When newspapers want to talk about the dire fate of the students who entered the workforce during the Great Recession, they usually run a picture of my class year— 2010. The past ten years have been difficult but instructive. Having a fraught start to my career has taught me more about myself than I ever thought it would, but I never thought these life lessons could be a resource for others until the pandemic hit and unemployment started to soar.
As a tadpole, I dreamt of making money and being professionally fulfilled, probably in that order. I dreamt of being able to not worry about money and provide for my family. When I took a class in International Relations, I fell in love with the subject matter and pursued it in college. However, a year after graduating I realized that it wasn’t fiscally sustainable— my dream jobs were unpaid internships, and paying jobs required Master’s degrees that could themselves only be attained after having some dream jobs. I felt stuck. I felt in a rush to figure things out, and then I remembered advice I had gotten from a mentor: go to law school and you’ll never be underpaid again.
This seemed true enough. I figured being a lawyer would be like adding a complimentary layer to my skill set in international relations— it would just have better pay. None of my calculations involved discovering my purpose, or trying to remember what attracted me to International Relations to begin with. I was not asking myself any of the right questions.
I enrolled for Fall 2007 and by the time I was figuring out what I wanted to do with everything I was learning, the Fall of 2008 saw the economy go kaput. Employers were scrambling— especially in the legal sector where large firms traditionally hire second year students for a summer and then extend job offers after they pass the bar over a year later. Firms stopped hiring as many new junior attorneys, extended less offers, or asked people to defer their offer and start a year later. For someone whose decision had been based heavily on the financial reward of the industry, I was severely out of luck. In hindsight, this was the moment I should have re-charted my path in accordance to my purpose, but instead I continued to let fear drive my decisions.
I never once let myself be unemployed and deliberate over my next course of action. I never once created space for myself to be bold and jump into the unknown. I made decisions that at the time felt strategic, but in actuality were driven by my need for safety.. If I had been true to myself, I might have found something that I truly felt passionate about. Instead, I acted in line with the loudest voice in my head – the one who wanted to have it all figured out already.. I charted my skills and interests, hoping I could make a magical Venn diagram that would answer my questions and point me in the right direction. And, even when I dared to dream, I tried to stay within the safety of the legal industry because it was difficult to let go of something for which I had worked so hard even if it did not make me happy. Fear drove me, and then fear made me stay.
I tried to shoehorn myself into the legal industry but I couldn’t get hired at places that seemed interesting due to lack of experience in their fields. So, I decided to soak up all the information I would need by taking on independent projects on nights and weekends for startups and creative entrepreneurs. I surmised that if I built up enough credibility as a startup attorney, I would be able to find a job that would be a better fit. For a while, it worked. I felt happier because my work mattered to their visions and missions. I discovered more about my natural skills and interests but I kept trying to make them fit into the lawyer box. This went on for a few years, I couldn’t muster the courage to cut free from a traditional job. I never felt ready.
In August of 2018 I received a breast cancer diagnosis that changed everything. In the midst of so much emotional and physical pain I knew I would never want to go back to a job that did not fulfill me. When my sister proposed starting a bilingual publishing company after my third chemo session, I said yes and never looked back. Veoleo was born. It was freeing and emboldening. Even as we started to get the company off the ground during the depth of my recovery, it was fulfilling and motivating. The opposite of fear. Veoleo incorporates my love of heritage, desire to spread arts and culture, and deep understanding of the Latin American diaspora, all while wearing multiple hats. We have published two books and built a distribution network from scratch. We have built a strong community who shares our vision for future generations.
I wish it hadn’t taken me this long to figure out what questions I should have been asking myself. And, in hopes that I can be a resource, I leave you with the following wisdom I wish I had known: It will be frustrating because your career may move in fits and spurts while you see some classmates move forward in what seems to be a seamless manner. You will not all be affected in the same way or to the same degree. Yes, it is unfair. And yes, the unfairness seems to take on another dimension when your graduating class is used as the measuring stick of others’ analysis regarding just how unfair it continues to be. These same journalists and economists will consistently remind you that your lifetime earnings will never recover. But, what I can tell you is that it will lead to a potentially more satisfying career because you will have to identify and maximize your strengths. You will not be able to coast – which sucks because life is already hard as it is – but, in the end, you can learn more about yourself, and use your capabilities to craft something that is truly a good fit for you. Perhaps your own Veoleo. Here’s to figuring it out.