by Hunter West ’14
It is not uncommon for students entering college to find themselves stricken with one of two afflictions: being disinterested in every subject, or being interested in too many subjects. I, myself, was plagued with the latter (and lesser) malady. While being interested in several fields of study certainly made school entertaining, it made choosing a career path agonizing. I was interested in everything from studying molecular bonds, to writing algorithms in code, to dissecting ancient Egyptian literature in it’s native symbols. For a lot of students, practicality (read: remuneration) would eliminate several of the less sensible options, but I had sworn to myself that, when it came to my future career, I would not compromise my happiness for the sake of pragmatism.
So where did that leave me? I was interested in everything, but not in anything. Taking classes hurt more than it helped – my interests grew tirelessly and left me with enough career choices to make your head spin. So, I ran back to the one subject that I felt comfortable with – that I knew I would never tire of and that never ceased to make me happy: History. Well, that certainly solved my problem, I thought; I’m not certain that I could have chosen a more restrictive career path if I had tried, and as mentioned previously, I was on the fast track to being a professor.
But having what I thought would be my career laid out before me still did not restrict my interests – I thought I knew what I would do for a living, but I still wanted to explore other areas academically. That was when I discovered GIS, or Geographic Information Science. A professor of mine with whom I had a good relationship had approached me and introduced me to this new discipline – a place where geography and technology, two of my favorite fields, intersect and compliment each other. I began taking all of the classes that I could, and although I was highly interested, it did not at first strike me as something I would enjoy as much as my history studies. I was wrong.
I had a sit down with a family friend over a meal where I discussed with him my studies and my career goals. He gave me the familiar lecture about being a professor: how exclusive it was, how non-lucrative it was, and all of the other criticisms that I had grown accustomed to hearing. I sat through it, but I really didn’t care – teaching history made me happy and I wanted to do something that I could be excited for every morning. He’s an astute guy, and he knew he wasn’t getting through to me, so he made a simple suggestion – “Hey, you said that you like GIS,” he said to me, “why don’t you just do an internship?” I hadn’t thought about that – why would I intern in a field that I wasn’t going to do professionally? Well, it certainly couldn’t hurt, right? I had missed the deadline for history internships, but there were still GIS internships that I could pursue independently, so I applied to several companies and awaited a response.
The rest is, as they say, history. I was hired as a Sales Engineer intern at a GIS software company January of my senior year. I was expecting to get some workplace experience, get some course credit, and get another line on my resume. I did not get what I was expecting; instead, I fell in love. I started looking forward to the days that I interned more than the days I had class. I passed my time at work creating maps to be used as demonstration collateral, learning about technology and working with an account team, and even giving presentations to clients and business partners. I was, in effect, teaching. My dad was a career salesman for most of his life and I had always avoided it because it never seemed interesting to me, but now that I was immersed in it I saw just how dynamic and interesting it could be. Moreover I saw how I could infuse my passion for the field of GIS with my new role as a Sales Engineer, and the result was something I was excited about.
In the end, I did not compromise. I liked my internship so much that I extended it out full time over the summer, and by the end of summer I wanted to continue doing what I was doing professionally more than I wanted to be a history professor. This internship had given me a perspective on career opportunities that I had never even considered previously. It exposed me to a dimension of professional life that is absolutely impossible to see from your chair in the classroom. And most importantly, it had shown me that something you like to do in school can be something you love to do in the office, and vice versa. On top of all that, I had my choice of job offers by the end of summer, and I strongly suspect that having that internship on my resume was a huge help.
So if you take one thing from my story, make it this: encourage your student to pursue an internship. Encourage them to pursue several internships. After all, it couldn’t hurt, right?