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  • Writer's pictureJessyca Stoepker

Voice your passions

You never know to what extent your personal hobbies may affect your career.

Flash back to sophomore year of college. Inspired after researching them for a class (and also needing something to put on my resume), I sent an email to a local nonprofit called Friends of Grand Rapids Parks. Intending only to volunteer, I met one of their staff members at Global Infusion for coffee. We discussed volunteer opportunities and my availability over chai, and we were almost finished with the meeting when I took a chance.

While all of the volunteer positions she mentioned sounded fine, I wanted something that would draw more on my interests and capabilities--like writing and design. So, when it was appropriate, I pulled out the brochure I had created in my design class. This was the project that had sparked my interest with this org in the first place, and I wanted her to see it before I left.

Her eyes lit up, and immediately the conversation changed. She now wanted me to help them with their communications, an option that hadn't been discussed before. I started working with their social media, document design, writing, and event promotion a few weeks later and continued throughout the summer--and, she said, I would call it an internship. That fancy, differentiating term means a world of difference in the eyes of university administrators and employers, and, before I knew it, doors opened one after the other.

That experience with FGRP, along with my job at Spectrum Health, landed my second internship with the YMCA later that year. And, interestingly enough, I ended up personalizing that position as well. Instead of working just on the REACH grant (that I would at the health department later anyway), I was able to utilize my love of plants and nutrition.

How? When asked in the initial interview, I communicated my skills and interests, even the ones outside of the job description, and they placed me in a position that best suited everyone. No questions, no roadblocks, and very little red tape. Just honest communication and a harmonic hand-off between supervisors.

My "revised" role then was to assist the agricultural specialist in the new greenhouse and to create a brand-new science curriculum for high school students with special needs. It was a blast. I taught classes and learned how to better communicate health concepts, which, as you might have guessed, helped me land my next position...and so on, and so on.

Again, the idea here is this: I was able to utilize my personal interests, however insignificant they seemed at the time, to kick-start my professional career and create my own niche. I was able to combine my passions into a career that is completely personalized to me--a combination of communications, public health themes, and nonprofit management.

But I would have never reached this point if I hadn't shared what I felt strongly about to begin with.

Understand that I'm nowhere near finished with carving out my career plans (isn't that half the fun?). However, I hope that showing the next simple process will help others find the same happiness in their workplace.

Step 1: Don't ignore your callings. As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, I used to push my writing hobbies away from the rest of my life. I figured it wasn't something worth mentioning--I wanted to go into healthcare, right?--or that I wasn't good enough. Remember this: It's someone else's job to decide if you're good enough. Your job is to keep working and provide them with enough evidence to make that decision.

Step 2: Document your accomplishments, however small. This could be in the form of a small portfolio or a list in a Google Doc online. I have several folders, both online and in binders, with my previous work. This is what I had brought with me to that initial interview with FGRP, even when I wasn't expecting anything to come out of it.

I also try my best to keep track of my volunteering projects or the special events and classes I attend. Keep track of what you've done so that, if anyone ever asks more about it, you don't have to stutter with an, "Uhh...well, I just really like photography." You never know what will come in handy to pull out someday!

Step 3: When the time comes, don't be afraid to voice your passions. Tell your employers what your interests are right off the bat. You will be shocked at how easy it is to slip into someone's side-project that they never had the time or skills to do themselves.

Healthy food pantry: reducing sodium content of canned vegetables.

Case in point: When interviewing with my current employer, the job position specified "communications" and "volunteer coordination." However, after I mentioned my background in health and nutrition and how I'm still passionate about it, the director's eyes lit up. He then started telling me all the work he has been doing to increase fruit and vegetable access in the pantry, and how they partner with the health department to coordinate cooking classes. He really wanted to expand their programming in that area, but his (and everyone else's) plate was already so full.

Now, six months after that interview, I'm working directly with health educators and local organizations to not only continue those cooking classes but also to launch new nutrition policies and health education initiatives that will be implemented in 2019. That might not sound exciting to you, but I am OVER THE MOON! You should have watched my reaction Friday when our health educator came up to me after her presentation to hand me an article.

"It's about motivational interviewing for food pantry clients. I thought you'd like to read it," she said. I'm not ashamed to say that I read it and found 10+ articles like it online the very next day.

Yes, I've added more work to my schedule, but my enthusiasm for the subject has helped me zip right through it. Now that I'm settled into my job here and know that I can succeed, I'm planning long-term, looking at grad school online in 2020 for a dual master's degree (again, combining interests for the win!).

I hope this post reminds other young professionals like me that we can tailor our careers exactly how we want to. Of course, not every situation is the same. I'm definitely not getting into Harvard Law or any NASA program (no matter how passionate I might be about politics or physics) so I can't speak on those fronts. But you'd be surprised where you can end up when you grab hold of what you love and run with it.

Well, this was a long, back to work again! Look for another December post soon.


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