“What do you want to be when you grow up?” “What are your plans after graduation?”
We hear these typical life questions focused on the future even from a very young age. The first, asked of young children, typically produces something predictable—firefighter, teacher, mommy, police officer, doctor. However, many times the second, asked of college students, produces anxiety, fear, trepidation, or hesitation. Or perhaps all of the above.
Being able to say with certainty what one’s plans are for the future is a gift few people are given as they enter their college years, despite it being one of life’s most important decisions. Or, perhaps, because of that.
Fortunately for PUC students, help is mere steps away. The college’s Career & Counseling Center provides an experienced career counselor, armed with training, career inventory assessments, personality tests, and plenty of brochures and information about potential employers and graduate schools. And in the thick of it all, happy to help students figure out their futures, is Sydney Johnston.
Name: Sydney Johnston
Title: Career counselor
Education: B.A. in liberal studies, California State University-San Bernardino; M.S. in counseling, Oregon State University
Certifications/Specializations: National certified counselor; California associate professional clinical counselor
Employee since: 2013, but in the Career Center since 2016
What does a typical day look like for you?
I spend 75 percent of my time doing career counseling and the other 25 percent doing mental health counseling. As the only career counselor, I have a unique opportunity to ease students’ fears and answer the unknowns.
How did you get into this line of work?
During grad school, I completed an internship at two nonprofit organizations for women in transition who were going back to college or needed to find work to support their family after a divorce or coming out of a domestic abuse history. After grad school, I worked as career services director at Pioneer Pacific College in Portland, Ore. These experiences really showed me that helping people figure out their futures was a real joy for me.
When you’re not in this comfy office counseling students, where can we find you?
Oh boy, I’m out and about regularly, as I coordinate several major student events on campus throughout the year. I’m in charge of the grad fair, the career fair, internship and job fair, and weekly workshops/clinics throughout the quarter.
Tell us about these events. They sound awesome!
They actually are pretty well-attended and we generally get positive feedback from students who participate. The grad school fair is pretty straight-forward: Various schools send representatives with information about their plethora of graduate programs.
The career fair allows us to partner with department chairs to invite individuals who represent careers in every field we train for here at PUC. Many are alumni who want to share with current students their experience and success, and talk about how they got to where they are, to motivate the students. It helps students who are looking to explore other fields and are considering changing majors. For example, someone who’s not sure physical therapy is for them may discover during this event that occupational therapy makes more sense for them.
The internship and job fair brings recruiters from a variety of businesses to interview students. It opens doors that might not otherwise be apparent to students, and also gives them experience interviewing for jobs.
The weekly workshops and clinics cover a myriad of topics, such as resume writing and editing, interview prep, how to begin and pursue a job search, how to create a LinkedIn account and how to use it, how to apply for federal jobs, and life after graduation. That last one is usually coordinated with the senior class and offers information on basic adult life skills not taught in college, such as employment, budgeting, credit, debt management, banking, housing, car leasing vs. buying, insurance, retirement accounts, and taxes. It’s geared toward students who are looking to move out on their own.
What do you love about your job?
Working with college students as they plan their future is fun, uplifting, and forward-focused. I love to help students relate personality and interests to possible careers, and I love walking students through this process of determining what it is they truly want, and what they’re willing to do to get it.
What’s the most challenging part of your work?
The hard part is when students come to me contemplating a change of major. They thought what they started doing was what they wanted but now they’re not sure. Sometimes students feel torn between what their parents want for them and what they’re realizing they want for themselves, and not doing what their parents want or expect can make them feel like a failure. I help students navigate all of this to figure out what it is they want to do and can do well. We look at where they can find jobs, how much more school, training, and time it will take to get there, and how much money they can make at that career. Those are the things that assure not only the student of which choice is the best one, but also reassures their parents.
So is what you do something that’s only helpful to college students?
Actually, no; I also use what I do as a recruiting tool. I sometimes go with enrollment to visit academies and do the Strong Interest Inventory assessment test with the high school students. I explain what it is and what to expect, then administer the assessment, then we talk about the results. I explain why certain fields come up a lot, and what traits the student might exhibit that gave them the results it did. Then they meet with one of our PUC recruiters, who talks about what PUC has to offer that can provide a path to those careers.
How do you keep up with everything that’s out there?
Something that gives me a unique benefit in this job is the three years I spent as the tutoring coordinator in the college’s Teaching & Learning Center. In that role, you know every professor, every program, every class. You know when classes are offered and know the catalog inside and out. It helps students with the projection of their future at PUC: How much time will it take if I change from A to B? Is it worth it? Do I want to be here another year?
Also, during the grad fair I make it a point to connect with the program representatives and gather materials they bring for students, so I can at least know the basics of what’s out there and what will be expected in various areas of study.
Since we have a lot of students who continue on to Loma Linda University, it is helpful to attend their every-other-year training, where each LLU school presents on changes to their program.
What’s the most common question students ask you?
Probably the biggest one is “How do I find a job?” We help them begin that process and follow through on leads. Some students have resumes already but they need some additional work. That’s what we’re here for. I worked in business management for 15 years and I’ve hired and fired many people over that time. I know what employers look for and I know what they don’t want. I know what makes potential employees stand out, and I help the students who come to me learn those skills, too. Students need to know how to look professional when they apply for jobs. Cover letters, for example, are essential. Not everyone who writes a cover letter gets the job, but pretty much everyone who gets the job wrote a cover letter. Learning to be prepared for interviews and looking better on paper is what we do here.
If you could offer one piece of advice to college seniors, what would it be?
I know it feels like it, but you’re not the only one not getting a job. You’re not the only one getting rejection letters. It takes time, and it takes patience and it takes knowing what you’re doing. Knowing all the right stuff and doing all the right things doesn’t always lead to a job, but it does make it much more likely to happen. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
So, what are some fields students can focus on that have a higher likelihood of available positions?
Anything with the word healthcare, medical, computer, and engineering in the title or job description.
What about students who want to start working after an associate’s or bachelor’s degree instead of going on to a master’s or doctoral program? What kinds of careers should they look for?
We sometimes believe to be successful in certain careers and professions, that a person needs to get a master’s or a doctorate degree. This simply isn’t true. Maybe your strength is hands-on. Maybe your passion is doing the physical work, rather than analyzing and reporting it. There are plenty of jobs out there in a variety of fields such as, healthcare, medicine, communication, business, fine art, design, and so many others. The pay is good, and graduates can make a living wage. We need those people.