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When I Grow Up: Trying on Careers One Role Model at a Time

Erica as a girlFor as long as I can remember, I have been inspired by “the possibilities of the future.” I can distinctly remember a whole slew of different career aspirations as well as the experience or person that inspired each dream. For me, Take Your Daughter to Work Day, has been a career dressing room of sorts. As a result of Gloria Steinem’s initiative and in spite of child labor laws, I was able to try on various careers to see “the fit” without actually having to commit to them. At 7, I dreamed of being an architect (inspired by my love of Legos) who moonlighted as a ballerina (inspired by my graceful ballet instructor) and worked as an archaeologist (inspired by none other than Indiana Jones). When I was in third grade, my mom let me skip school (major cool points) to meet Jon Sciezka, the author of The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. His book “Stinky Cheeseman” is kind of a classic for my generation… an earmark of our school days. Clearly, the experience left a lasting impression because I decided I wanted to be a children’s book author/illustrator. Then when I started shadowing my dad at IBM, it consisted of staring at him while he made phone calls and was in meetings. My key takeaways were that you can make some really cool things with office supplies and my dad’s job was super boring. After a couple of uninspired trips to his office, I visited Hallmark, headquartered in my hometown, where my mother’s friend was an illustrator for greeting cards. I saw artist’s working on their preliminary sketches, teams pitching ideas, and several machines printing actual cards.

The reflection of my own early career exploration reaffirms three tenets of Techbridge’s role model program.

1. Exposure to a diverse range of occupations is important. When we survey students in the beginning of the year, their aspirations are limited by what they have encountered: teacher, doctor, veterinarian, chef, and cosmetologist. Most people need to see many options before they know what fits.

2. Role models play an important role in making a connection to a career. Simply put: you need to put a face to the name. Knowing that the career of a biomedical engineer exists is not enough. I knew that some people wrote books for a living, but meeting Jon Sciezka made his work come to life. Also, one’s assumptions and expectations for what a scientist might look like can be challenged the second a child meets a real life example… and she’s a woman or a minority, or shockingly both. I cannot tell you how often a student has said, “She looks like me. I didn’t know engineers could look like me.”

3. Outreach has to be executed effectively or not at all. Early efforts to get girls interested in certain careers were not necessarily effective and not only did not engage me, but deterred me from pursuing a career in business. My dad actually did really interesting work at IBM, but as a young child, I did not have a context for the business calls. You’ve got to make your profession accessible to the age group, make a personal connection, and make it relevant. When a role model shares her passion for her work, it sparks an interest in a student. Authentic enthusiasm leaves an indelible mark… and be warned children are professional bologna spotters.

In our afterschool programs we talk about careers continually. Inevitably the girls I work with ask, “What did you want to be when you grow up?” I’m the kind of teacher that likes to re-use the same jokes over and over. My response: “I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.” Perhaps you can inspire me to pursue a STEM career?

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