I Am Beginning To Sound Like My Parents

I am officially old.  I don’t know exactly when it happened, but more and more I find myself acting like the “old” people I remember from when I was “young.”  For example . . .

  • I remember my parents saying, “When I was young . . . ” and now I have been caught by many saying the same thing.
  • Some people have joked when sometimes I refer to young people as “kids.”
  • I used to be able to manage a “to do” list completely in my head.  Recently I have found myself forgetting things I told myself I needed to do only minutes earlier.  Like remembering to check the garbage each time I leave the apartment.  Now, if I think of something I immediately try to punch it into my Blackberry so I don’t forget.
  • I am no longer anywhere near familiarity with American pop culture.  At a recent social event someone (that I might refer to as a kid) looked at me like I was from another planet when she started talking about someone named Taylor Swift and I had no idea who Taylor Swift was.  I also have not heard of half of the hosts or music groups appearing on Saturday Night Live in recent years.  I was weird to see Charles Barkley host recently,  I remember him hosting over 15 years ago when the feature group was Nirvana . . . ah the good old days.
  • And oh yeah, gray hairs for me are not something I randomly stumble upon anymore, they have begun to dominate certain portions of my head.

So it seems my memory is going a little and I’m starting to sound like my parents.  Don’t worry, my memory is not so poor that I forgot what I read in an admission file when immediately filling out the review sheet after reviewing a file.  When meeting with the Committee to make final decisions these review sheets come in handy because I do take pretty extensive notes.

Speaking of notes, many people on the Committee tell me I should have been a doctor.  Why?  Because my hand writing is terrible.  With a Blackberry and my laptop, basically the only time I write is when I am filling out a check to hand over to my landlord or filling out admission review sheets.

If I seem like I am rambling like an old man I am guilty as charged, but I do have a point I want to make.  Another thing I remember “older” people saying to me when I was “young” was something along the lines of . . .

“You only truly learn through experience.  Sure you can go to school and study things, but until you are out in the real world there is nothing for the learning to stick to.”

I often find myself speaking with prospects that are still in college and are very excited about going directly to graduate school.  A SIPA we do admit a small number of applicants coming directly from an undergraduate program, but we are careful for a variety of reasons.  Fortunately I am not the only one with advice and an opinion is this regard.  Take the following quote from an interview with Olutayo Akingbe, a 2005 MIA graduate:

What was the most challenging part of your SIPA experience?

“I would have to say that being very young (21 when I entered SIPA) while my colleagues were years older than me was a challenge for me. I didn’t have the work experience, or the life experience, that a lot of my classmates could bring to the table that enriched class discussion.

I turned the challenge into my advantage by using it as an opportunity to learn from the experience of my classmates but in hindsight, I wish I had a little more world experience before attending SIPA. I think I would have gotten more out of my education in the end.”

And at a recent SIPA Alumni event I spoke with an alumnus of our program and asked if there was anything about her SIPA experience that she would have changed.  This is not an exact quote, but it’s close:

“My only regret is that I did not start at SIPA at age 27 or 28 rather than 23.  There is so much I have experienced in the work place that I would have liked to examine within the walls of SIPA.  As a 23 year old I often had no concept of what my classmates were talking about much of the time.”

And finally, I was speaking with a SIPA faculty member recently and this is part of what was said regarding admission file review:

“Some of the younger students at SIPA are too focused on their grades.  Not that grades are not important, however it is the education that is important.  Too often I think young students do not take risks in the program because they are afraid it will impact their grade.  In the real world risks are the foundation of some of the best policy.  For me the mark of a mature student is one who does the work to learn, and the grade is really an afterthought.”

And on a personal note, I won’t go so far as to say that choosing to get my MBA was a “mistake,” but I can say that when I look at the SIPA curriculum I start to drool.  My MBA taught me a lot, but much of the curriculum did not really excite me.  At SIPA, an MPA would have taught me the same core skills, however I would have been able to choose classes that truly excited me and were in alignment with my personal interests.  The kicker?  I enrolled in my MBA program when I was 28.  So even six years out of college did not totally prepare me to choose the “perfect” graduate program for me.  As they say, hindsight is always 20/20.

So when speaking with someone still in college with their hair on fire that has their whole life planned out, the old man in me now smiles a little.  Sure, there are “young” people that are smart, motivated, and certain of what they want to do for the rest of their life, but there are probably as many or more who in 10 or 15 years will not be doing anything close to what they thought they would be doing when they graduated from college.

So in the end the point of this post is twofold.  First, there are a lot of applicants that apply to SIPA either while in their senior year in college or having recently graduated.  It is more competitive for these applicants to be admitted partially because we want to make sure applicants really know the right graduate program for them.  Sometimes this takes a few years of “real life” to work out.

Second, the classroom experience at SIPA is greatly enhanced, both for you and for your peers, when you can flavor your individual and group work with experience.  There is a great deal of group work at SIPA and it is nice to be able to work with individuals who have spent some solid time making decisions they are held accountable for in the work place.

Let us say that you are working on a group project at SIPA focused how the United Nations should develop global responses to terrorist threats.  While Model U.N. experience might be valuable, it is safe to say that the group will have a better learning outcome if maybe a member or two actually worked on security issues at the U.N. for a few years.

I am not trying to dampen the spirits of young applicants to our program, I am just trying to provide a bit of perspective – both as the Director of Admission and as someone who completed a professional graduate degree program.  As I have stated in other entries, I seek to be as transparent as possible, and the reality is that one of the strengths of our program is the wealth of real world experience our applicants have.

A minority of young people with outstanding academic records and internships are admitted, but each year these individuals account for roughly 7-10% of our admitted applicants.  Also, as you have heard from some SIPA alumni, you increase your chance of getting the most out of the program if you have some experience that helps to shape your learning objectives while enrolled in our program.

Young applicants do have some valid concerns when I talk about this issue.  They might often say something along the lines of the following:

You are telling me I need experience to apply and the jobs I want require a Masters Degree.  This puts me between a rock and hard place.

My response?  I agree.  However, approximately 90% of those that are admitted to SIPA did find a way to get a job after graduating, and maybe not the one they necessarily wanted – this is not entirely a bad thing.  The first couple of jobs I had out of college were not my dream jobs, but they served a great purpose in that they gave me transferable skills and taught me what I did not not want to do for a living.  Possibly the best decision I ever made in my life was also to move to a foreign country for a few years after graduating to decompress and grow in ways I could not have if  I had stayed in the U.S.

You talk about experience and I have a lot of experience with internships and volunteer work.  Doesn’t this count for something?

Yes, volunteer experience and internships do “count,” but these experiences are most often short term.  Sometimes people are able to figure out what they want to do through short term experience, and other times the fire begins to subside after the next short term experience begins and another fire is lit.  One of the challenges that faces SIPA students is the vast choice as far as classes – our students enroll in over 1,000 courses per year.  Student that are focused and have experience are best able to navigate the vast listings to choose courses that are relevant to their goals.

So I apologize in what I have written here sounds like it is coming from some out of touch old man, but it appears that more and more I am beginning to fit that mold.  You will have at least one more chance to read a sort of “parental lecture” blog entry when I share my Peace Corps story sometime in the next month or so.

For now, I will date myself further and quote a music group I could recognize, unlike Taylor Swift who I would be unable to pick out of a line up.  I don’t think any member of the Rolling Stones applied to graduate school, however I find great wisdom in the chorus from the song, “You can’t always get what you want.”

You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you just might find
You just might find
You get what you need

So take heart, sometimes in life you get what you need rather than what you want, and down the road it all makes sense.