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Updated: Feb 19, 2021

It’s almost halfway through my personal and career development course and my students are frustrated with me. There are grumblings. Shifting in seats. Typically this class has been unusually upbeat, engaged, and positive.

What is going on today? I check in.

You haven’t told us what we’re supposed to do yet.

I stall for a moment. I’m not sure how to respond. Have I failed as their teacher? I didn’t know what I wanted to do until I started teaching this course as a grad student.  Ten years ago I was the frustrated community college student wishing someone would just tell me what I’m supposed to do. Work was mind-numbingly tedious and boring. And never paid enough.

Do I tell them this dirty little secret - that I don’t have a magical sorting hat that will send them in the right direction? Sometimes it takes 10 years to figure it out. Sometimes we have to go on the roundabout route of discovery and failure in order to end up where we belong. Sometimes though, with the right guidance, it doesn’t have to take that long.

A wise person once told me that all it takes to change someone’s thinking is one beautifully crafted “magic” question. I challenge them.

Why are you here?

I get nothing.


Absolute silence.

I ask again.

Can anyone tell me why you’re here?

They know that I’m trained in counseling. I can wait an awkward amount of time.

So I wait.


And then: Well my dad teaches here, so now I go here.

And: It’s what I’m supposed to be doing.

And: My parents will kick me out if I’m not in school.

Not exactly sustainable motivations.

I knew that if they weren’t able to tell me why they were in my class, they were at risk. College is HARD. If they can’t identify why they’re in my class, I fear their ability to persist to graduation. So we backed way up and started at the beginning.

In order to know where you’re going, you have to know where you are. The following is a snapshot of my lessons for the rest of the semester.

Follow your curiosity. You will never know what you’re interested in or good at until you try it (knowing what you’re not interested in is just as helpful).  People don’t care to know more about things that they don’t know anything about. There are career options that you don’t even know exist. Explore. Discover. Ask questions.  Inspired by: Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

Remember what you loved to do when you were 5. Before you were art shamed. Or bullied. Or told that you weren’t the all-star. Or that it wasn’t ok to get messy. Or that no one makes money doing that, so why bother. Don’t let perfection get in the way of your creativity. Inspired by Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. 

Identify your values. What are the top 5 things that are important to you in your life? At work? A person who highly values teamwork will not likely thrive in an isolated work station. A values card sort activity is an effective tool to start this conversation.

Money doesn’t buy happiness. Many of my students want to be engineers because of the salary potential. Many of these students struggle in math. Beyond a certain point money stops making your life better. I believe college should yield a return on the investment. I do not believe students should chase a career solely based on the potential income, with no consideration of value-alignment, strengths, interests, and personality type. Inspired by “The Happy Movie.” 

Never underestimate the underdog. Get to know your strengths. Community college students inherently face barriers to their education. As a result, community college students inherently possess higher levels of grit and resilience. Use this to your advantage. Inspired by David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell. 

Samantha McGurgan is a career counselor at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo and also teaches College Success Studies as an adjunct faculty member at Cuesta College.

This blog post originally appeared on the NASPA website

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