I was 23 when I received my big fat manila college acceptance package for the social service worker program at St. Lawrence and I remember thinking two things: this is my ticket out of this town! and I’m actually going to do something! I moved to Kingston two months later, in May of that year. The two year program wasn’t everything I had dreamed of—I felt like I knew a lot of the things they were teaching (I was familiar with a lot of counselling techniques, even if I couldn’t name them, after enduring the countless counselling sessions of my teenage years) and it wasn’t a particularly challenging workload (we weren’t held accountable for doing any of the assigned reading and note-taking wasn’t necessary because the instructors provided print outs of their power points, which they never deviated from). Regardless of those aspects, however, it has been a valuable asset on my resume, opening doors to jobs and career opportunities in a field that I’ve been so passionate about. When I turned 25 I graduated near the top of my class and embarked on my first adult job search with unrealistically high hopes and pretty much zero preparation. Of course, there were courses in my program dedicated to resume writing and job search and interview skills, but I’ve been blessed (cursed?) with a knack for talking my way out of things, often convincing everyone involved (including myself) that I don’t require whatever it is that I’m avoiding (I’m just realizing that this is a skill that should probably be added to my “things I should look for in a career” list). I applied for jobs in the field for a few months without success and ended up settling for a job at Money Mart (one of the worst jobs I’ve ever had), as well as a kitchen position at a little cafe/restaurant/bakery (for a boss who had no business running a business) and from there I finally managed to land a casual position as a youth counsellor at a custody facility for young offenders—the A.D. was my placement supervisor in college and asked me to submit a resume in passing at Starbucks. As far as casual, entry-level employment goes, this job was a good score—a union position, working with a great team of people for the highest wage I’d ever made. But as most casuals will tell you, it wasn’t enough to pay the bills and by nature, it didn’t allow for budgeting (without which I am constantly panicked about finances and unknowns). After six months of finding myself without options other than casual and contract positions, in a city full of qualified graduates, I decided I would try my hand at university, because after all, a degree could only increase my employability, right? Surely I’d be able to lock in a permanent position with college and a degree…
So, off I went to Queen’s. My overall experience as a university student can best be described as learning exactly how much
bullshitting work I can accomplish on a deadline while balancing things like severe procrastination, almost constant distraction and the fact that neither life nor school ever stop for one minute to accommodate the other (exams still run when you are stoned on daytime cold medicine and papers are still due when you’re going through a breakup). In the midst of learning about feminist theory and critical thinking, I learned about my ability to commit, my work ethic, attention span and working style that I don’t believe I would have learned in any other forum. Even though every October I had the same “what am I doing in university while everyone else is doing something with their life” crisis, I persevered until I finally got to stand on stage and receive my degree, with only one catch: it was one year early. I was originally enrolled in an honours program but in my final year I decided to drop my honours year and just complete my BA. I liked school but I was tired of being a student, living on loans. I often felt isolated from the community of people who work for a living (which includes everyone in my life) and I felt as though I was sitting still while everyone else was moving forward and doing things with their lives. I was ready to be finished and finally stretch my legs, to work and have some kind of professional title and earn money. I was ready to LIVE! So I cut my degree a year short, graduated and started my job search.
I’ve written about my post-university job search experience in the recent past and while the circumstances haven’t changed since then, my feelings have, and now I find myself taking the first steps on the long and winding road that is changing one’s career. It started on a Sunday afternoon while working a relief shift—I had walked into what we casuals in the field refer to as a total shit storm with zero warning, zero support and limited details. Basically, the clients had been in an uproar all week that escalated considerably on the weekend and hadn’t yet calmed down by the beginning of my shift on Sunday afternoon. Management hadn’t provided any extra staff support and apparently the on-call staff hadn’t answered their phone all weekend. Luckily, a very dedicated and concerned (read: newly hired) case manager called for an update and decided to drop by, and coincidentally, he arrived in time to manage an ongoing crisis with one of his clients. I sat in the office while my coworker dealt with the situation at hand and I suddenly became bombarded by the thought that this isn’t what I want! Only, it wasn’t really that sudden; the thought was familiar and I realized that I’d been cultivating it somewhere inside myself for a while. I was immediately panicked and decided that I should do some research about changing careers at thirty (which, as it turns out, is a common enough age for people to reconsider where the goals of their twenties have led them). For the following month or so I paid a lot of attention to the case managers and supervisors that I work with during my relief shifts, listening to the way they talk about their daily agendas, their clients, their frustrations and their personal lives. These are the commonalities I’ve identified: they seem to feel frustrated with either their clients’ lack of effort or the tasks required to help their clients in certain areas; they seem to feel as though they are not making a lot of difference or affecting positive change; even when a client makes progress, the case managers seem to feel that they themselves are not making progress since often a new client with the same problems and barriers takes their previous client’s place; and they often appear to be kind of bored. From listening to them talk about their personal lives, I’ve gathered that the majority of these people take care of youth and adults in their careers and then return home to take care of their family members and pets. And finally, there seems to be a consistent element of disconnect between front line staff and management.
Pairing this information with the feelings I was already having has served to further cement the fact that I need to be open to the idea that I may not want to be in the social service field any longer, or at least not on a full-time, permanent basis. Indeed, the only thing I want to do on a full-time, permanent basis is live a fulfilling, comfortable and pleasant lifestyle. The commonalities that I’ve noticed among case managers over my five years in the field are in total opposition with what I want for myself and the values that I hold and espouse regarding work and life and the current culture that views full-time employment and financial freedom as paramount instead of relationships and personal joy.
In the spirit of opening myself up to this (seemingly) imminent change in direction I’ve been researching ways to find direction when that’s the very thing you feel you’ve lost. What do you do when you stop and realize that the thing you started working for when you were 23 is no longer the thing you want when you’re thirty and the work is done? Aside from creating a life map and a bucket list and taking online career tests (that don’t give you your full set of results for free), going back to school seems like an obvious choice. Of course it will mean living on loans and embracing the constant nag of reading and paper writing that is university, but it will also give me time to figure things out and to find out what it is that I might really want to do next, all while paying my bills and keeping food in my belly.
Nothing is written in stone yet and I can still back out before September if some dream job comes knocking on my door between now and then (a little job market humour), but as of now, I believe I will be heading back to campus in September to finish my honours year and figure out my next move. The biggest hurdle between here and there, I think, will be realigning my thoughts with my student self—a self that I thought I said goodbye to in May for at least the next few years, if not forever. The other hurdle will be learning the elegant art of not giving a shit about what people might think when I tell them that I’m still a student in my thirties (and no, not a fancy one taking law or medicine). It’s occurred to me that people might think I’m giving up or failing in the work world and hiding in university; it’s also occurred to me that I might be the one thinking that, in which case the art of not giving a shit will be very useful. Mr. Wonderful reminds me that I can only be ‘giving up’ or ‘failing’ by returning to school if I buy into the pre-set school, career, car loan, marriage, mortgage, kids plan, and I most certainly don’t; my mom reminds me that I’m an over-thinker, that I’m hard on myself and blame myself for situations that are out of my control (like those resulting from the current economy); I remind myself that my path doesn’t have to look like all the other paths to be equally valid and worthwhile, and that moving away from the social service field doesn’t make me less valuable or less compassionate.
Until September I’ll work on remembering these things and on savouring every free moment of personal reading and writing time before they become occupied, once again, by academics. And instead of stressing about my decisions and all of the pros and cons that go along with it, I’ll try to focus on recognizing how awesome it is that this decision is mine to make.