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Listening in the background

I went to a Denison event this evening after work and was talking to a current student who was studying English and he asked me, “Do you still write for fun outside of work?” I thought about it and honestly answered, “No, but I’d like to.”

I think I felt compelled to sit down and type something out after that comment.

A couple weeks ago I got an email inviting me to a “Career Ready Boot Camp Networking event as an alumni of Denison.” Sure, why not? Just say yes, right? Something I’d learned at Denison and that has been reinforced since graduation and since learning about improv comedy.

I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting myself into but was lured by the detail of free drinks and food. For the same reason, I’d gone to a Yelp Elite event last night at High Bank Distillery.

At both events, when I first arrived by myself and saw a crowd of people, I wanted to so badly turn around and run for my car. It’s terrifying showing up alone to places and seeing a crowd of happy people talking to one another. I tell myself that I just half to stay for 15 minutes. Then, if I still hate it after 15 minutes, I can leave.

This Denison event started out by all the alumni going around the room and introducing themselves to the students. I hate introductions and felt really shy in that room. It also became somewhat comical because alumni were going around saying things like “I work for the FBI,” “I’m a litigator,” “I’m a speech pathologist,” “I work for Facebook.” I pictured someone adding “I cured cancer.” “I worked for Obama.” I just could not imagine myself chiming in, “I do marketing for a non-profit.” I know, I know, I shouldn’t compare myself to others. I really do love what I do and I’m not ashamed of it. I think I get a bit insecure when comparing myself to other Denison alumni. The university puts so much pressure on you to be spectacular after you graduate, and if you’re not, then you’re never talked about or respected. It’s like you don’t exist or you’re a Denison failure. I felt this type of pressure in college and it rises up again at these Denison events.

The networking began (release the wolves!) and I felt lost. Here were these amazing alumni, well-dressed students who looked like they already had been accepted into law school, and me. I was in my snow boots (it was snowing outside!) and these tight business pants I’d gotten at the thrift store and convinced myself were a business professional. I took a deep breath, reminded myself I’d survived these types of things before and told myself I could do this.

I reached out (okay, followed awkwardly then when he turned around began talking) to a guy who looked just as awkward and out of place as me. We have something in common! I asked him what he was studying. He said English. Hey, we have another thing in common! I asked him what professors he had and he drew a blank. Okay, weird, but I’ll let it slide. I guess spring semester hasn’t even started yet. Another student joined our table and he studied Communication. Hey, English and Communications were my majors!

They told me they’d been on a full day of externships visiting Grange Insurance, Oologie (they couldn’t remember the ad agency’s name so I thought they went to Origo. Then they were talking about how the agency focused on higher education and I knew which agency they meant.) and another place they couldn’t remember. I was kind of jealous and proud of my alma mater for giving students this chance to see real workplaces in Columbus and meet current employees.

When I was a student I did a day-long externship at GSW, an agency that focused on pharmaceutical ads. That definitely influenced my career into marketing. I was fascinated by this company and wanted to work there or somewhere similar.

At the networking event, I migrated to another table (still nursing my CBC IPA beer) to chat with a young woman. She was an Education major. I asked her what her thoughts were on the teacher strike in LA. She didn’t know what I meant. At first I was mad at myself for making her feel awkward and ignorant but then I reasoned that this was an appropriate question. You should know and stay up to date with the issues going on in your industry across the nation (and listen to NPR religiously.) I remember when I was talking with a Dension alumni about working at a magazine she asked me what books I was reading. I was not expecting this question so flubbed my answer. Later, she told me that I should be prepared for this question if I want to pursue this career path. It makes sense.

I asked the student if she had studied abroad and she said yeah, she just got back from Copenhagen. Did you say Denmark!? My face lit up and I exclaimed I did too and I’m going back to Copenhagen in May and can’t wait. She was surprised I was still in contact with my host family. Heck yeah, I’m still Facebook friends with them and we still chat. She said she lived with a host family and had a great time too. We talked about our European travels and agreed the experience made us more independent and confident. She traveled alone to Amsterdam which I was so impressed by. I haven’t had the courage to travel alone yet.

Two other girls joined our huddle and I did my best to welcome them into the circle. I’ve been in their shoes where you slide into a group, listening and waiting to be acknowledged. I find myself becoming almost an unrecognizable best version of me where I’m overly friendly, smiling and wanting to make everyone comfortable. I’ve seen this part of myself come out at Women in Digital events.

My conversation with the three girls shifted away from academics and careers into the current party culture on campus. Apparently, there’s a party tent now? Students can’t party in their dorms anymore unless they register their party? Times are changin’. I liked learning how campus had changed since I left in 2014. Alumni are just regular people who want to hear how the campus has changed and stayed the same.

Someone at the front of the room tapped on the microphone and announced that the alumni would now go around the room and share what they observed of the student’s networking abilities and offer them a piece of advice. I looked to the ceiling, avoiding all eye contact. I’d skipped the introductions, maybe I could skip the recap. I’m usually not this much of a rebel but I think again I was just terrified by speaking to a whole room of people. What would I say? The other alumni went around and said valuable things like, “showing up here tonight is half the battle,” “say yes to projects at your first job,” “don’t make typos on your resume,” “email someone if they give you a business card,” etc. I nodded along and stayed quiet.

I liked talking to the students one-on-one but something about speaking in front of everyone and waiting for my turn just freaked me out. Writing about it now, I think back to my 9th grade English class with Mr. Shoemaker (who inspired me to study English in college.) We did this Socratic seminar as a test and you got points each time you spoke up and participated. I think we were discussing one of my favorite books, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I couldn’t get a word in. I couldn’t chime in or make my point. I didn’t want to interrupt or be rude but there was never a pause or lull in the conversation.

After the class, Mr. Shoemaker asked to see me. “What happened today, Ms. Gillum?” I loved that he called everyone by their last name. It gave us high schoolers this level of respect that we didn’t deserve.
“I don’t know. I got nervous. I couldn’t find a way to speak up. I wrote down what I wanted to say and add to the conversation. But couldn’t find a pause in the discussion.” I showed him my notes, which were scribbles of the points I wanted to add and gathering my thoughts in order so I’d say something intelligent. He said he understood and that it was fine this time but next time I’d need to speak up more.

So many years later, at this college networking event, and in meetings, I find myself still listening and struggling to chime in and say what I need to say.

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