When I went back college as a non-traditional student, my end-goal was clear: I was going to be a college professor. Not just any college professor, but a community college professor. I believed in the philosophy and mission of community colleges and knew that this was the population I wanted to serve. It may seem like a no-brainer to go to college, get a bunch degrees, and then go teach college.
The path is not so simple.
Like many careers, the types of degrees I would attain mattered, the majors mattered, and what I did while I was in my undergraduate and graduate programs mattered. I wanted to take matters into my own hands and find out early what mattered the most so I could reach my professional goals. I made three pivotal phone calls at three specific times to plot the course for my career.
You can make these same moves, er, calls, to maximize your education and propel your marketability before you even start college:
When: Before definitively choosing my undergraduate program.
Who: A person already doing the job I wanted to do, too.
This is one cold call that you will never regret making: Find someone doing your job and say, "I'm just starting my education/degree in _______. I want to get as much out of my college education as possible, and even transfer some of my education as 'experience' to this career. What advice do you have so I can maximize my college experience? Are there special classes I should take? Organizations I should look into? Extracurricular programs that I could showcase for later?"
Had I not cold-called a community college Communication professor, invited her for coffee, and asked this question, I would have never learned a) that I didn't necessarily need an undergraduate degree in Communication in order to teach Communication (in other words, my intended post-secondary education degree was fine, as long as my graduate work was in Comm); b) that I could apply for a graduate assistantship, which would allow me to either teach or do research (but I needed the college-level teaching for the experience!); and c) that the grad school teaching experience would be great, but community college teaching experience was better--and I could apply to teach part-time at the community college, as long as my thesis was already underway.
How do you find this person to contact? Look on LinkedIn, explore bios on company websites, search Twitter, Google+, and Facebook--anywhere you can. Then, either pick up the phone or send that person a message saying, "I'm a college student who is working toward doing the same job you have and I'd like to ask you some specific questions?" Offer to meet them for coffee, take them to lunch, or even ask for one hour of their time at their workplace.
When: Before going into my undergraduate program.
Who: The advisor of the undergrad program.
Once you've gotten advice from someone in your career field, it's time to more fully investigate your undergraduate degree program. This is a time that social media may not be of much help. The "old school" route will serve you best: Some website searching, e-mailing, phone calling, and even face-to-face visiting.
First, the university/college website should tell you who the advisor is for your intended undergraduate program. To save time, you can call that person and say, "I'm a prospective student. I'd like to meet with you and find out more about the program and how it will fit with my career goals." If you can't get the person on the phone, pressing "0" should get you to the department/division secretary, who can tell you what the advisor's office hours are. You can then choose to either call back or go see the person during the open hours. Of course, you can also send an e-mail. It might not hurt to ask the department secretary, "What's the best way to reach this person?" Never feel like you are bothering the advisor or asking too many questions. It's the advisor's job to, well, advise!
When I met with the advisor of the Post-Secondary Education program at my university, he told me exactly what the program entailed, some special weekend classes that were not widely publicized, but held on a local air force base (and fit in beautifully with my working schedule), and he even told me how I could use some of my previous professional experience as prior learning credit. So glad I made that contact and I was well-informed before taking my first university class.
I totally get that these days, picking up the phone isn't most students' go-to method for making contact. Making verbal connections with key people who can help you carefully plan your education--and jump start your career goals--is worth dusting off your dialing finger. Start searching for your contacts, get ready for connection and start calling!