Altered Expectations and Changing Goals
When I started college, I thought I had it all figured out. I had graduated from my high school valedictorian. Feeling like I could do basically anything, and also feeling like I was expected to either do pre-med or engineering, I chose to enter Ohio State as a pre-engineering major. Pre-med, after all, would never work out for me – I was too squeamish. Engineering seemed right. Engineering seemed like what I was supposed to do.
There were some things I never factored into my early choices before arriving for my freshman year. I had never really learned how to study. I came from a small high school in small town Ohio and what I didn’t realize is that perhaps things came easy to me there not because I was some Einstein-level intellect, but maybe instead because classes at my high school weren’t exactly what you’d call rigorous. Additionally, I was on both merit-based scholarships as well as minority scholarships; I hadn’t realized until my senior year of high school that the region I had grown up in – Appalachian Ohio – is considered an at-risk, underdeveloped part of the country. Wow, what luck! I thought. Free money, all for winning the location lottery. I wasn’t thinking about why such aid was offered to Appalachian students at the time or the fact that these scholarships were to help students overcome adversity and barriers to education. I didn’t yet fully understand what those barriers were.
I finally got it my first week, though. My engineering classes were miserable – not because I felt like I couldn’t do them, but because they were boring to me. I was panicking. To make matters worse, within a few weeks I realized I had no idea how to prepare for college level exams. My pre-engineering advisor coldly told me that a lot of people weren’t cut out for the rigors of the major and that maybe I should switch, and good luck finding courses open now that the semester had already started. I get that she probably saw so many freshmen panic and jump ship from the major, but it was cold. I finally realized the gravity of the fact that I was now personally responsible for the course of my entire life. I was 18. I was not prepared for this.
I switched into Exploration – Ohio State’s fancy term for undecided students that made me at least feel like I was Indiana Jones instead of a young adult in the midst of a pre-quarter life crisis. One of the most helpful things I did was talk to people, multiple people, all the people – because although some people might seem like they’re totally uninterested in the students they’re supposed to help mentor (looking at you, pre-engineering advisor lady), if you keep digging, you’ll hit gold eventually - you just have to find the right fit. Eventually I found a few right fits – an advisor I had a single conversation with at a major fair, who told me if I enjoyed languages in high school I might try an Intro to International Studies course – just one, to see if I like it. Nothing necessarily lost if I didn’t, I’d just leave knowing a little more about the world. He directed me to a list of the U.S. government’s so-called “critical languages” – languages important for national security, but with few qualified experts in the States. I decided to try Russian, and there I met another mentor – my Russian professor, who was a hard-ass but surprisingly knowledgeable and encouraging. I found a lot of her recommended study habits for Russian were transferable.
I also decided to pursue opportunities for development beyond just classes. One of the best pieces of advice I have for newcomers - and I cannot stress this enough - is to pursue these varied opportunities and to meet as many people as you can. I applied starting my sophomore year to any and every interesting internship until something stuck – I probably sent out around a hundred applications for things I was much underqualified for. I even applied to one internship that I felt like I knew for certain I had no chance of being selected for. Unfortunately, I was rejected for the summer. So I applied for the fall, because hey – most students don’t apply for those, given it doesn’t fit as easily into an academic calendar year. And to my surprise, I was accepted. I interned in the fall of 2013 at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Later, in graduate school, I also interned at the U.S. Department of State headquarters in Washington D.C. I met so many wonderful people on these internships. In fact, five years after the first internship, a fellow intern tipped me off on an obscure but wonderful job opportunity, ultimately leading to my first job out of grad school.
It can be hard to adjust to college, especially given all the variables – moving from a small school to a large one; learning to navigate the bureaucracy; simply finding out where the opportunities are before you can even begin to go about figuring out how to secure them. My advice is: don’t panic. Take a deep breath. Don’t beat yourself up if your plans change – we go into undergrad as just-barely-adults and that means we have a lot of expectations that maybe don’t quite match up with reality. Your journey will not be straight forward; you will likely have to explore your options to find the right fit. Your network is your support, so talk to everyone. Feel it out and build connections. And pursue opportunities beyond the classroom – academic clubs, social groups, internships, research. Often those experiences will be the most meaningful, and the most rewarding.
Jessica hails from Chillicothe, a small town in southern Appalachian Ohio. She currently works in Houston as an analyst in global risk, focusing on threat analysis for Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia.
Jessica Educational History:
2010 – HS Graduate, Paint Valley Local Schools
2014 – BA in international studies and Russian, The Ohio State University
2018 – MA in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies, The University of Texas at Austin
2018 – Master of Global Policy Studies, The University of Texas at Austin
Connect with Jessica:
Jessica Terry (LinkedIn)