During the last week of winter break, I participated in the annual Non-Profit Careers Conference. I was involved with the planning and facilitation of the NPCC as a CBL Intern, but this was also my first time attending the conference in any capacity. I was already exposed to a lot of the material through my academic program and extracurriculars: I have taken a seminar on nonprofits and government agencies as part of the academic internship program; I have spent nearly four years engaging with the Donelan Office; and I have interned, worked, and volunteered with several non-profit organizations. Despite my previous learning, I am so grateful for my experience with NPCC and for the new, invaluable lessons it taught me about discernment and fulfillment.
As a second-semester senior, I have been feeling overwhelmed as I try to determine what it is that I want to do with the rest of my life. Throughout my time at Holy Cross, everyone reminded me that I still have time to figure out what I want to do – college is meant for intellectual exploration, after all. It felt safe not to know while I was a student, but now that graduation is nearing, I feel extremely vulnerable. It’s unsettling to not have an idea of the future, and the wide-range of potential careers that once felt exciting is now paralyzing. It’s been so difficult to sit with this confusion that, candidly, I’ve been ignoring it; I’ve focused my energy on upcoming deadlines for courses rather than reflecting on ‘far-off’ (but now fast-approaching) opportunities after graduation.
The NPCC showed me that I am not (and have never been) alone in feeling unsure of what comes next. It is so rare to have a linear path through life – to have known what it is that you want to do from the outset of your education and to continue with it for decades. It is equally rare, according to several of the speakers at the NPCC, to always want to do the same sort of work. There is not just one way to lead a fulfilling life, but in order to live one, you need to continually reflect on which aspects of your current work have brought you the most joy; work will always be work, but it can still excite and inspire you. The position you will hold in ten or twenty years may have little to nothing to do with the courses you are taking now, but as long as you remain open to the world and to your unique gifts, you will find a meaningful way forward. It’s difficult and oftentimes uncomfortable to acknowledge our gifts. In a culture of perfectionism, we often focus on what needs improvement or only consider traits to be gifts if they are marketable. The NPCC provided me with the space to reflect on my gifts and to consider how these traits have shaped my academic and professional interests. I did not leave the conference with any concrete answers about what I will do after graduation, but I feel much more confident in my ability to navigate the upcoming months and years.
During the conference, Frank Kartheiser ‘88 spoke to us about his decision to leave Holy Cross in the late 60s and begin working as a community organizer during the Vietnam War. He had told himself that he needed to “get a life”, so he founded the Mustard Seed and created a livelihood devoted to social service and action. This sentiment of choosing and purposefully getting a meaningful life has stuck with me since. It is so important to identify what impassions you and to pursue it, and this lesson holds true even if you do not choose a career in the non-profit sector. I highly recommend the NPCC to all Holy Cross students – whether you are a first-year student or are months from graduation, whether you already feel set on working at a non-profit or are feeling just as lost as I have been – there are so many ways to live well and do good, and it is not a one-time choice. This work is not finished once you accept an entry-level job or are ten years into your career. It is critical that we continue to choose to use our gifts to positively impact the world around us, to continue to grow, and to continue to ask: what now?
Just because things hadn’t gone the way I had planned didn’t necessarily mean they had gone wrong. It took me a long time of pulling racks of scorching hot glasses out of the dishwasher, the clouds of steam smoothing everything around me into a perfect field of gray, to understand that writing a novel and living a life are very much the same thing. The secret is finding the balance between going out to get what you want and being open to the thing that actually winds up coming your way. What now is not just a panic-stricken question tossed into a dark unknown. What now can also be our joy. It is a declaration of possibility, of promise, of chance. It acknowledges that our future is open, that we may well do more than anyone expected of us, that at every point in our development we are still striving to grow. There’s a time in our lives when we all crave the answers. It seems terrifying not to know what’s coming next. But there is another time, a better time, when we see our lives as a series of choices… It’s up to you to choose a life that will keep expanding. It takes discipline to remain curious; it takes work to be open to the world—but oh my friends, what noble and glorious work it is.
-Ann Patchett, “What Now?”