How Can Today's University Students Juggle What We Expect From Them?

RCPAlogobanner I had the pleasure of being part of panel at a recent University of Toronto Rotman Commerce RCPA event on the topic of “Act with Awareness”. During the networking portion of the evening I had the pleasure of meeting a young lady from China who needed an advise.

“How did you do it?” she asked.

“How did I do what?” I said.

“How did you finish all these degrees, published these articles, have a full time job and home life all at once?” she was clearly overwhelmed.

“I knew what my priorities were and stuck by them” I said remembering Angela Lee Duckworth’s TED presentation on Grit. Then I realized that this is my lens two decades beyond hers so I followed this up with “Tell me what you are getting overwhelmed about.”

“I’m a first year student, I come from China, they told me I have to network and from the panel discussion tonight there was talk about having a job while in school! I also want to have a boyfriend, I have to deal with my parents back in Beijing…” her voice trailed and seemed to be giving up teary eyed. “How did you do it?”

prioritiesI suddenly channeled my mom “When I was your age, somehow I was able to juggle what I needed to do for work, for school, for expanding my Rolodex (do you know what those are?) You get a job or get promoted at work because you did a really good job beyond your role’s responsibilities not because of who you knew. I went to work to pay for my school. I went to school to get a better job. It was a cycle with a purpose. I was lucky to have a good home life so I wasn’t looking for a spouse or a partner. I did hung out with my friends on occasion but since we were all in the same boat, we were all either in school or at work.” Her face squared with a bit of frustration. I could imagine her not fathoming the idea as I didn’t when my mom told me about how her life in the 1950s. It seems that getting that good first job gets more complicated nowadays, doesn’t it?

From this young lady’s words, she thinks that there’s expectation that she goes out as much as every night to network and be exposed to as many possible work contacts as possible, get straight A’s in school, have an extensive extra-curricular portfolio, and have a part-time job to get real world experience. Her eyes shows how exhausted she is.

“What would you like to really have?” I asked. “I want to have a good job, from a good company, have a boyfriend, have a good family…” she started rattling off a list of needs. “It may not always happen – have all of this in one moment so it might make sense if you pick one first. Of the many things you said, what’s most important right now? I asked. “To have a good job” she said. I’ll try to break this down some more for her in the less than 15 minutes I have to chat with her before the next crowd comes over.

In my days, I may have done this slightly differently. Though I did also have extra curricular activities and worked a part time job, I learned very quickly that I couldn’t do everything as it will run me down so I learned to prioritize rather than just jump into every activity that was available to me. What I needed to coach this young lady was to boil this down into something that she can use as she tries to prioritize her own set of activities and manage  her time. I asked a series of questions.

  • Let’s start with the goal: “What is your goal, right now?” I asked.  “To get a good job”, she says.
  • “Tell me more about what a good job looks like?” I continued. “A job from a well known company. A job that will make me lots of money. A job where I can find my true love. A job where I can be better than the others in this school.”
  • “Ok well, there a couple of things there that may not always happen in the same location – like a spouse from a workplace or be better than everyone else.” “Pick one of the many things you said about ‘a good job’ that you really care about right now,” I’m trying to break this down into something realistic for her and have ignored the other items that a mentor can assist her with.
  • “I just want to have a good job from a good company,” she seemed defeated.
  • “You are on the right track, let’s work on that some more,” I encouraged. “Give me an example of a good company.”
  • “Hmmm… like TD, TELUS, Deloitte, KPMG..” her voice trails.
  • “Alright, those are great companies. Now what job at the company would you want to be doing?” I prodded some more.
  • “Accounting department job” she quickly responded.
  • “Oh good, you know which department you’re going to. Now there are many jobs in that department. Do you know a specific job you want to have?
  • “I want to be the boss… well, I don’t mind being an analyst” she seemed more settled after I smiled at her attempt of a joke.
  • “Ok, now what do think you need  to get that analyst job at a good company?”
  • “Get good grades?” her eyes perked up.
  • “Definitely, good grades. What else?” I continued.
  • “Know people in the company so I can get interviewed?” she was thinking more objectively it seems.
  • “Not necessarily. Your resume when written well along with a good social network presence can get you an interview. But let’s for a moment talk a bit about knowing people at a company. How would you do this?” I asked.
  • “Go to networking events like this. But then how many of these should I go to?” she was getting anxious again.
  • “Did you check who will be at tonight’s event before you decided to go?” I asked.
  • “No, I was told there was a panel discussion with an opportunity to network and since my friends are going I decided to go too,” she said.
  • “Maybe it might help next time if you read more about the panelists who will be at the event. Are these the individuals whom you would like to get to know more about so you get to know the culture of the companies they are coming from?” I suggested. “This way you get to pick and choose the events you are going to not just because your friends are going but because the event is something that will benefit you.”
  • “Good idea,” she agreed.
  • “Once at the event, take the time to chat with as many people as you can get access to,” was my other suggestion. “In time you will have built a network of connections.” She smiled at this.

Before I could continue, a couple more people have joined us in the chat. They asked similar questions though framed differently and she got lost in the crowd. I could sense that for her to be more open, she had to be in a 1-1 session but for that to happen she needs to have enough courage to get people to listen to her comments. She did say “let’s continue this at a later time” in which I’ve agreed.

This conversation made me think about what we expect from our university students to get them ready for the workplace. When I was at university, I had a list of what my activities were and put them in order of importance:

  1. use effective study techniques to get good grades (or as my friends say “study smartly”)
  2. run a small business to know more people in the corporate world and learn more about entrepreneurship
  3. actively participate in a half dozen extra-curricular activities to increase social and community awareness
    1. constantly check to figure out if one activity is of more value than another
  4. hang out with friends and maybe join a band (yup, a bit of dark blue hair rocking Psychedelic Furs)

Though the last bit on joining a band was short lived, I did make time for my friends as they were integral to my support system. What I realized years later is that though I was juggling I wasn’t really consciously doing this rather it was just the thing to do since my friends were all doing it. I was practicing balance.

Imparting this to current university students comes down to a couple of inquiries:

  • Who do you hang out with? Who is your support system? Who are your mentors and role-models?
  • How do you address the use of technology? Do you get distracted easily? Do you have the need to constantly have a status update? Do you have the need to constantly check your smart device?
  • Do you have time to reflect and think and be more self aware? Like me, do you make time to join a band?

To you, my dear reader, what additional questions and suggestions would you provide to university students so they are able to juggle enough of their interests and requirements to be well-prepared for the workplace of the 2015’s?

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