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'Happiness could be whatever I wanted it to be...'

Last night, I was at a holiday party at the home of a friend of a friend. It was approximately 98% couples with children. I couldn’t help but feel that immediate twinge of wondering if something is wrong with me, the 36-year-old single girl who has advanced degrees instead of children and would be going home to an empty apartment without even a living plant (I have fake succulents – that pretty much sums up my life). But for the first time in really my whole adult life, I feel confident in who I am and where I’m going with my life. No one there judged me, in fact, every new person I met seemed genuinely impressed and interested by my story. But let’s back up, not all the way to the beginning, but to the point where my life started to drift off track.

After graduating from Boston University with a BS in Mass Communications Studies, I wanted to work at a radio station. I’m not sure why or doing what, but that just seemed like a good choice to me, a 20-year-old who had rushed through college in three years with a desperation to get out and start “real life”. As many college graduates do, I got my first job doing menial work at a company that did radio advertising, and that lasted about six months. I had stayed in Boston for that job, but I decided it was time to move to the big city – New York City. Growing up in New Jersey, this was where successful professionals moved after college. You got your studio apartment in Murray Hill or Normandy (aka dormandy) court and you went to bars and met guys on J Date and eventually you married one of them and moved back to New Jersey and had babies. That was the plan. So, when a family friend’s daughter needed to find someone to take her old job in compliance at an investment bank in midtown, I said sure I’ll interview for it (immediately followed by the questions, What’s compliance? and What’s an investment bank?). I went in for an interview on Thursday and I started the next Tuesday. I found my little studio apartment in a doorman building and everything was right on track.

Over the next four years, I ended up moving fairly quickly from my original job to one within the same company that would end up being more aligned with my “career path”. It was a good job, it paid very well, I was good at it…I hated it. While I can honestly say that nothing truly terrible every happened to me, the environment of banking was that of a frat house. By 2007, things were starting to go south (in the business, in my life, everywhere) and I decided I needed a change. I went to business school in Indiana not because I particularly needed or wanted an MBA, but because I needed an out from NYC and my life. I had two years of ups and downs, I got to travel to Australia which was a highlight of my experience, but the problem was, I didn’t actually change my own thought process about myself or my life. After graduating with an MBA in Marketing and Entrepreneurship, I was determined not to go back to New York and banking. While I was completing my MBA, I realized that while I didn’t exactly connect with the subject matter I was studying, I was incredibly drawn to the administrative side of the college. I wasn’t sure how to make this career change happen, so I figured I’d just keep going to school and get another masters in Higher Education. I had applied, was accepted, and was already to start school again when the fear kicked in. The uncertainty (financial, personal, professional) took over to the point where I gave up on that dream before it even started and I ended up right back where I was - living in a studio apartment and working at an investment bank in midtown Manhattan.

For the next five years, I can really only describe myself as stuck. I had the career, the salary, the apartment, friends, family – it all should have been enough, but none of it was what I truly wanted. The problem was, I didn’t have any idea what it was that I wanted. So, I moved from bank to bank to every few years thinking that maybe a different bank would be the answer. The problems were always the same. I tried briefly working at a non-profit, but there were so many red flags during the interview process that I ignored because I was so desperate to do something different, that it inevitably ended in me leaving without even having a new job. So, after that I did what I knew, I went back to a bank. I was in my 30’s, not married – not even really dating at all – and I felt like a total failure. Not because I particularly wanted to be married or have kids, but because I had it set in my mind that there was this path I was supposed to be taking, and because I wasn’t, I had no idea what the alternative was. I had no one to model myself after so I just assumed that my life was wrong.

In the last year that I lived in New York, starting around spring 2015 I found a therapist who really helped me turn my life around. The first time I went into his office I was a pretty sad excuse for a human being. I had given up hope that someday I might have a truly happy life, which is a really unfortunate place for a 34-year-old. Over the next year, I made incredible progress with the biggest shift coming in my own expectations for myself and what happiness meant. I realized that happiness could be whatever I wanted it to be, and just because I didn’t fit this mold that I thought all women my age had to follow, it didn’t mean that I was wrong. It just meant that I had different plans, and it was my responsibility to determine what that happiness means for me and my future. I knew at this point that while career wasn’t the end-all, be-all of happiness, it is, and will continue to be, a huge part of my life and I can’t be hopping from job to job every two years for the next forty years. So, I decided to do what I had attempted to do before - go back to school for higher education, but this time with a fresh mindset and about myself and my future.

That brings us to the present, December 2017, where I am a second-year doctoral student studying Higher Education Administration, about to start on my dissertation. Last summer I packed up my New York City apartment for the last time and moved to southern Virginia where I knew no one and had only been once to visit campus. But this time I wasn’t running away, I was running towards something. While every college is different, there’s something so special about walking onto to a campus and seeing the promise of the future for its students. This is something that I want to be a part of. A career that, no matter what office I may be located in on that campus, I know I’m going to be a part of making a difference. Where I can take my own experiences (both good and bad) and use them to have a positive impact on the lives of students, colleagues, and the entire campus community. It’s a future that, while still completely uncertain, I truly believe holds happiness for me in whatever form I choose to make it. Life isn’t perfect, and I still feel that twinge every now and then of wondering where I went wrong, but I’m confident enough now to push those feelings aside to be able to see all the things I’m doing right.

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