The following is a repost of an interview that I did for the Social Enterprise Institute of my alma mater, Northeastern University. I was very involved in SEI during my time in undergrad, and even for a bit afterwards. Thanks to SEI, I discovered my current career path and was able to participate in some of the most unique learning experiences I’ve ever had, from researching urban and rural microfinance in the Dominican Republic, to working with coffee cooperatives in the highlands of Nicaragua, to developing curriculum for a small business management training program in Boston.
Looking back on my own skyrocketing trajectory of academic, professional, and personal growth during these years, and my lessons learned since, I felt compelled to dedicate this interview to the undergrads a few years behind me, who are now going through the same transformative experiences that I did. Because obviously since I have a college degree, I am thus legally Old And Wise and can give unsolicited advice!
A conversation with SEI Alum, Rebecca Willett.
Rebecca, tell us, when did you graduate?
I graduated in May 2013.
We’re eager to know; what have you been doing since then?
The day after graduation, I left for the Dominican Republic to work as a Teaching Assistant for the Social Enterprise Institute’s (SEI) microfinance field study program. One hectic but wonderful month later, I came back to Boston without any concrete plans or a job lined up. I spent a couple of months applying for jobs (I also did a bit of biking, reading, and doing my best to enjoy “funemployment”!). I was then offered the job of being an International Co-op Counselor at NU. I was particularly excited about this position because it would allow me to work directly with students and enable them to have the same formative international experiences that I had! Subsequently, I decided to revisit my academic roots and personal interest in social entrepreneurship, and was accepted into the Frontier Market Scouts fellowship in social entrepreneurship and impact investing. I just completed the program’s two week training in California. Up next is a six-month placement in Colombia at a startup-stage social enterprise.
Can you tell us a bit about your college experience as well?
Sure! I can truly say that I took full advantage of the flexibility and international opportunities available to me at Northeastern and within my major, International Affairs and Anthropology with minors in Social Entrepreneurship, and Latino, Latin American, and Caribbean Studies. I did my first co-op at Boston Medical Center Grow Clinic for Children. I spent my “middler” year abroad, with a semester in Costa Rica and a co-op as an English teacher and volunteer coordinator at a primary school in Western Honduras. It wasn’t until junior year that I began to get involved with SEI. I began taking Professor Dennis Shaughnessy’s classes, and that summer participated in the Dominican Republic field study. Energized, I completed my final co-op at Interise, a nonprofit in Boston that offers an educational program for small business that want support in further growth. I also worked as a Teaching Assistant for the SEI capstone trip to Nicaragua, and participated in several other service trips to the Dominican Republic. Along the way, I took a semester off to do an internship at a social enterprise working with solar energy in schools.
What pushed you to remain so involved with the Social Enterprise Institute?
With a year of experience living in Central America and seeing firsthand many of the problems that weren’t being solved by traditional development or aid methods, I identified quickly with social entrepreneurship and the philosophy behind this method of poverty alleviation I became more and more involved with SEI until–and even after–I graduated!
We know that you speak Spanish fluently, how did you make that happen!?
I started, like most students in the American education system. I did well on tests but I didn’t feel as though I could truly speak or understand a word of the language. I credit my Spanish skills to two experiences: traveling and living in Hispanophone countries, and listening to lots of music in Spanish. Learning lyrics in Spanish provided me the opportunity to practice speaking, hone my accent, imitate native speakers (over and over again, with no shame, until I got it right), learn phrases, vocab, and idioms, even without anyone with whom to converse! I also developed an embarrassingly fierce affinity for cheesy Mexican pop, which I’m not even mad about (it’s great for learning a language, and it’s also great for indulging your inner romantic softie).
At the end of the day, I just really, really wanted to learn the language, and was super curious about every aspect of it. I was extremely observant all the time (and continue to be– learning a language never ends!). I make mental notes of new words to look them up later (the WordReference app is my best friend), I wonder why someone phrased something in a certain way, and I add all of these back into my own cycles of vocabulary and grammar.
What would you say was your favourite part of being an “undergrad” and now, what would you say your favourite part of being a graduate has been?
My favorite part of being an undergrad was interacting with a myriad of new ideas and concepts, people, and being exposed to countless opportunities, particularly international ones. I evolved so much as a person during my five years at Northeastern (I quite literally had different friends every year). To be honest, I never would have imagined being the person I’ve become, and I like to think that the freshman Rebecca would be pretty proud and impressed, albeit probably rather surprised.
Being out of school has been great. After an initial period of not knowing what to do with myself, I concluded that not having homework and one million other responsibilities, I could take part in different activities simply because I wanted to. My hours outside of 9–5 were mine again! I read books for pleasure, I ride my bike and I go running, I started teaching myself Portuguese, and I have been dedicating more time to my passion that would probably be most surprising to younger me–salsa dancing!
After going 100 miles per hour for so many years with the next step ahead of me always in mind, with pressure to excel, with “that other thing I should be working on” always looming over my head on Sundays (we all know that feeling–how are we supposed to enjoy #SundayFunday like that?!), it is so nice to truly have my free time all to myself!This has allowed me the mental and emotional bandwidth to truly focus on my goals, figure out what I really want, and make it happen.
What’s the best piece of advice that you have ever been given?
The best piece of advice I have ever been given was to keep my eyes on my goals and to understand that we achieve our goals in steps, not all at once. In undergrad, we are very fortunate to be surrounded by so many role models who are inspiring both personally and professionally and who are doing amazing things in their careers. However I think this often leaves us wondering; what comes in the middle? It’s so inspiring to learn about so many leaders in our fields of study, but it’s not always clear how you get from being fresh-out-of-college to being the CEO of a social enterprise or a renowned organization.
This advice that was given to me allowed me to see my first job out of college as an important step in the direction of my goals, but also to understand that my first job didn’t have to be my dream job, nor where I would stay forever! Understanding that allowed me to really focus on learning as much as I could in my job, without being distracted by feeling like I should lament the fact that I wasn’t a CEO impacting millions of people quite yet.This allowed me to have an incredible learning experience, develop very unique and important skills, and feel that it was okay to move on when a new opportunity revealed itself.
What advice would you give to incoming freshman to Northeastern?
I might be biased on this one, but…GO ABROAD! Preferably as often/ for as long as possible! It doesn’t matter what your major is; the perspectives you will gain by living in another place, within another culture, and another way of life is a completely different category of learning than in your classes, or even on a domestic co-op.
Not only is it key for your professional development, but it is incredibly transformative in terms of your personal growth. You will realize your capacity for independence; you will gain intercultural competencies that allow you to effectively and respectfully interact with people of different backgrounds, and you will build your ability to empathize. Empathy is not just about kindness and respect; it is a key skill for any workplace, and an important part of any negotiation or compromise as you are able to understand others’ perspectives more readily.
Going abroad can seem a bit intimidating, especially if you haven’t traveled much before. But I would encourage all freshmen to build it into their undergraduate plan wherever they can, and dare to believe that you can indeed make it happen! Quite often we don’t give ourselves enough credit for all that we are truly capable of, and we owe it to ourselves to have the chance to shine. Being outside of our comfort zones is the only way we can truly push our boundaries and find out all the things we are truly capable of.
What advice would you give to outgoing seniors?
- Be patient and kind with yourself. Take time to do things that make you happy, and allow yourself the time and energy to focus on what you want. Surprisingly enough, although sometimes it feels like college led us to believe otherwise, there is more to life than just a career! It should be work and life, not work versus life.
- Dreams aren’t always accomplished all at once–and that’s okay! Take time to think about how the opportunities in front of you can help you build a path towards your larger goals. Envision what you’re currently doing as a stepping stone to get there–not a blocker, or a distraction. Whether your current activities are a step on the right path or carrying you away from it, is completely up to you and where you decide to take yourself!
- Define your own path. In college we are surrounded by lots of different role models, both our age and older. While it is great to have inspiration and celebrate the successes of people we admire, I often felt I was comparing myself to them. I sometimes felt that what I was doing wasn’t good enough, or cool enough, or prestigious enough, or creative enough. What I’ve learned is that my path will always be different than theirs, and not only is this okay–it’s a beautiful thing! I am free to do whatever and go wherever I want with my story, and owning this has been one of the most gratifying parts of beginning my post-college life and career. I encourage you to draw inspiration from every possible source around you, work hard, and above all craft your own story.
- Set goals and make them happen. Is experience your main obstacle in making your next step happen? Think about the skills you’ll need, and get out there and build them. When the time comes to make your move, you’ll show up with a full skillset and a convincing value-add for the team. Is money your main obstacle for taking your next step? Set yourself a realistic timeline and make reducing your silly spending your priority. Ask yourself how much value that new pair of jeans would really add to your life, or how memorable yet another $60 bar tab will really be in the big picture, in comparison with your big, bad life goal that you’re pursuing? If you realize that you want it enough, you might find that it’s not quite as tough of a decision after all
Thank you! [Original article can be found here.]