I love to answer because there are very distinct reasons why this university appealed to me), and how I came to major in engineering, Farouk posed the following question: “What gets you exited? What do you LOVE to do?”

While this appears to be a very simple question, it was really difficult for me to answer (which made me sort of sad). Interestingly enough, the first thing that popped into my head was yoga. (I actually said out loud that I love yoga). I think this response was natural partially because practicing yoga helps me to feel grounded at a time in my life when I’m so busy doing, rather than being. But more than that, I love the physical and spiritual journey of the practice, and the fact that I can feel so rejuvenated and recharged and refreshed when I roll up my mat at the end of class. In retrospect, I’m not actually sure if this response even answers the question, but it was honest, and it was a reflection of me.

So then I said that I love leading our chapter of Engineers Without Borders, and developing the identity of such a young organization (our chapter was founded during my freshman year). And then from there, I felt myself becoming more and more vague and abstract: I rambled on about how I really enjoy brainstorming and generating ideas, and how I love making connections between people and thoughts and organizations. (As a side note, I also have this fantasy of opening up my own breakfast restaurant called Da me un panqueque in which diners would eat at communal tables, and pick from our garden fruit for their pancakes and vegetables for their eggs.)

So then Farouk asked me: “What things about the world, or society, would you like to change? What angers you?” I think my answer to this question would have been different if we had had this conversation on any other day, but I had just read this NY Times column by Thomas Friedman and so I said that I was angered by the lack of collaboration (and tendency toward competition) in America, and also by the fact that so many people seem to approach problem-solving from a place of limitation and constraint, rather than from a place of possibility. I could describe more precisely what I meant by this, but that isn’t really the point. I could have talked about any number of things: water insecurity and the fact that nearly one out of every seven people on this planet lack reliable access to clean drinking water; the agricultural crisis in America that has made corn an ingredient in almost three-quarters of all products found in the supermarket and has linked poverty with obesity; the fact that our education system is crushing creativity by measuring students against a standard of what we think will produce bright leaders of the future…. You get the idea.

And then, here’s the big one: “How can you channel those things that you love and that excite you, to change something that angers you?” I was so taken-aback by this question – because it articulated perfectly what I’ve subconsciously been aiming for in my job search (for lack of a better name) – that I just sat there and smiled. So Farouk rephrased: “What role do you want to play in the world?” Not what job do you want to have, but what role do you want to play? I confessed that I was stuck in the status quo of traditional job titles, and so he removed those constraints and asked, “If you were a member of a tribe, a million years ago, what role would you play in that society?” I still did not have an answer to this question, but I couldn’t be upset about this because I felt that I had finally come upon the right question to be asking in this process!!

Brad said it really well in the comment he made to my last post, and my friend Anna said it again: we are searching for the WHAT (what we love to do, what excites us) and the WHY (the cause that we are fighting for, the change we want to see in the world). We want to love not only the kind of work we are doing, but also the reason that we are doing it.

I left the meeting with the feeling that I had made huge progress. No, I did not come away with more things to apply for, or even with a sense that I knew what I wanted to do with my life. But I realized that before searching externally, I would need to search internally. Planning the next chapter of life after college is a personal journey – and the best place to start looking is within.

To FE, or not to FE?

Originally written on Monday, December 6, 2010

As brief introduction, I wrote this post about a week ago, and I never posted it because I wasn’t sure if I felt it would be useful to people who aren’t civil engineers. But I think I’m also stuck on a larger issue: If I’m not sure what I want to do, is it a good idea to pursue a certain path “just in case?” Let me know what you think…

Here is my conundrum: Should I, or should I not take the Fundamentals of Engineering (F.E.) Exam this April? And more importantly, is it critical that I become a Professional Engineer?

In the field of Civil Engineering, one must be a registered Professional Engineer (P.E.) in order to stamp the requisite seal of approval on any and all design specification documents. And, there is no denying that – as in any professional title – being able to add “P.E.” after your name indicates to the world your credibility in the field. Indeed, those two capitalized letters scream, “I know my sh*t.”

To become a Professional Engineer, one must first take and pass the F.E. Exam (8, yes EIGHT, hours long), at which point he or she is considered an Engineer in Training. The EIT must then work under a Professional Engineer for 5 years before taking the Professional Engineering Exam, and registering as a PE in their U.S. state(s) of employment.

So, I’m wondering if it would be beneficial for me to become a Professional Engineer. Is this a useful credential to have even if I plan to work predominantly outside of the US? Is it worth it for me to pursue a conventional career at an engineering firm for 5 years so to gain the credibility that might be necessary to have a real impact in the field of sustainable development later on in my life? Am I willing to sacrifice my desire to work on projects I really care about – in a less structured setting – during a time in my life when I am not tied down by financial responsibilities?

And, dare I ask: what if I don’t know what I want to do now, let alone in the future? What if I’m not sure I want to be an engineer?

Running Into Myself: Engineer Meets Soul

Originally written on Friday, December 10, 2010

You know that feeling that you get when you’re talking about something that you really care about? When you’re energy level shoots to 10, and you can feel your cheeks tighten from smiling so much? When the person you are talking to is getting excited just because of how excited you are? In those moments, the words seem to flow organically. I don’t have to think so hard about what I’m saying. I’m not worried about how I am perceived, or whether I’m right or wrong – I am connected to myself. I had one of those experiences this week, and I think I have a hunch as to why it happened.

The other day, I was running in Frick Park, and the snow-covered trails reminded me of Montana. As a small speck amidst the vastness of the mountains, you can’t help but surrender, and have faith in the journey. Away from the frenetic pace of the city, the quiet, calmness of my natural surroundings allowed me to search “my innernet”: to hear the totality of my inner voice, to acknowledge my feelings and reflect on what is important to me. It’s funny how sometimes, when you stop thinking and start feeling, when you stop doing and start listening, when you stop worrying and start trusting, when you turn inward for guidance instead of outward… the answers just sort of come to you.

So this week, when I was in Farouk’s office, I just started talking and I felt myself getting excited. I had been grappling with this question of how I might be able to do the things I love to do while working for a cause I believe in. And I realized that once I stopped thinking about what people might expect of me, or what I may expect from myself as a means of conforming to those societal expectations, I began to realize that I really do know what I love to do, and what I care about.

I love working at the intersection between sustainable technology, and community need – figuring out how to implement development projects that are culturally sensitive, and appropriate for the community. I heard the following story at an EWB conference, and I think it illustrates this idea perfectly…

One of the very first projects that an EWB chapter worked on after the organization was established involved a water distribution system in an African village. The motivation behind the project was that the women spent hours each day walking to fetch water from a source several miles away, which prevented them from doing other things in the village that might allow them to generate an income for their families. So the project team brought the water to the people so that women need only walk to a village tap a short distance from their homes in order to get water. A year later when the team returned to evaluate the success of the project, they found a rusted tap that the women had broken intentionally. They learned that, although the water was more accessible, the women missed the time they spent together walking to collect water for their families. It was the one time during the day when they could escape from their husbands and children, and talk about girl things.

I want to develop relationships with people and families. I want to ensure that the projects we are implementing are environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable, and that they are designed in partnership with the community. I’ve come to realize that the most effective, sustainable change will come from the men and women of the community, and not from a foreigner. And so I think the best thing I can do is to help lift people (who spend their days worrying about whether they will have enough food and water to survive the night, and do not have the freedom to think about the future) up onto the first rung of the ladder out of poverty, so that they can begin climbing on their own. At the Clinton Global Initiative University conference that I went to in Austin, Texas, Bill Clinton phrased it beautifully: We want to work ourselves out of a job. Yep, that’s what I want to do.

So… what does this kind of community development look like? What skills will I need to develop in order to play this role? What resources will be useful to me? Hopefully, if I continue to listen, and trust, and be – if I actively practice running into myself throughout my life as I grow and change and learn – I will stumble upon opportunities that will allow me to “collect” these skills and resources.