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Northwestern University

“Chart Your Own Path”

Alumni and advisers encourage students to think about who they are, what they want and where they are going

By Daniel P. Smith

Kelly O’Conor ’20 admits to feeling the pressure.

The pressure to declare a major and charge ahead toward graduation.

The pressure to erase any ambiguity and map her future.

The pressure to make what can feel to be an irrevocable choice.

Among college students, the burden to compete, achieve and appease can be intense.

So a self-aware O’Conor joined a dozen other Weinberg College students earlier this year at a workshop hosted by the Austin J. Waldron Student-Alumni Connections Program.

Designed to relieve the anxiety that plagues many students, the “Chart Your Own Path” event introduced students to Weinberg College academic advisers, representatives from Northwestern’s Career Advancement office and recent alumni. The goal: to ease students’ concerns and prompt them to focus on their personal goals and preferences.

“It’s good to take time and step back, to think about where I am, who I am and where I’m going,” said O’Conor, a neuroscience and pre-med major who has attended previous Waldron Program events to gather information and clarity.

Gaining empathy and insights

Waldron Program director Jane Corey Holt said the workshop was designed to both highlight available resources and reassure students that their arts and science degree is preparing them for a diverse array of professional possibilities.

To that end, alumni Liz Letke ’10 and Jordan Burns ’15 each discussed their college-to-career transition. Both acknowledged the uncertainty that they experienced during their undergraduate years.

“If you’re flexible, you’ll make it work,” said Burns, currently in his second year of law school at Northwestern.

Academic advisers Christine McCary and Michael Maltenfort reminded students that they have time to figure things out, but that they must necessarily endure some uncertainty along the way. Larry Jackson and Jeff Jenkins of Northwestern Career Advancement identified the ways in which students could tap their on-campus resource center to determine their next steps.

“We have methods to help students explore majors as well as career possibilities,” Jenkins assured.

Moving toward clarity

During the event’s closing 30 minutes, students assembled at four round tables for candid conversations with the alumni and advisers. Alumni shared how they had dealt their own anxieties as college students, and advisers assured students that their questions and concerns were normal.

The advisers also identified different strategies and resources to help students progress on their paths. They encouraged students to consider their own priorities and interests and to tap into Northwestern’s vast alumni network. McCary, for example, urged one student who was questioning whether she should continue on the pre-med path to initiate casual conversations with working professionals to learn more about how they landed in their careers.

“That’s a way to educate yourself about what’s out there,” she said.

For O’Conor, who feels pressure “to make a decision soon,” the event reminded her to practice patience and trust her abilities.

“I don’t need to be in such a hurry, and that’s an important message to hear right now,” she said.


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