What Is Work?

by Beth Olson

Philadelphia is known for its Mural Arts Program. This project, initially begun in 1984, has shifted from an anti-graffiti effort to a creative array of educational, artistic, and community programs. Reorganized as the Mural Arts Program in 1996 to “create art that transforms public spaces and individual lives,” this organization boasts an extensive array of core values from teamwork to creativity to fair compensation. Over 3,000 murals have graced Philadelphia, and mural tours are high on the to-do lists of residents and visitors.

Currently the Mural Arts Program is hosting a series of forums inviting people to tell their stories of what work means to them. These stories will be used in the design of a new mural project throughout the city—offering views of what work means and celebrating all of us who work in Philadelphia. (There are two more forums—open to the public—scheduled for December 1 and 5. Check their website for information.)

I am curious about this extensive project and look forward to viewing the results. What does work mean for Philadelphians? What does work mean for the UPenn community? From my vantage point as a career counselor, I anticipate a plethora of assumptions and opinions.

For many, work is inextricably linked to monetary compensation. It’s what fuels the needs of our lives by enabling us to pay for our food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and healthcare.

For some, work is life’s calling—regardless of remuneration. It’s the passion, the purpose many find in their art, their research, their music, their teaching, their exploration, their service. They cannot not do it. It is not always one and the same with an income-generating job.

For some focused and lucky people, it’s both of the above—doing what they love and earning a living while doing it.

I expect that many of us are at neither end nor in a balanced center, but somewhere else along the scale—viewing work as an income, an obligation, a chance, a potential, a step, an end, time, a commitment, an achievement, a frustration, elusive, fulfilling, unfulfilling, prestigious, a resource, power, an opportunity, and on and on.

I can’t wait to see what the new murals communicate. In the meantime, to temper my curiosity, I invite you to provide your own take on “work” in a brief survey. If there are enough responses, I’ll share them in a future blog.

Now get back to work!

Philadelphia on a Half-Tank by Paul Santoleri Located at Penrose Avenue and Platt Bridge. © 1999 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.

Day in the Life: Non-Profit dedicated to Scientific Research

November 7th through 11th focused on Careers in Science.  To aid and wrap up those resources, we are excited to have alum Kelsey Dashiell talk about her career at DebRa of America on Wednesday, November 16th on @PennCareerDay.  She’ll share what it’s like to work in an area that you may not have considered before in the world of science – non-profits work.  There’s more to research in this industry, there are also relationships!  Read more about Kelsey below and remember to follow her on the 16th!

Kelsey Dashiell is a Program Manager at DebRA of America (http://www.debra.org), the only national non-profit dedicated to funding research into a cure while providing programs and services to people suffering from Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB).  EB is a rare genetic disease characterized by chronic, painful blistering inside and outside the body.

As Program Manager, Kelsey is responsible for maintaining and evaluating DebRA’s existing programs while developing new ones.  She ensures that services meet patient needs, communicates with families and health providers, and looks for gaps in existing EB care where DebRA could be of aid.

Prior to working for DebRA, Kelsey was an intern at GBCHealth and volunteered in Peru designing health programs.  She graduated from the School of Arts and Sciences in 2009 with a BA in Health and Societies, concentrating in Health Care Markets and Finance.

Guest Blog – Learning to Let Go: The Toughest Lesson to Learn

by Alyssa Schwenk, CAS ’10

When I was at Penn, I had a certain routine: up at 9, class, gym, library until 3. A late lunch with friends, then into the Daily Pennsylvanian offices to report, write, and edit until the wee hours. I’d break for dinner around 7, return to the office, go home around 12:30, catch up with roommates, do homework, and send emails until about 2:30, when I’d crash. Lather, rinse, repeat. I loved it.

Now — two months into my second year teaching in D.C. through Teach for America — I can’t give you a daily schedule. I have the broadest strokes: Up at ten till six, at school by seven, and the kids come at eight. After that — who knows. While there’s an academic schedule, no two days even resemble one another. Some days, my math lesson goes amazingly, and every one of my 23 kindergarteners can count to 20 (trust me, it’s a big deal). Other days, there’s a tough-tough-tough conversation with a parent, an administrator, or a social worker. Or there’s an earthquake. So it  goes. It’s an experience unlike any other, and one that I’m incredibly proud of doing on a daily basis.

I joined TFA immediately after graduating Penn in 2010, surprising even my closest family and friends. In September of senior year, excited and anxious about the future, I’d decided to apply. I wanted to try something new, to push myself farther: It was time to put myself in a situation that was bigger than me, one that made an impact in the world. I also was struck by how unbelievably lucky I’d been to spend four years at Penn, for being from a family with the savvy to make that happen, even if we didn’t have the resources. I wanted to give back. Like most major life decisions, it wasn’t exactly planned, but in retrospect, it made perfect sense.

Everyone I’d asked about TFA said, “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” While I appreciated the enormity of the work, I also saw the phrase and the sentiment as partly cliché: If closing the achievement gap were easy, obviously it would have happened. Of course it was tough. I was expecting hard and frustrating and a learning curve on teaching. I was expecting to experience situations that I had never encountered. I was expecting steep statistical odds and long nights and a struggle.

But I was not expecting the crash course in emotions, acceptance, and letting go. It’s all in how you look at it. Nothing can ache more than watching a child, who you see every day, who you taught to do multiplication and whose shoes you tie and whose milk you open, not getting what she needs and deserves. But nothing can bring you as much joy as that same child figuring out how to really do subtraction for the first time. Nothing is more frustrating than seeing a student dealing with a situation that can’t be fixed through hard work and strategizing, but nothing is more empowering than seeing that student learn to read, count, and think independently. Even just eight weeks into the school year, I can already see enormous growth in my five-year-olds. Seeing my hard work pay off in such a concrete, immediate and life-changing way — so soon after leaving college — is a rare and amazing privilege. It’s that ability to affect change in my students’ lives that keeps me going on a daily basis.

Exploring Careers? Check the Obituaries…

One exercise I have seen suggested in career counseling books and workshops is that to learn what really matters to you, you should try writing your own epitaph.  The idea is that you can see what you want to be remembered for, and as a result become more focused in your career exploration and job search.

I know it sounds creepy, perhaps this blog might have been better timed in a month for Halloween, when talk of the dead and the undead is more socially acceptable. But I will venture forth in sharing a Sunday ritual I have had for years (not eating eye-of-newt, I promise):  I sit down in the morning and pore through the Sunday New York Times Obituaries.   As a career counselor, I have always found the profiles of people in their long career spans to be very compelling.  I can’t think of a better place to learn about the variety of careers available, nor to really illustrate the varying roles of fate, of ambition, of goals achieved and how unanticipated experiences have changed the course of people’s lives. When you read obituaries you also see how a personality, for example a style of leadership or capacity for empathy, can play a huge role in the nature of someone’s achievements.

While reading the obit articles can be sad because the lives described are at their ends, it is also thrilling to be reminded how much people can accomplish for society in how many ways.  If you are currently exploring your options, this is an unconventional, but inspiring approach to learn about the world of work.  These are some of the people profiled this week:

Entertainment/Communications Careers

Founding Force of the Big East Conference

Gavitt harnessed the burgeoning power of televised sports coverage with his nascent league to produce a powerful conference.

Man Who Shaped Miniature Golf

Mr. Lomma and his brother Alphonse are widely credited with having shaped the game’s familiar postwar incarnation

Painter and a Creator of Pop Art

Mr. Hamilton, whose sly, trenchant take on consumer culture and advertising made him a pioneering figure in Pop Art, was known for his cover design of the Beatles’ “White Album.”

Political Careers

Leader in Gay Rights Fight

Mr. Evans helped form and lead the movement that coalesced after gay people and their supporters protested a 1969 police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a Greenwich Village gay bar.

Antiwar Leader in 1960s

Mr. Oglesby led Students for a Democratic Society as it publicly opposed the Vietnam War, and his speech “Let Us Shape the Future” is considered a landmark of American political rhetoric.

Charles Percy, Former Ill. Senator

Mr. Percy was a moderate Republican who clashed with President Richard M. Nixon over the Watergate scandal.

Education Careers

Man Who Fought Standardized Tests

Dr. Perrone’s ideas on flexible teaching methods led to a loose network of public alternative schools in New York, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia.

Cultural Musicologist

Christopher Small, a New Zealand-born writer and musicologist who argued that music is above all an active ritual involving those who play and listen to it

Judge and a Scholar

Mr. Asch, a judge with a Ph.D. in sociology, wrote scholarly works about civil liberties and made notable decisions about landlord-tenant law and gay employment.

Hi Tech Careers

Early Chronicler of Video Games

Mr. Kunkel helped start the first published gaming column in 1978, and later the first video game magazine.

Pioneer of E-Books

Mr. Hart began the digital library Project Gutenberg after a July 4 fireworks display, when he typed up the Declaration of Independence and made it available for download.

Builder of Cargo Container

Mr. Tantlinger is credited with creating, in the 1950s, the first commercially viable modern shipping container, which changed the way nations do business.

And, for the thrillseekers…

Daring Italian Mountaineer

Mr. Bonatti was a member of the Italian team that conquered K2 in northern Pakistan

Air and Land Daredevil

Ms. Skelton was a three-time national aerobatic women’s flight champion when she turned to race-car driving, then went on to exceed 300 m.p.h. in a jet-powered car.

What do you want to be remembered for?  I’ll close with a quote from my colleague John Tuton: “…our society focuses so much on the outward trappings of success like salary and possessions when folks are alive, but I’ve never seen a dollar sign on a tombstone.”

Getting Creative about Getting Connected

Dr. Joseph Barber

I have found myself thinking about people’s career paths outside of my work here at Penn more and more just recently. I like to hear about what career challenges people face in different types of careers, and I am always willing to provide a suggestion or two as well (my babysitter and some random person on a bus to New York can provide evidence of that). As an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Hunter College (CUNY), I have the great opportunity to work with students getting their master’s degree in psychology. Some are thinking about going on to get a PhD, others already have full-time jobs and want to learn more so that they apply this knowledge in what they do. They usually all share in common the idea that they want to take information from the courses they sign-up for and use it to their advantage.

I have been working with one student – we’ll call her Jen to protect her true identity – as an advisor to her thesis project. Our conversations often turn from scientific experimental design and the right choice of statistics to broader topics like the usefulness of getting a PhD, or how to make the type of research she is doing relevant to the types of companies she might like to work with in the future. We have discussed resumes and CVs, and I have mentioned the importance of networking as a key approach to take. This student actually networks very well, and has a lot of confidence reaching out to people who can help her with her research – she doesn’t necessarily call what she does networking, though, even though that is exactly what she is doing. I have explained to her that networking can be described as an “organic process”. In other words, there is no right or wrong way to do it – she has to find the way that works best for her that still achieves the same goals (establishing and maintaining relationships with a diverse group of professional contacts). I think this helped eliminate the initial skepticism she had about the term “networking”, which she seemed to see as a very foreign and strange process.

I really like working with Jen because she impresses me every time we meet in terms of her ability to identify issues with her research, come up with a couple of solutions, and leverage some of the resources available to her (in terms of subject experts or campus resources) to help address any issues. I offer feedback and suggestions, and I am always confident that she’ll act on these promptly and effectively. It shouldn’t have surprised me, then, when she updated me on a step she had taken after one of our networking discussions.

She has been interested in a non-profit organization that is associated with a field of research closely linked to her master’s thesis. She has reached out to the founder of this organization in the past, as she was seeking information for her thesis (a good excuse to connect), but wanted to find a way to maintain this connection over time. Having spent a good deal of time on their website, she had noticed one important point – their Facebook account was not being updated on a regular basis. People interested in the organization were not having their questions answered, people talking about wanting to donate money were not being responded to with clear instructions how they could do so, and new information was not being provided to give people a reason to “like” what they saw. Jen’s response to this was to ask the founder if she could become the page administrator for the Facebook account. After making her case how she could help, and why her help would be important, the founder agreed. Now, you could argue that all she gained from this was the permission to work for this organization for free, or you could see it from another perspective:

  • She now has every opportunity to maintain an on-going dialogue with the founder (without having to come up with awkward reasons to do so)
  • She can continue to expand her own network of contacts by connecting with other staff members at the organization, and also with people outside of the organization interested in the topic (members of the public, but possibly professionals too)
  • She can impress the founder with actual examples of some of her key skills in action – she can show how the outcomes associated with what she is doing are ultimately beneficial
  • She can share some of the research she is finding through her work, and become seen as a reliable source of knowledge

Jen doesn’t want to be a social media coordinator for this organization, but if she wanted any other role (with or without a future PhD), then being connected with the founder and showcasing her motivation, enthusiasm, knowledge, and general enterprising nature can only benefit her future prospects.

This is just an example of a creative way to connect with people within your network, and I am not suggesting that you all go out and do something similar. I wanted to share this simply to give you something to think about as you are wondering how you can find the best networking approach that suits you and your career goals. There are certainly networking hints that you can pick up along the way to help you (look here and here for a couple resources), but give some thought to how you might get creative when it comes to reaching out, establishing, and maintaining connections with people over time.