Monday, January 30, 2012

What's in a Degree?

I've written a lot about the grieving process of "life after college," lusting over a daily routine that once encompassed studying, lectures and research. Despite multiple postings on this topic, I've never examined the value of a college degree. Saturday, the Washington Post and Bloomberg jointly published a column examining the purpose of a four-year degree and asking the question, is the intent of college professional development or personal growth?

Studies have shown that on average, college graduates earn a least a million dollars more in their lifetime. And despite protest and even recent government intents to make education more affordable, the average tuition in 2010 was $17,464. After four years, students emerge with a bill of nearly $70,000. My dad has often wondered if investing tuition money into the stock market and relying on internships or apprenticeships for career training would end up paying higher dividends in the end. And if it does, then why college?

This raises an interesting question on education: Should education provide an implicit fiscal ROI or is the value found in personal and intellectual improvement? (And if the answer is fiscal, should students call on an alma mater for a reimbursement if a career falls flat?)

I'd like to think my own college experience was a hybrid. With support from my advisor, I was able to tackle three degrees in four years - Spanish, public relations and international studies. I've successfully applied my public relations degree, but my Spanish and international studies courses have yet to yield a direct professional application. 

Perhaps one day I'll find a position that's my perfect "trifecta," but even without a current business application, I wouldn't discount the experiences I gained through through these majors. My semester abroad is still a treasured experience and helped to mold my independence, global awareness, political views and my appreciation of art and history. I don't think I need to defend the value for learning any language, but mastering grammar of a foreign language really tuned up my native one.

But then, yet again, there's the financial question: what if I'd passed up college all together, moved to another country, interned and worked my way through those four years. Would I have the same career opportunities today? Would I be further along? 

Although it's impossible to truly measure the value of petty college experiences, I found my college years to be valuable in exploring and forming career ambitions as well as learning about who I was. Outside of the term papers and exams, I learned a lot from social experiences and involvement in a variety of teams and clubs. I'm not sure I'd have as strong an understanding on who I am today had I not endured those activities.

If one day they develop a method for predicting which direction yields better financial outcomes, even if it's contrary to the college path, I don't know if I would be willing to sacrifice that period of personal growth. Maybe I'll feel differently when I'm retiring at age 70 (and wish to cash in on those precious moments), but for now, I wouldn't trade it - no matter the ROI.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Witch Hunt & A Broken Heart

November revealed some jarring news: a sex scandal involving former Penn State assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky riveted the university, the State College community, the sports world and Penn State alumni everywhere. Not only was the news of the scandal horrifying, but soon after the story broke, the media launched a crusade against Penn State's iconic coach, Joe Paterno. 

On the opposite side of the country, I was helplessly glued to news stories, reports and interviews, and my jaw dropped as the allegations against Paterno mounted. I cried listening to "experts" rally against Paterno for his "latent" response to the situation and my heart broke when I watched the board of trustees shamelessly announce his dismissal. To everyone around me, I fiercely defended him, even igniting debates on my Facebook wall.

To anyone outside of the Penn State community, crying over Joe Paterno's dismissal could seem dramatic. However, this is a man who donated millions to the university, was a community leader, a living legend and one of the few remaining big-time football coaches that still emphasized values and education to his players. 

"’They asked me what I’d like written about me when I’m gone. 
I hope they write I made Penn State a better place, 
not that I was a good football coach." - Joe Paterno

As soon as the story broke, the media clenched their teeth into the juiciest angle possible: a celebrity coach, a legend, a man who has built his football empire on the motto "Success with Honor," played a sliver in the grapevine of reporting the allegations. But this mere sub-link was enough to crucify him and to boost those ratings. Sudden Paterno, a man always revered for his good, was suddenly portrayed as villainous - all to make the story richer. The media stripped him of his glory, his honor, his dignity. So heavy was the media focus on Paterno that I even had friends and co-workers ask me what I thought about "the Paterno sex scandal." Everyone could have done more, but such wisdom is truly the "benefit of hindsight."

"This is a tragedy," Paterno said. "It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."

After over 60 years of service, the board of trustees callously dismissed him based on the volume of negative media attention alone. And just months later, Paterno passed away. Though he battled cancer in those final months, I believe that the once spry 85-year-old died of a broken heart. 

Only in the wake of his death did media change tune. Suddenly Paterno was immortalized as the great man he truly is - a far cry from the scathing commentary published just months earlier. 

Rumors have always circulated that Beaver Stadium's field would one day be name Joe Paterno field. After all he endured at the end of his life, I hope the university will bestow him that honor.

I leave you with this: a fantastic Huffington Post article, "The Final Judgement of Joe Paterno," published earlier this week. 

Joe, you did make Penn State a better place, and I am so honored to have been a student during your tenure. 

Impatience and Blame: American Politics

I’m the black sheep in my family when it comes to politics. Although nearly my entire life I was indoctrinated to share their views, when I finally reached voting age, my beliefs had shifted. Because I don’t share the same views as my parents, they routinely send me political email forwards that support their own view point. I can’t blame them for trying, but I never find myself swayed by these attempts.

All family political duress aside, I have a couple points of contention with the political conversation in the United States:

  • The Blame Game: If you review the policies enacted under past cabinets of both political affiliations, no single party eclipses the other in fault for leading to the dismal economic reality we endure today. Both sides like to point the finger and sensationalize the misconduct of the opposing party, but our current economy is the result of a crescendo of misguided foreign relations, irresponsible housing loans, war, growing national debt and a myriad of other variables. Rather than casting blame, I'd rather just hear solutions.
  • Impatience: It feels like the economy crumbled overnight, but it was a long time in the making. As I noted above, a series of events over several years led us to where we are today. If it took arguably at least a decade to make this mess (and making a mess is always the easier half), how could we possibly fix it in just three years? This is complicated. It's going to take some time.
This week, these frustrations surfaced when my parents emailed me this "article" - an email forward circulating the Internet. In the article, the author, Dr. Walter Williams highlights obvious and prevailing economic challenges and attributes them entirely to the Obama administration. However, Williams' continues on to say that Obama will win re-election because “the American people are notoriously ignorant of economics.” 

I don't think the main ignorance here is economics. It's understanding that layers of legislation, policies and foreign relations over time will yield economic repercussions - good or bad. Williams' provides a few shortcomings of the current administration, however these points fall short in both merit and analysis:
  • A Weakening Dollar: While living in Spain in early 2008 (pre-recession), the dollar to Euro exchange rate was around 1.8, and the US dollar was weaker than the Canadian. As I write this, the current dollar to Euro exchange rate is 1.3 and the US dollar has edged out the Canadian.
  • War: The war began in 2003, so why does Williams' regress to an issue that was initiated by his own party to decry the current administration? This just seems hypocritical.
  • Rising Gas Prices: Gas prices has been on the rise for years. Compared to the rest of the world, we have a bargain. (And let me remind Dr. Williams of the basic econ concept called supply and demand. When demand is high, prices go up.) 
What really irks me about commentary like this is that it perpetuates the practice of mudslinging - already pervasive in politics - and doesn't improve "ignorance" in America. The issues he points out have been prevailing for years. But rather than providing context, reviewing our decisions that led us here today, Williams' falls back onto comfortable ground and only reiterates the rumblings he's probably heard around the water cooler.

The United States is a world power, and I'd wager that we didn't arrive here by pointing a finger at our neighbors when things went wrong. So why do we allow campaigns to thrive on that practice, and then further perpetuate it by publishing independent commentary doing the same thing? Williams' article seems like an attempt to naively join in on the picketing, yet without a full understanding of the situation. I dismissed this articles just as another "Brick Tamland" shouting, "LOUD NOISES," in Anchorman. The sad thing is, this is far from an isolated example.

Also, as an aside and unrelated to politics, Williams' further exposes his own ignorance writing that college-education women will vote for Obama solely because "they swoon at his oratory. It's really not more complex than that." He does preface this statement by saying that this statement will offend. This assessment - that his comment would offend - was probably the only sound insight offered in the entire article. 

* *Since publishing this, it's been brought to my attention that this article may be incorrectly attributed to Dr. Walter Williams.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Interview with American Public Media - The New Real World

After writing my post on average hours of sleep and "American insomnia," I spoke to Jeff Severns Guntzel of American Public Media for an article on the American dream. We discussed my perspective on what it means to be a young professional in today's economy. You can check out the article here:

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

No Left Turn: Two Years of Learning

It’s been two years since I posted my first entry on No Left Turn. It took me some time to find my niche and the courage to continue writing about it. When I began this blog, I thought I was alone in fielding the battle of adulthood. I didn’t share my feelings of career rejection and disappointment with friends because I was too ashamed to say it aloud. I’d vent to my parents who, in their wisdom, reminded me I was lucky to have a job despite dismal economy. It was a sound remark, but it never made me feel any better.

As I wrote in my post on the WSJ, “College is a romantic period, bursting with ambition and reveries of prosperous careers.” After emerging from the stimulating cocoon of academia, I was left grappling with the realization that real life isn't as malleable as mapping out my college courses. Additionally, I mourned the loss of a day-to-day that focused on my own self-development, self-improvement and growth.

It's not that you don't learn in the real world, but your purpose shifts from learning to driving the bottom line. It makes sense, but I still miss attending lectures and spending hours in the library working on a thesis.

I've heard a lot of "non-millennials" shake their fingers at my generation, accusing us of being "know-it-alls," impatient or ungrateful in our careers. I beg to differ. I don't think it's unique to my generation that the transition from college to the real world is difficult, but for us, it's heightened.

All graduates have to adjust after college ends, but we grew up in the Internet boom. Knowledge acquisition wasn't just in the classroom, it was always instantly available at our fingertips. And the loss of the constant gratification of learning, it's deserving of grieving.

I have a friend who makes a lot of money, is one of the few that maintains a great work-life balance, and she is dying to leave her job. The reason? She's not learning. She's great at what she does. She loves her colleagues. But each day she's not growing, she feels she's losing. Her tenure at this post? Just over one year.

I don't think we 20 somethings are too hasty in trading jobs. I think we're addicted to learning. We crave it. We desire it. We have to have it. Learning inspires hope because it allows us to dream that with each new nugget of knowledge, we're worth more. We can do more. We can go further.

In my two (plus) years since receiving a diploma, the primary thing I've learned is that I love learning. And where I'm happiest in my career is where I can continue to indulge in even a sliver of that selfish passion for learning. If I can impart of piece of advise on anyone lost in the pursuit of career, it's to go where you never stop learning.

American Insomnia

Yesterday Business Insider published an infographic showcasing the value of getting seven to nine hours of sleep each night. The graphic broke down the adverse health affects for depriving your body of sleep - including obesity, increased risk of breast cancer and even death.

I don't think it comes as any surprise that it's healthier to get more rest, but I am not sure how feasible it is to maintain the recommended routine. On average, I get 6 - 6.5 hours of sleep nightly. While not a far cry from the daily recommendations, my weekly deficit lingers around 30 percent. It's not irresponsibility to blame - I work 50-60 hours with an hour commute, volunteer and play in a soccer league. Unless I entirely trim out any personal activities, there isn't a way to allocate more time to R&R. And this dilemma is widespread: Business Insider notes that 93 percent of Americans do not get enough sleep.

In chatting with my fellow 20-something cohorts, I find that I'm not alone in heading out the front door before 6 a.m. to face a 12-13 hour work day. We commiserate on the fact that the phrase "I'm too tired," is truly part of our Friday vernacular. But of course we're always reminded that we're lucky to have jobs...

I wouldn't categorize this posting as a complaint, but rather reflective on the reality of American careers. Americans pride ourselves on career - we live to work - but nearly our entire population is on the brink of submitting to life threatening illnesses in order to"get ahead." The recession is the only economy I've known, and I'm dying to know: is this grueling work pace a sign of a fledgling economy or is the American dream now better termed 'American insomnia'?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Into the Abyss: Review of Tablet Reading

Despite my tech addiction, I swore I’d never convert to an e-reader. I found comfort in the practice of turning pages, found character in a worn book and was entranced by the cozy sensation of my overflowing bookshelves. But Christmas morning, I unwrapped a beautiful, sleek and posh iPad 2 along with a gift card to the App Store. While I contemplated buying some games or apps with the free cash, I couldn’t contain myself when I saw that the book I’d been craving – In the Garden of the Beasts – was available for download and instant gratification.

As the book downloaded – in only a matter of seconds – I glanced back to look at my bookshelf crammed with warped books, spines swelling from my habit of dog-earing and carelessly spilling coffee onto pages. “Just this once, I promise,” I silently apologized.

Aside from being able to instantly access any book of choice when on the go, I love the ability to look up a name or word from within the book. If you’ve ever read an Erik Larson book, then you know his diction is delicious. Larson makes words dance in ways I wasn’t aware they could, and I love that I can tap a word while reading to read its various definitions. And since In the Garden of the Beast features a lengthy roster of characters, I find it useful to refresh my memory and look up historical figures using Wikipedia integration without disrupting the story.

But I do have some complaints. Reading on an iPad feels a lot like reading on the computer. Though I sport glasses for working on a computer, my eyes are still resilient enough to escape the lenses while reading books. However, since the iPad’s screen glares and features a stark white background, I’m forced to retrieve my glasses each time I indulge in some more reading.

Like a preferred plush animal of a young child, I love my books hard. I’m at times reckless with them, dripping coffee and smudging chocolate on its pages, tossing the book into a cluttered bag that mercilessly bends the pages into awkward positions. I also habitually fall asleep while reading, often waking up the next morning to find my book fallen on the floor or smashed under my pillows. But with the iPad 2, I have to take care when toting it along or reading in bed. I must gingerly place it in a safe and secure place where I know no harm will come to it. It’s a bit of a burden compared to my normal routine. I also admit that I miss the slight din of cracking a book’s spine and the smell of the pages as I quickly strum my thumb along page edges.

With the iPad 2, I don’t feel the same escape I typically find when reading a good book. When I have a book I love, I feel myself melting away into its pages. But the iPad 2 also hosts email, Facebook, Twitter, games and an assortment of other convenient distractions that inhibit the sensation of truly being alone with a book. Additionally, I love passing along a good read to friends. With the book lodged on my iPad, I’m sad that I’m unable to be the purveyor of good books.

Overall, the iPad 2 offers convenience for the reader, but it doesn’t offer the same satisfaction. When on the go, or too impatient to shuffle over to the book store, I’ll consider the iPad. But in general, I’ll be spending my cash on the good old thing.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Why I Use Twitter

I was in college when Twitter first started to gain traction, and after browsing through series of self-absorbed celebrity Tweets riddled with typos and offering nothing more than another forum for shameless self-promotion, I tuned out. I didn’t find purpose in what I deemed an “aggregator of Facebook status updates.” But a little over a year ago, I broke my Twitter boycott and created a Twitter handle.

My shift was the result of a fortuitous meeting with a Twitter employee while promoting a fundraiser I was chairing. After expressing my disdain for his product, we waged an agreement: he’d purchase two tickets to support my event, and I’d create a Twitter handle and actively engage in using it for three weeks. At first, I used Twitter in the name of charity, but I quickly found that my early perception of its purpose and potential were quite wrong.

As I began to better understand Twitter, my addiction grew. But, just as I’d incorrectly dismissed this tool, many others initially would scowl when I’d admit my use, assuming I’d fallen in with the likes of the Kardashians who mercilessly pollute Twitter with pointless commentary or trivial rants. But, in defense of my new-found preferred medium, I’ve carved out the key arguments for why I’m now an advocate.

Career Development I’m a PR pro, and a considerable part of my day is spent pitching ideas and information in the most concise, approachable and interesting way. Because of the character limits on Twitter, it serves as practice in finding better ways to say more – with less. (Thomas Jefferson would be so proud!) And despite a small number of followers (less than 175 as I write this), I can see when my Tweets are successful based on the number of responses and retweets.

Networking I found my job through a combination of Twitter and LinkedIn. Twitter is essentially an open forum for networking regardless of time zone or geographic location. When job hunting, I consulted the LinkedIn profiles of leaders at companies that interested me, located corresponding Twitter handles and started a conversation. Effectively using Twitter (and Social Media) is a great tactic for getting your foot in the door and resume on top of the stack – especially when job hunting from a distance.

Current Events Journalistic style is no coincidence. Humans have incredibly short attention spans, and coupled with busy schedules, it’s rare that anyone has time to fully read an entire newspaper let alone article. Twitter takes the pyramid style one step further and provides a stream of “headlines+” that I select based on my interests. I can customize the news streams I receive and am able to quickly scan through the Tweets and pick up on growing trends and breaking stories. And, if I want more, I’m always able to follow the provided link to get more details.

Dreams While it’s not something I’ve personally had experience with (and it’s unlikely I’ll achieve this until I can successful augment my Klout score), but for PR pro Peter Shankman, sometimes wishes are granted a la Twitter.