HENRY – CLASS OF 2014
A recent graduate story: Henry’s story of his first years of employment includes realizing in his senior year that his major wasn’t right for him. Again, I wish he was standing in front of you to tell his story. But even in print it inspires and is full of great advice.
I graduated from college in 2014 and am still only just beginning my professional career. But even just these few short years have been full of unexpected twists and turns. My path has taken me from the tunnels of a Swiss particle accelerator to a refugee camp in remote Chad. Beyond just hard work, it has been a journey of luck and being in the right place at the right time, of meeting new people and putting myself “out there,” and above all, a journey of continuously taking the risk to try new things as I keep figuring out “what I want to be when I grow up.” It has not been the experience I would have predicted for myself back in college – but it’s been more exciting and more rewarding than I ever could have hoped.
The journey began during my junior year in college. I was a physics major, and junior year I attended a study abroad program in Geneva, Switzerland. I divided my time between taking classes at the University of Geneva and interning at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN). At CERN, I joined a small collaboration endeavoring to take the first high-precision measurements of anti-matter. They gave me some exciting work to do (e.g., building complex computer simulations of their future experiment) and some less inspiring tasks (e.g., stripping paint off wires – literally). It was a rare experience to see the world of professional experimental physics firsthand as an undergrad, and I learned a lot about what my future as a physicist could look like. I had always liked studying the subject but never given much thought to the practicalities of pursuing it as a career. And it was during my time at CERN that I discovered I didn’t want to stay in physics forever.
As I learned, the world of experimental physics moves very slowly. (The irony of learning this at a particle accelerator was not lost on me.) The experiment I worked with at CERN was ultimately going to take 15 years to complete – from designing the experiment to building the apparatus, to collecting data, to analyzing and publishing the results. You need to be truly passionate about what you are doing to dedicate yourself to a single project for 15 years and, as I realized, I wasn’t quite that passionate about physics. I also realized that I didn’t want to spend my entire life in a lab 100 meters underground. I wanted something with more tangible impact, something that allowed me to get out into the world and see what I was working toward.
Beyond just hard work, it has been a journey of luck and being in the right place at the right time, of meeting new people and putting myself “out there,” and above all, a journey of continuously taking the risk to try new things as I keep figuring out “what I want to be when I grow up.”
Armed with these new discoveries, I returned to campus to start my senior year. After some research and a few discussions with professors, I decided to pursue a minor in “international studies,” with a concentration in global health. The course requirements looked interesting (and drastically different from anything I had ever done before), and with some effort, I could do it in two semesters.
One of the requirements for the minor was to attend regular talks given by visiting speakers. Early in the spring semester, I listened as one woman spoke about her experience working for a major organization focused on malaria eradication as part of the broader effort to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Her talk fascinated me. It was the first time I had seriously engaged with the world of international development, and I wanted to learn more. Uncharacteristically, I decided to ask the talk’s organizer if he could put me in touch with the speaker. He agreed, and shortly afterward the speaker agreed to meet me for coffee.
We talked further about her life and experiences, about the MDGs, and more broadly about working in social impact and international development. By the end of the meeting, I was hooked. Just before leaving, I asked how she would recommend a new graduate get involved in the field. She offered to reach out to a few contacts to see if they knew of any immediate opportunities.
A few weeks later she informed me that a former colleague of hers was looking for an intern to join him at an organization called Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance. The organization was based in Geneva and funded vaccination programs in developing countries. I interviewed with him and was offered an internship for the following September.
Ultimately, my internship turned into nearly two and a half years working at Gavi. I spent about six months in the Strategy and Performance team, contributing to the development of Gavi’s 2016-2020 organizational strategy, and then transitioned to spend two years supporting the oversight of the organization’s investments in Kenya. It gave me incredible opportunities to learn about the design, operation, and evaluation of health programs in lower-income countries, to travel and build personal relationships with government officials and civil society members, and to grow as a young professional.
Perhaps the most important contributing factor to my personal growth during this time was the support and trust I received from my managers. They gave me tremendous freedom to take on additional responsibility. I worked hard to rise to these occasions, and it allowed me to continuously learn and prove that I was ready for more. Their willingness to give me that freedom and allow me to prove myself made my rapid progression through the organization possible.
However, I eventually decided that it was time for something new. I loved the content and impact of the work I was doing but felt I was missing two things. First, immunization is but a small part of public health programs, and public health itself just one of many aspects of international development. Having ventured into this field with Gavi and confirmed my interest in and dedication to it, I wanted to branch out and learn about other areas of work within the development sector. Second, though I had been glad to leave physics behind after graduation, at Gavi I found myself missing the rigorous problem solving and analytical thinking that had first drawn me to study it. So, for these reasons, I began to look again for new opportunities that could fill these gaps.
This was how I came to find my current employer, a strategy consulting firm that focuses on international development and social impact projects. It brings the traditional consulting approach to projects with the UN, governments, foundations, NGOs, and others across topics such as health, education, agriculture, environmental conservation, energy, and more. As soon as I discovered the firm, I knew I needed to apply. It would allow me to get rapid exposure to a huge array of development topics while bringing the analytical structure and critical thinking that I missed while at Gavi. I applied in the fall of 2016 and was offered a position with them a few weeks later.
I’ve been with them ever since and have loved every moment of it. As I had hoped, it’s given me the chance to explore numerous topic areas while traveling to unexpected and exciting corners of the globe. It’s helped me reaffirm my passion for social impact work, and showed me that it was possible to use the skills I developed during my studies in a completely unrelated sector doing work I was truly passionate about.
I’m the first to admit that this winding path I’ve followed has been possible thanks to no small dose of luck. More than once I’ve been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time and speaking to the right people. But I’ve also worked hard at every step along the way and learned things I wish I’d known back in my junior year as I tried to make sense of the realization that I didn’t want to work in the field to which I’d dedicated my college studies. The three most important things I’ve learned and continue to apply to my own life are:
- It’s okay to take a few tries to find the perfect job for you. Take the time to think about the kind of work that you’re passionate about, and the kinds of skills you bring to the table. Then search for an opportunity that combines these into something that really excites you. And it’s alright if you don’t find that spark on your first try – don’t be afraid to keep looking.
- People like giving advice – leverage this. Once you develop a personal connection with someone, you’d be amazed at how willing people will be to offer advice and guidance if you ask. People like to talk about themselves – learn about their own experiences and challenges and ask what they would do in your position. You never know what advice or connections might come from these conversations.
- Find a boss who is willing to help you grow. You obviously can’t always pick your boss. But one of the biggest contributors to your initial success as a young professional will be the willingness of your managers to help you grow. They’ll take a personal interest in you and push you to take on new responsibilities, trusting that you’ll rise to the occasion. And this will allow you to prove what you’re capable of and show that you’re ready for more. Ask questions about this during interviews, and once at a new job seek this out in your manager, a mentor, or colleague.