Future Reflections Winter 2013
by Mary Fernandez
Reprinted from The Student Slate, Fall 2012
From the Editor: Mary Fernandez, who won an NFB National Scholarship in 2010, is a recent graduate of Emory University in Atlanta. In this article she describes her long search for a job and gives some pointers for other job-seekers.
I jumped out of the cab in front of Union Station and made my way quickly to the ticket counter. I had already missed the train I had planned to catch, and was hoping to make the next one. I bought my Amtrak ticket and made my way to the gate. It looked like I would make it on time for my first-ever job interview.
Once on board, I sat down with every intention of relaxing. But after five seconds exactly, my thigh started to twitch. Taking a deep breath, I told myself that, while this was a big deal, it would be okay, right? Then my foot started tapping.
Okay, I'll call my mom! Well, that only took ten minutes. Fine, I'll listen to some relaxing music. I will ignore the five-year-old who lives in my head and at times like now asks annoying questions like, "Are we there yet?"
If I was going to be thinking, I might as well think about things that might help me during the interview. The only problem was that, aside from the research I had done during the last two weeks, I wasn't quite sure that I was even qualified to be a paralegal. That thought brought my mind back around to my résumé ... Did I include everything I had done? Did I ever fix that one spelling error?
Okay, this wasn't working, and I still had fifteen minutes to go on the train. I gave up and just let my thigh twitch, but restrained from picking at my nails. Hopefully no one was staring at me and my peculiar behavior. Or if someone was looking at me, hopefully they had nothing to do with the decision about hiring me.
At long last, after what seemed like three hours instead of half an hour, the train arrived at Baltimore's Penn Station. I walked as quickly and in as dignified a manner as my four-inch heels would allow me. I got into yet another cab and asked the driver to take me to the offices of Brown, Goldstein & Levy. As I sat in the cab, I wondered yet again how exactly I had managed to land an interview for a dream job that I hadn't even considered during my job search.
The ride was mercifully short, and I still made it the requisite fifteen minutes early. Okay, I had made it! IN TIME! I sat in the gorgeous lobby and utilized every tool I had ever learned to control stage fright. After a while my twitching subsided, though my heart rate still speeded up if I thought too hard about the importance of the next hour.
The interview started exactly on time, and as it turned out, it wasn't an hour, but closer to two hours. I was quickly briefed by the firm administrator and told that I would be speaking to a total of five people. The good news was that, after the second person, I just couldn't keep up my high agitation level. With everyone I spoke to, I realized more and more what a wonderful opportunity this job could be.
By the end of the interview, I was exhausted, and my heart rate had picked up again. This time, however, it was just pure unadulterated excitement. Sadly, that excitement lasted until I realized that now I had to wait to find out the end result.
That night I came back to Washington, DC. I was set to wait for at least two days to know whether or not I got the job and to reflect some more on how it had all happened.
It all started in October of my senior year. After a rather dramatic epiphany during which I realized that psychology was not what I wanted to do for the next seven years, let alone the rest of my life, I found myself at a complete loss. Here I was, months away from graduation, and the plan that I had so carefully sculpted during the last four years had crumbled right in front of me.
After I had tired myself out with my panic at no longer having a ten-year plan, I finally calmed down and started listening to what people had to say. I also started listening to myself. Much of what was coming out of my mouth, things like, "Oh my gosh, I'm a failure!" and "There's nothing else I can possibly do with my life!" stopped making as much sense as it once did. I figured out that what I really wanted to do was try working for a year or two. Then I would go to law school, something I had wanted to do since the age of seven.
Okay, great. I had decided not to go straight to graduate school and to try to find a job in one of the hardest economic times our country has faced. And so it all started.
I officially began my job search in November of 2011, and I did not get an interview until June of 2012. Like all my fellow graduating classmates, I became an expert on job searches. I started by crafting a good résumé--which I doubted on my way to my first job interview. Be that as it may, I tried to make my résumé not only succinct but also demonstrative of all my hard work and achievements during my four years in college. The end result was a résumé that had a strong foundation and only needed a few tweaks, depending on the specific position. It listed a double major at a liberal arts college, a third language, internships every summer, significant academic research and my name in a publication, and service to the community. But my résumé did not cut it for about fifty jobs.
Once I had a résumé that was approved by friends and the career center at Emory, it all began in earnest. My major focus in looking for a job was to try the federal sector first, since the benefits are great and supposedly the government is always hiring. I have since learned that the government isn't always hiring, especially since we are getting out of an economic recession. Despite that, I learned about some incredible resources that every student with a disability who is graduating from college should explore.
The first program I heard about is called WRP, or the Workforce Recruitment Program. It is a program targeting college students and recent graduates with disabilities. There is an application process, and recruiters will come to college campuses that have requested them to interview candidates; the end result is a database in which résumés and applications are posted along with the interviewer's thoughts about the applicants. This database is accessed by government agencies and private contractors who are interested in hiring individuals with disabilities.
Aside from WRP, I also became a frequent attendee of career fairs. Every career fair on campus was fair game. It got to the point where, if I knew I had a career fair to go to between classes, I had a whole routine for changing into my business clothes, going, doing my thing, and changing back into regular clothes before running across campus to go to my next class.
Of all the career fairs I attended, the most adventurous was a career expo for people with disabilities in Washington. The event was taking place on the last Friday of spring break. I decided to stay on campus through most of the spring break, as I had a recital to prepare for, and fly into DC on Thursday to go to the expo on Friday. I would use AirTran U, which allows college students under the age of twenty-three to fly for a significantly reduced fare.
So Thursday came along, and after packing my extremely fashionable and professional business outfit, I ran to get my nails done. Since the lady did such a fine job, I was now running a lot later than I intended, so I took a forty-dollar cab to the Atlanta airport. I didn't mind this so much, since all this money was an investment in my future.
I got to the Atlanta airport only to be informed that AirTran U had been suspended since Southwest took over. I was told that if I wanted to get to DC for the weekend, I would have to pay about eight hundred dollars. Now, there are investments, and there are investments; I did not have the capacity to make an eight-hundred-dollar investment for my future. I was crushed ... And I was determined ... I refused to believe that after all my preparation I would have to go back to Emory.
As I was starving from running around all day, I went to Wendy's and started to eat and work the phone. After a few phone calls, I discovered that a really good friend of mine has a wonderful father who works for Delta. This amazing man called me and set everything up so I could fly into DC and back to Atlanta at the best price I've ever gotten for a round-trip flight.
This career expo was extremely informative and opened my eyes to many realities about looking for a job. However, the most valuable lesson I began to learn that weekend was about personal connections and building relationships. I had been friends with this girl through our years at Emory, and I'm sure at some point she mentioned her parents' occupations. But if I hadn't built enough of a connection with her, her father would never have known about me and my plight.
Eventually, getting a job did not come about from spending entire weekends on <usajobs.gov> or applying to every job I could possibly, maybe, be qualified for. It came down to personal connections.
Soon after I graduated, I fell into a rather pitiful funk. I had a college degree and was back to living with my mother. I adore my mother, and I would not be anywhere close to where I am without her, but I had pictured myself in a position where I might be able to help her out after I graduated. After seeing me mope around for long enough, she finally asked me what my job search consisted of. I explained all of the Internet resources I was exploiting, etc. She said she was sure that would eventually get me results, but if I wanted a job in the next two months I should probably consider picking up the phone and connecting with people. After a minute of thinking this over, I decided that she was right, as always.
I called everyone I knew who has a job. Not only that--I focused on people who knew me, who knew my capabilities, who had worked with me in the past, and who are well-connected. I made it easier for them by forwarding them my résumé. Most importantly, I always expressed my gratitude to anyone who cared enough to take time out of their busy days to send my résumé to people they knew.
Something truly amazing happened once I took this approach. People who were looking for employees started calling me about potential opportunities. A week and a half later, I got an email from Brown, Goldstein & Levy, where my résumé had miraculously landed. I swear the only time I have screamed so loud was when I got an invitation from the White House, asking me to spend an evening with my idols, Michelle Obama and President Obama. Brown, Goldstein & Levy actually wanted to interview me!
Now, when you have been rejected over and over by people who don't have a clue about you, you start hoping just to have one minute face-to-face with them so you can show them that you are awesome. That is why, when I got a request for an interview, I jumped for joy and screamed it out.
I often speculate with my close friends that technology has not only changed the way we do things, but the way we interact with people. I pride myself on the fact that, while I love texting and will log onto Facebook at least once a week, I still talk on the phone for the majority of my communications. I like emailing, too. When you sit down and take more than five seconds to write something that is more than 160 characters long, you are more likely to make a close connection with the person on the other side. But even I had forgotten about the importance of networking in the true sense. A lot of us think of networking as meeting people for a minute or so, exchanging email addresses, and maybe emailing them or texting them when you need something and remember them long enough to think they might be able to help. But networking is more than being Facebook friends or being connected on LinkedIn. It is about building relationships with people and letting those relationships grow. Then, when you are searching for employment, you can call them up. They will not only know who you are, but will be proud that you have graduated, that you are in search of a job, and want to become a responsible citizen.
I was very fortunate that my mother gave me the little kick I needed to get going. Although the economy is slowly but surely getting better, I think now more than ever it is important to connect with people. As young blind professionals or students, we struggle not only with getting an interview, but with all the misconceptions that will inevitably arise when we walk into an employer's office. I was extremely fortunate that Brown, Goldstein & Levy is a law firm that not only knows people with disabilities, but has time and time again stood with us to fight for our rights.
I found my ideal job. It took many, many months of work and an incredible amount of perseverance. It took support from my friends. One particular friend, when I would start getting a bit hysterical after my twentieth, and fortieth, and sixtieth rejection letter, would assure me that I was really a rock star and that there was a job waiting for me. That same friend was proved right when the email with the job offer got to me through his Wi-Fi network, only one day after my interview. It took a reality check from my mother, who reminded me that while it might seem like technology runs the world, there are people behind those technologies who are looking for employees. It took a measure of luck. But in the end all it really took was a phone call.