Welcome to the Get Gutsy interview series! Each month, I interview people who are getting gutsy– stepping outside their comfort zones to reach their goals and live a life that makes them truly happy.
Today, I’m so excited to introduce you to one of my “real-life” best friends, Sarah Hutton, someone I’ve known since sophomore year of college when we pledged the same sorority and quickly became close friends after that.
Here’s a quick story about me and Sarah:
Sophomore year of college, I decided to join a sorority. I began pledging AEPhi and met Sarah, a freshman at the time who was also joining the same sorority. We instantly clicked and stayed close friends throughout our pledge process and all throughout college where we also were both public relations majors and executive board members of the same PR organization. Fun fact: Sarah and I also share the same birthday. On Sarah’s 21st (and my 22nd) we pretended it was also my 21st birthday (because my real 21st birthday celebration the year prior was a little lackluster) and had a joint celebration and epic night. I could go on and on about my memories with Sarah, but that’s not why you’re here. You’re here to be inspired by Sarah’s story…and I’m sure you will be. Sarah inspires me to no end with her drive and passion for her career and the people she works with on a daily basis. Sarah is smart, kind, hilarious and most of all, a loyal friend. Read on!
1. Hi Sarah! Thanks for being on the blog today. Could you please give us your best Twitter-style introduction? (140 characters or less!)
I’m passionate about closing education attainment gaps. I love trying new food, drinking coffee, playing w/dogs, & doing community service.
2. Tell us about how you are getting gutsy.
I like to think I get gutsy in a lot of ways, but the one I am going to focus on today is actually the same topic I talked about in my Get Gutsy Essay Contest Submission – having the guts to let my plans change and let my career evolve in its natural direction, even when that involves taking risks.
I have taken several career risks to get where I am right now, which is working at a local university with first-year college students, most of whom are low-income and/or first-generation students, making sure they have a successful transition from high school. Prior to that, I worked with middle and high school students at a nonprofit in a local city. I am also on the board of a charter school that is opening this August.
3. Looking back, is this what you thought you’d be doing? In college, you traveled quite a bit. At one point, you wanted to work and live abroad, but eventually changed directions. When did that change for you and why?
This is not at all what I thought I would be doing. I think what makes this a story of getting gutsy is that I had to learn to be okay with the fact that plans change and not being where you thought you would be does not mean you failed. That is the short version! The longer version…
In college, I had studied abroad and interned abroad and those experiences shaped me in profound ways. I graduated a semester early and was dead set on making a living traveling. I was addicted to books like “Alternatives to the Peace Corps” and “Delaying the Real World.” (Those are still really great books for anyone interested in traveling!)
I ended up working for a very generous boss who I had worked for during a summer of college, who gave me a job knowing I was “figuring out my life” and would leave within a year. The intent was to save money, but instead I ended up visiting friends in Philadelphia and other areas of the country frequently, which meant all of my money was spent on plane tickets, gas, tolls and having fun with friends. I ended up taking a Teaching English as a Second Language (TESOL) course, figuring I could at least meet and learn from people from other cultures without actually traveling while I figured out my financial situation.
Later, I stumbled upon a graduate program that really fit my interests and would give me the foundations to work in the U.S. or abroad in the future. I started the program, did some ESL volunteer work and then in 2012, I took job at local nonprofit. At this point I still felt like a fraud, like I was doing what I was “supposed” to do to please others, even though it’s not what I wanted to do. Eventually I changed positions within the same organization when I took a job that better aligned with my master’s degree; this job involved working with an after-school program, helping and advocating for low-income, Latino and African American teenagers. I felt challenged, in a good way. I got promoted and realized I had found a true passion in life.
4. You’ve taken several risks in your career so far! Can you share a bit more about those risks and why you feel it’s important to take risks in your career?
In some ways it was a risk to take the first education-related job at the nonprofit because it was not aligned at all to what I thought I would be doing. I was interested in education, but more from an adult/ESL sense or even from a comparative sense (some of my classes for my graduate degree focused on comparing U.S. education to the systems in other countries). In no way did I envision myself working with middle and high school students in the United States.
However, what truly made this risky was it was probably one of the only things I have ever gotten myself into that I didn’t already know I was good at. Up until this point, I had made fairly safe decisions; I took a job I was already familiar with out of college, I enrolled in certification and graduate programs when I knew I was interested in them and was confident in my academic abilities, my first job at the nonprofit involved a lot of writing and organizational skills, which I had always excelled at – but I had NO idea if I would be “good at” working with middle and high school students.
Another big risk happened when I took on my current role at the university. I don’t want to go into too much detail because I don’t know how confidential an organization’s hiring practices are supposed to be, but let’s just say higher education is a field that is notoriously hard to break into and I was given a chance to gain some great experience with very little long-term guarantees. I have now been there a little over a year and it has turned out to be a great decision.
I think it is important to take career risks because you truly don’t get anywhere if you don’t. If I hadn’t transitioned to the education role at my nonprofit, I would have stayed in a position I wasn’t fully happy with until I got another job or quit. If I hadn’t taken the chance to gain experience, I would have missed out on so many things over the past year.
When I am evaluating career risks, I try to ask myself two major questions: “If this doesn’t work out, what is the ABSOLUTE WORST thing that could happen?” and, “If this doesn’t work out, do I have the connections to switch directions or revert back to what I was doing before?” So far, those questions have led me in the right direction. It helps that I don’t have children right now, I might have made some different choices had more people been depending on me, but I think everyone has to figure out their own most-important questions to ask when evaluating risk.
5. Tell us a little about your current role. What makes it challenging? Conversely, what makes it most rewarding?
So as I said, I work mostly with first-year college students, many of whom are low-income and/or first-generation (meaning their parents didn’t go to college). One of the biggest challenges is having to see higher education as a business. I came from a nonprofit setting where everyone was so mission-driven and many people felt it was their purpose to go above and beyond for our small group of students at all times. My university has some important history so it is actually pretty mission-driven as well, but at the end of the day higher education is still a business. If a student doesn’t want to meet you halfway, there are literally hundreds of other students or even just general tasks that could use your time and attention. There is nothing wrong with that, it has just been an adjustment from my previous job’s mindset.
Another challenge has been the fact that there are so many external factors at play when it comes to a student getting a college education. When I worked with middle and high school students, you could really focus on the one thing that needed improvement – academics, attitude, extracurriculars, etc. – and if they committed to it, they would get results. At a college, a student can be an excellent student but if they don’t have the money to pay for college, they just can’t go. They are also technically adults at this point and in the populations I work in, many have very adult issues they are dealing with.
The most rewarding thing is that, despite the fact that the students face so many challenges, they truly appreciate the help that you are giving them. Many of them are working or taking out loans to pay for school, so they have a personal investment in their own success. They know you not only have been in their shoes, but you also know what it’s like in the professional world, so they really value your opinions for the most part. You can really see the results of your work.
6. What are you super excited about right now? Are you working on any projects you’d like to share?
Honestly I am excited to be moving into my second year at the university and to hopefully have a little bit more work-life balance now that I know what I’m doing. I am also starting a doctoral program in the fall, which won’t necessarily add to my work-life balance but it can definitely advance your career in my field.
7. I’m sure there have been many challenges along the way in your journey. What’s your approach to tackling setbacks?
I try to remain as transparent as possible. Sometimes this means being honest with myself and owning up to my own mistakes. Other times this means being honest with colleagues about the systems and situations my students are up against that are challenging, even when it is systems and situations that we created for them. I never want to be in a position where students aren’t successful and people ask me why I never brought any concerns to them along the way.
8. What one piece of advice would you give to someone who wants to follow your path?
For someone looking to take a more generic career risk, my advice is just to do it unless the idea of being out of a job truly puts another person at risk. I try to think about it as, if a risky move doesn’t work out you can almost always go backwards and redirect your efforts. But, if you don’t take the risk, you won’t necessarily have the same chance to move forward anytime soon.
In an education-related field I would tell them to find their own style in dealing with students. Some people can get away with being very caring, while others have to employ tough love. I myself have played both roles depending on the team I am working with and which roles they already cover. For someone who wants to move into leadership, I try to tell people to be conscious of how much you ask of employees and what you need to give in return. The nature of the roles I’ve held requires me to ask a lot of my employees, so in turn I try to be flexible with their time off and personal needs.
9. What does your life look like five years from now? More importantly, how do you hope to feel?
Career-wise, I hope to be doing something that helps traditionally underserved students study abroad or do other types of travel. I feel like those experiences were so transformative for me; even though I didn’t end up traveling for a living, I wouldn’t be where I am today without those experiences. I think a huge subset of American students never get to experience that type of thing. I have an idea for an experiment I want to design around student travel, but I don’t want to give too much away.
10. What does getting gutsy mean to you?
I think the best way to answer that question is with an excerpt from the essay I wrote for your contest!
“I have realized that sometimes getting gutsy means staring a situation – ANY situation – right in the metaphorical face and saying, ‘This is not where I envisioned I would be in this moment, but I am going to love it and I am going to be awesome at it.’ I have realized that there are many definitions of gusty, but sometimes in life, getting gutsy means accepting that our plans and goals can evolve without changing the core of who we really are. I haven’t lost my love of travel or my passion for adventurous activities. Over the past few years, I have gone whitewater rafting (again), hang gliding, and done ropes/zipline courses. I have expanded my U.S. travel and hope to travel internationally again in the next year or two. But, I have found that it is possible to live a more traditional lifestyle than I had initially envisioned, without sacrificing my overarching goals and dreams. And sometimes, being able to change your own life plan is the gutsiest move of all.”
Want to connect with Sarah?
Note from Sarah: I hope to start updating my blog more once my summer programs at work end and I have a little bit of time to breathe! Also, if anyone is curious to learn a little bit more about my professional background or has any questions about how to break into the field of education without becoming a classroom teacher, feel free to add me on LinkedIn-just PLEASE include a message about why you are adding me!
Know someone you think I should chat with for the Get Gutsy interview series? I’d love to hear about them! Let me know in the comments below!
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