Few topics create more senior-year angst than the challenge of landing that first job. The comforting part is that every grad does eventually find a first job, which inevitably shapes their future career. Whether a new graduate embraces or rejects that initial workplace, it is a key and unforgettable part of forging a work life.

Eight alumni—spanning more than 30 years—share their stories on the impact those first jobs made.

Susan Perry ’83
City planner
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My mom wanted me to get a nursing degree. She said, “What will you do with a history degree?” But after a tough adjustment to Macalester, I dropped all my science and math courses and went straight to the social sciences.

My first job out of college was a part-time one at the Art Institute of Chicago’s research library, where I helped make the collections more accessible to researchers. The first collection they brought into the archives after I started was that of a German architect who taught city planning, a friend of architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. That experience, plus an architectural preservation class I’d taken at Mac, sparked my interest in historic preservation.

I worked at the Art Institute library for 19 years while earning most of a master’s degree in historic preservation, which led to my next job as an architectural historian for the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. That position brought together all my historic research skills, architectural interests, and project management skills as I worked to help buildings and neighborhoods become designated City of Chicago landmarks or districts.

That first job in the Art Institute library gave me confidence. I blossomed and found my voice there. I found I liked giving tours, doing presentations, and writing. A liberal arts degree gives you a more open mind and allows you to be creative and flexible with your life and career choices.

Eric Olson ’86
Senior Vice President, Business for Social Responsibility
San Francisco
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I was pre-med at Macalester and had been accepted into an MD/PhD program, but my mentor, chemistry professor Truman Schwartz, urged me to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship, which I won in 1986. Because medicine was taught differently in Great Britain, I decided to indulge my other interests, chiefly Russian studies.

And the rest was really world history: When the wall came down in 1989, I was determined to move to Russia and participate in any way I could. So I deferred medical school and took a job as assistant to the president of the U.S.S.R. Trade and Economic Council. I spent three years helping with the first generation of U.S.–Russia trade business deals: among other deals, we opened the first Radisson hotel in Russia.

A personality inventory test I took showed that business was the least likely career for me. But business was the first thing to come into Russian economy and society, and by the end of three years, I was impressed by the influence business could have on international relations and economic development.

My next job was at a management consulting firm, and I did that for years until I reconnected with my early passion for science and the environment and started doing sustainability consulting. When Business for Social Responsibility—based in San Francisco—created a global advisory services organization to help businesses improve their environmental and labor practices, that job became a dream come true.

My life has been a series of sharp turns I couldn’t have predicted. Those first few jobs are a way to learn, acquire skills, and make connections. What was true when I graduated 30 years ago is even truer today: Don’t assume your first job will be the ultimate one.

Junita Bognanni ’03
Freelance food stylist
St. Paul
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I was motivated more by location than anything else in seeking my first job. I wanted to live in Chicago, so I moved in with a college roommate and was hired at a library software company called Ex Libris. I started out as an administrative assistant, but was soon working as a proposal writer. Although I knew nothing about library software, working with such interesting people kept me engaged. It was a good introduction to the working world, with all its charms and challenges.

My first few jobs taught me that I don’t enjoy working in an office environment; I prefer project-based work where I can just get the job done and go on with my life. In my second job, at a book distribution company in St. Paul, every year we held three straight weeks of meetings in the basement in the summertime—the most beautiful time of year in Minnesota.

About that time, I started checking cookbooks out of the library. Every night I read them and my interest grew. So I made a big change and enrolled in a baking program at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. I chose that school because I was most drawn to food styling and this program provided connections in food media.

Starting out was humbling. It was slow going, and I did a lot of assisting other stylists. But things are going well now; I have a number of clients. And I love it. I love not having a boss or an office. I love the variety and the fact that when the job is over, it’s over and will never be the same again. This job is more physical, creative, and artistic than the publishing work I once did.

Take the long view about your career. It’s tempting to want a plan and to know what direction you’re headed. But be willing to switch gears because life changes, interests change, and to be content at work, you must be honest with yourself about what really makes you happy.

Ed Mielke ’97
Managing Director, Mergers & Acquisitions,
Duff & Phelps Securities, LLC
New York City
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I arrived at Macalester with a wide range of interests, and that clearly has not changed. My lifelong love for the environment led me to major in biology and to study abroad in Tanzania. I lived in a national park and worked with two graduate students studying elephants and the impact of habitat compression. Back at Macalester, Professor Mark Davis introduced me to a recent Mac grad who was doing his doctoral fieldwork in Papua New Guinea. This led me after graduation to one of the most remote sections of rainforest in the world. It was a pristine environment teeming with life, but at the same time I found it strangely desolate. The reality of a solitary life of a field biologist was starting to set in—and it wasn’t for me.

So I changed directions and moved to New York City. I networked my way into a job with an investor relations firm and found myself working with editors and publishers from major news organizations. I was in way over my head, but worked as hard as I could and leveraged the full breadth of my Macalester skill set. I realized that I had been trained not only in biology but also how to innovate, think creatively, and communicate. Several of my clients at the time were investment bankers and venture capitalists involved in supporting entrepreneurs, and I found their work intriguing. I eventually went to business school at NYU Stern, graduated with an MBA in finance, and joined Duff & Phelps.

Today as an investment banker, I advise business owners and corporate boards on strategic transactions—some of which fundamentally change their companies and their lives. Many of my clients are brilliant entrepreneurs, and I spend my time working to translate their ideas and achievements into language investors and buyers can understand. I help business owners expand and transition their companies to the next generation. I also support challenged businesses and their stakeholders as they unwind dysfunctional situations. Each client brings a new story and represents a unique set of challenges and opportunities.

Looking back, I would encourage students to pursue their dreams, but also to explore a wide range of careers and talk to graduates about their actual work and their actual lives. Don’t limit yourself to what is familiar, as there may be a career path that you don’t even know exists. Dive right into your first job and work as hard as you can, but don’t be afraid to make a change—your own Macalester skill set could serve you in unexpected ways.

Miriam Kaggwa ’96
Finance director, IPG Mediabrands
New York City
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I call myself a career switcher—my path is far from linear. Because I came to Macalester as an international student and stayed in the United States after graduation, I’ve had to go with the flow as the economy has changed and as the market for international employees has shifted. Those dynamics have defined my career choices. It’s not about not having a plan, but about being flexible when circumstances require it.

My first plan was medical school. But in my sophomore year at Macalester, I learned how rarely international students received the scholarships I would need to attend medical school. So I reinvented myself: I studied chemical engineering through Macalester’s partnership with the University of Minnesota.

My first job was as a process engineer. I was in charge of two manufacturing lines, supervising people who were much older than me. The learning curve was steep—not so much in the technical stuff, but things like how to be in an office, how to manage a predominantly male staff, knowing when to lead and when to be part of the team.

In that first job, I learned that you need to look at where you want to be, then figure out the skills you don’t have. To get to the top in engineering, I needed to know more finance. I enrolled in Cornell’s MBA program, planning to manage a manufacturing plant afterward. Instead, I got recruited to investment banking.

But in 2001, the market crashed again, investment banks were in a meltdown, and I lost my job as part of a company-wide restructuring. My visa was tied to my employer, so when I lost my job, I lost my visa. I had 10 days to find a new job before I had to leave the country. I started looking aggressively and found one at GE. Later, I needed to change fields again to find an employer who could sponsor me for a green card. I called Macalester and asked for alumni working in New York, and Mac staff suggested David Bell ’65, then the president and CEO of marketing and communications company IPG. In our first meeting, he called [IPG agency] McCann’s global CFO and asked that person to find me an opportunity.

Today I run the day-to-day finances at IPG. I’m a finance person managing creative people, so I need relationship skills: I have to figure out what inspires my team and makes them tick. I give my team visibility—I bring every person who prepares something for a presentation to that meeting with me. This year I joined Macalester’s career task force. I depended on Mac alumni and other mentors to get me in the door, and now that I’m in a senior role, it’s important to me to give my team those same kinds of opportunities. A successful career is not just hard work and technical skills—it’s also about the strength of the relationships and mentorships and how you leverage them. Although I’m far away from the medical field that I thought 20 years ago I’d be in, it has been a very good run.

Jana Ellingson-Kegel ’04
Staff attorney at SEIU Local 1000
Sacramento, Calif.
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While I was on tour with the Concert Choir my senior year, every host family asked me what I was going to do after graduation. I had no clue, so I made something up: I told them I was going to get a job in a law firm so I could decide whether I wanted to attend law school.

What started as just something to say became a plan. Immediately after graduation, I began working as a receptionist with the Hoglund Law Firm in Roseville, working on the Social Security disability side. I spent three years there working my way from receptionist to paralegal and learning about the work attorneys do. I learned a lot about managing personalities, reviewing records, and helping out people who really needed someone on their side.

I graduated from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 2010, in the heart of the recession, when it was hard to find legal jobs. I moved to California to work as a union representative and negotiator with SEIU Local 1000, which represents 95,000 employees across the state—nurses, janitors, IT, and administrative staff. Ultimately, I worked my way into a job as one of 11 attorneys for the union.

Today, I do a variety of things from supporting individual employees in grievance arbitration or disciplinary proceedings with the state to representing the union in unfair labor practice proceedings.

I learned so much from that first job at the Roseville law firm. I experienced working with people in distress, and learned to be a compassionate listener. I use those skills often and they aren’t taught in law school. I learned how to deal with other attorneys and difficult personalities, and just as importantly, I learned what attorneys’ work really looks like, as opposed to what it looks like on TV: lots of office work, talking on the phone, reading, and writing.

I would tell any new graduate to reach out to people who do interesting work and ask them how they got there and what helped them. Don’t be afraid to take a first job that’s not a perfect fit, because it will help you decide what you’d like better.

Derek Loudermilk ’05
Business coach/author/podcaster/adventurer
Around the world
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Recently, I gave a talk about the top 10 ways people can make a living online while they travel, and I realized I was doing six of them. I sell my own and other people’s products, act as a business/life coach, run events, do podcasts, and they all enhance each other. I’ve been traveling for the last four years with my partner and now our baby. We’ve lived in Indonesia, Cambodia, Slovenia, and Hungary, among other places. Next we’ll spend three months in Bali, where I’ll be running adventure trips for entrepreneurs.

I’d always planned to be a scientist. I majored in biology and my first job was working in a chemistry lab at 3M. Then I went to graduate school in microbiology. I was following a path, a script, and the evidence showed it was a decent career for me, but not a perfect one. But it was hard to walk away from it because of the sunk costs.

I had to look at everything I’d enjoyed and hadn’t, and which things lined up with my values. After doing some research in Yellowstone during grad school, I realized that being outside was important to me, and that I thrived being in groups and teaching.

So I asked myself, “What can I do to wake up and be happy every day, make a difference, and also make money? If I had to tailor-make a career, what would it look like?”

The first thing I did was move to Asia, where the cost of living was cheaper, and I coached racing cyclists. Next, I started a podcast, and that led to photography, writing a book, speaking engagements, and life and business coaching. I’m also expanding the tour side of my business, offering things like a motorcycling and tea trip through China and a photography tour through Morocco.

This is the best possible career for me and it’s way cooler than anything I ever imagined I’d be doing. So many young people feel pressured to find their passion, but that’s a backwards approach. You have to try enough things and accumulate enough skills to figure out what you want to do. Think about it as an experiment: look at each job and ask what you love about it and what you don’t. And position yourself to be valuable—that will allow you more freedom. If you can be replaced by outsourcing or a robot, you’re not as valuable as someone who is bringing new ideas into the world.

From Mac I got the confidence to go out and learn anything I need to, even if it’s outside the familiar. Right now, for instance, I’m learning how to promote my new book, Superconductors: Revolutionize Your Career and Make Big Things Happen (Kogan, July 2018). I treat it almost like coursework.

Asad Zaidi ’15
Master’s degree candidate, Control of Infectious Diseases, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
London, England
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After graduating from Macalester, I moved home to Karachi, Pakistan, to work as a research associate at a public health nonprofit called Interactive Research and Development (IRD). I worked there for a year before moving to Dubai for a research assistant job at the Harvard Medical School Center for Global Health Delivery.

At IRD, I worked in the maternal and child health department, helping pilot the use of various technologies (such as mobile phone apps) to improve delivery of vaccines for childhood illnesses. My primary role was to liaise between the tech, field, and program teams. I did data analysis and grant writing, created training materials, and facilitated training workshops. At Harvard, I helped manage research grants by developing study protocols and reviewing consent forms, budgets, and study tools to be used by emerging researchers in the global South.

While I always knew I wanted to work in public health, it wasn’t until I got that first job and had some real experience that the idea became firmly cemented. At work I learned some basics, such as professional ways of communicating and analytical skills using Excel and statistical packages, but perhaps the most important skill I picked up was thinking on my feet and adapting quickly. Working in public health in a low-resource setting means you never know what could be thrown at you—you may suddenly have to film a tutorial or carry out a health facility assessment.

Now I’m in graduate school to develop some of the more technical skills I couldn’t pick up on the job. I was lucky to land a first job that, looking back, was exactly the kind of work I wanted to do. But any job that contains some promise of growth and learning, and room to network, is a great one to have.

July 25 2018

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