How I Got To Where I Am Today

by Irene Komor

Both my parents were the first in their families to graduate from college and graduate school. I assumed that I would do the same. However, when it came time to choose a college major, I was clueless. I knew I wanted to study abroad, but otherwise had no idea of what I wanted other than to graduate. I designed my own major: a study of the creative arts and the psychology of the artist. And wasn't Paris a perfect backdrop for exploring and enjoying the creative and expressive arts? I graduated with honors.

After college, I again felt unconnected from purpose. After reading a news article about the National Forests, I decided to save the woods for future generations by volunteering for a year, in exchange for room and board. I wrote letters to parks across the country, and was rewarded with a phone call from the coordinator of a new volunteer program for the Bitterroot National Forest, in western Montana.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

As the volunteer Coordinator of Volunteers, I worked with other young people to help them become acclimated to the USFS culture. Along the way, I learned about forest management, including reading topographical maps, fire fighting, planting saplings, use of heavy tools and machinery and a specialized vocabulary!

When my year of service was up, I returned to my home town in upstate NY, this time with a better sense of who I was becoming as a young adult: someone able to learn on my feet, and while no longer enamored of an environmental conservation career, interested in working for causes in which I believed.

I imagined a world without war and became a peace activist (the license tag on my car "Peacenik" got me a few beeping horns). As an activist, I learned how to organize conferences and facilitate meetings. I met people from all walks of life who shared a common goal, from college students to Vietnam Veterans to lifetime pacifists.

I found paid employment with the local public school district, first as a teaching aide and then in a grant-supported position, helping teachers arrange transportation for field trips to enhance their charges, career development. At the time, I had no idea that class field trips were a legitimate part of career planning for children. When grant funding ran out, I worked as a hotel desk clerk, saving enough money to tour Greece with a friend.

After returning home, I decided to travel to the South. I worked a succession of retail jobs to make ends meet. In addition, following my muse, I took classes on herbal healing, in peer counseling, in sign language, and became an active volunteer in the local social justice movement, sampling several organizations. To make my own contribution, I initiated and teamed up with a graphic artist to design, edit and market a joint calendar of events for those organizations.

My first so-called "real" job was as an assistant to the director of public affairs at a healthcare advocacy and service non-profit organization. The director hired me primarily because she had seen the "Carolina Solidarity Calendar" and appreciated my abilities as an activist for a women's advocacy organization of which we were both members. It didn't hurt my employment prospects with her that we shared a Yankee-based perspective!

My next salaried job was as the director of children's programming at a religious-based community center. I got the offer partly because I was a member of that religion, but more because I had work experience with children and organizing events. It was a great challenge to work with multiple clients, i.e., parents, children, staff and board members. From these two "professional" positions, I learned a lot about mainstream nonprofits and politics, internal and external.

I had a dream to make an impact on people in a way that I didn't feel I had been able to in my previous jobs. I wanted to guide them to meaningful work. In retrospect, I think I wanted to give them the guidance that I wish I'd been given. After a couple of semesters as a part-time graduate student at the UNC-Charlotte campus, I left my job for full-time graduate work in the Education program that gave me my Master's degree in Guidance and Counseling.

During the required practicum and internship I worked with students in middle school, high school and college. I felt most at home with college students and appreciated the forward-looking aspect of career planning with them. So I gained career direction, myself. As a new counselor, I took our profession seriously and earned the National Counselor Certification and the National Career Counselor Certification, which gave me a leg up in my job search and in gaining job security which has become more important to me as I've grown older.

Fast forward to today. I am employed as a career advisor and counselor for liberal arts majors from all over the world with a multitude of academic and occupational interests. How better could I have been prepared for this student body, than my own life as a wandering idealist?

Irene J. Komor, is a member of Cornell University College of Arts and Sciences Career Services, in her hometown of Ithaca, NY, and current Career Convergence Associate Editor for Special Columns. She can be reached at Email: IJK1@cornell.edu.