November 24, 2013

GUEST ROOM | Do Something Different

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To all the seniors considering what lies ahead: My name is Neha, I am a proud graduate of the Class of 2013 and I’m writing to ask that when it comes to your post-graduation plans, you consider doing something different. A year ago, the Cornell bubble was telling me I essentially had one of four options: banking, consulting, technology or grad school. There were a few unique choices out there (I distinctly remember a job having to do with sharks on CCNet), but those four options were “it” and anything else was just too out of the box to really be buzzworthy. In May, our Cornell bubble burst and into the “real world” we fell.

Unlike many of my classmates headed to New York City after graduation, I boarded a plane to Accra, Ghana, to intern at a mobile agricultural tech startup for six months. I had no idea what I was getting myself into; in the weeks leading up to graduation, most people referred to my upcoming plans as “doing something in Africa.” The factors leading to my decision were pretty generic: I had some time between graduating and starting my job (in consulting no less!), I knew I wanted to travel and I knew that having just graduated college, I was dead broke with no chance of a post-graduation romp through Europe. Instead of resigning myself to months at home, I decided to take the opportunity to do something different.

Up until this point, Cornell’s alumni network had been pretty useless for me: I’d attended a networking event for Cornell women, reunion events for a few organizations I was involved with and I’d even cold-emailed a few alumni whose career paths I admired. Reaching out got me nowhere and I felt more frustrated with every attempt. But the network redeemed itself when I happened upon an on-campus presentation by a recent graduate from my major in which he described a similar dilemma to my own and how he solved it for himself. I approached him after the presentation and he graciously put me in touch with a few relevant contacts. Soon after, I had accepted a short-term stint in Ghana with a stipend that just covered my plane ticket and living costs.

What surprised me most about the process wasn’t that the college alumni network actually works (though, believe me, that was surprising), but rather that this startup I was going to work for was really excited to have me. When I first started my job hunt senior year, I felt woefully unprepared to present myself as an able potential employee. Seriously. I don’t know how to quality assurance test a software application. I don’t know how to write up a complete business strategy with a financial model. I don’t even know how to balance a budget (I really should have taken that Personal Finance course…). The fact that a company was really excited to have me was a huge surprise. They wanted me to spread the culture of “entrepreneurship” — which is relatively abundant at Cornell, but a somewhat foreign concept in Accra — to my co-workers. They wanted me to share the ways in which I fleshed out concepts and broke down problems. They were willing to house me, pay me and train me, for skills that seemed standard among my peers. In the insane rat race seniors put themselves through for post-graduation plans, we often lose sight of the big picture. But I promise you, in that big picture not only can we go toe-to-toe with the world’s best and brightest, we actually have important skills to share.

As I near the end of my time here in Accra, I can’t even imagine going back to start work in the city. Throughout the summer, I saw Facebook photos of Manhattan brunches, San Francisco farmers’ markets and med school white-coat ceremonies. I felt pangs of jealousy and mild FOMO because they had friends to support them, relatively familiar surroundings and the ability to buy Kraft macaroni & cheese. But as I grew into a life 5,000 miles away, I slowly let that all go. To be working at a company that has placed me far beyond cultural and social familiarity is the greatest decision I could have made. It’s been indescribably impactful, and I want more Cornellians to experience that.

I know our cynical 22-year-old minds quickly discard the idea that “everything will work out.” As Cornellians, we have Plans A through F. But things sure work out a hell of a lot better than the Cornell bubble leads us to believe. Sometimes, it just requires us to seek out opportunities beyond the ones that stare us right in the face. I encourage you to pop the bubble and do something different.

Neha Shah ’13 is a graduate from the College of Arts and Sciences and currently works as a product manager for Esoko. She may be reached at nss57@cornell.edu. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.