Talking the college-to-career transition at the Young Alumni Leadership Symposium

On a bone-chilling Friday in February, Jacob Wildfire, A&S '13, drove seven and a half hours from his home in rural Floyd County, Kentucky, to pass on a valuable piece of advice.

"Find a mentor," he told a group of 65 graduating seniors attending the fourth annual Students and Young Alumni Leadership Symposium at the Engineers Club at Garrett-Jacobs Mansion the next day. "Not just a friend or a peer but a professional mentor who can push you to succeed." Wildfire received this tip just a year ago at the same event, which the Office of Early Engagement chartered to provide meaningful interactions between undergraduate students and alumni. At the symposium, seniors reflected on their time at Hopkins, started planning for the future, and got advice—ranging from the need to redefine priorities post-graduation to the value in following nontraditional career paths—from young alumni who recently made the college-to-career transition.

Wildfire, a Teach for America corps member and ninth-grade English teacher at the rural Betsy Layne High School, found a mentor in a fellow English teacher who often reminds him to "calm down and focus on the kids." Following that piece of advice, he says, has helped him connect with his students. "[They] don't necessarily remember if your lesson plan was that great, or if you graded their tests in one day," Wildfire says, "but they do remember if you took the time to ask how their days went."

By moving to rural Kentucky, where he lives 45 minutes away from the closest movie theater and shopping district, Wildfire, a Pittsburgh native, picked a career that aligns with his personal value of taking risks—a consideration that the group explored during the symposium's final session. Students and alumni sat at round tables, sifting through packets of notecards printed with words, such as creativity, adventure, family, health, challenge, and collaboration. They chose their top five values, then their top three. For senior Katherine Robinson, who turned down a consulting job with a large firm for a two-year fellowship with a city start-up through the nonprofit Venture for America, "honesty" makes the list.

At the same table sat senior Makesi Paul, who wants to use his civil engineering degree to contribute to social entrepreneurship and urban development. He says the event taught him to "forget your major, your background, and what other people say" while choosing a career. When students find a job that means more than a paycheck, one that captures their interest, gives them a sense of purpose, or fulfills them on another deeper level, "pick that thing, pursue it, and you will be successful," he says, recounting advice received that day. "That's something I needed to hear."