By Lauren Herber, Editor-in-Chief
T-birds are renowned for having amazing careers that take them to far-away places. I’ve met many T-Bird alums that have traveled the world working for highly sought-after companies or that run their own successful businesses. It’s certainly an elite group to join, and if you aren’t careful, the pressure to have your whole career figured out or to secure an uber-competitive internship/job can become overwhelming. And unfortunately, this relatively common phenomenon isn’t something widely discussed among the T-Bird community. Yes, T-Birds have accomplished many wonderful successes, but I think most alums would tell you that it took time as well as trial and error before they discovered their passions and figured out how to build a career out of them.
The mounting pressure to land amazing jobs for amazing companies is something experienced by all T-Birds at some point, but especially by students during two specific times during their Thunderbird education: internship search season and job search season. T-Birds are told during their very first day of Foundations what the ultimate goal of their time at Thunderbird is: to land a job and launch a career. While it’s certainly important to keep your eye on the prize, it can be overwhelming for students early on in their careers (like myself) to answer so many questions about their future career. I remember feeling terrified that I was already behind because, at that point, I still had no idea what I wanted to do (I’m still in the process of figuring that out, if I’m being honest). That fear, pressure, and anxiety only grew worse once the search for an internship began. Where was I supposed to start looking if I didn’t even know what I was looking for?
Many students go through this cycle of anxiety, pressure, and disappointment. But hardly anyone talks about it. For myself, I hated talking about my “failure” to land an internship because I thought that speaking the words out loud would doom me to an eternally jobless fate. The longer it took me to find the perfect internship, the larger the shame grew in my mind. I was embarrassed that I struggled to find an internship and saw it as a reflection of my unworthiness. I was too ashamed to admit that I was struggling or to ask for help, preferring instead to pretend that everything was fine, that all was going according to plan, and that I wasn’t being suffocated by the pressure of my ideals of perfection. And, unfortunately, I’m not the only T-Bird who has experienced this. Many are ashamed to admit that they’re struggling with the pressure to live an idealized life characterized by never-ending success. So, in an effort to start a dialogue about this important (and oft ignored) issue, I figured I’d share my own personal story of “failure.”
I spent my summer working for a boutique public relations firm in the middle of Manhattan. I ate lunch every day in Madison Square Park and took the subway to my fourth-floor studio in the Upper East Side. Doesn’t sound too bad, right? The problem with that two-sentence summary is that it doesn’t tell you about everything I went through to get there. It doesn’t tell you about the fact that I didn’t get that internship until mid-May. It doesn’t tell you about the days I spent locked in my room because I was too overwhelmed with pressure and the looming shadow of what I perceived as failure to face the world. Those two sentences are a completely inaccurate representation of my summer internship because they leave out any part that wasn’t easy or impressive.
So here’s the truth about my summer internship, starting at the beginning. I accepted an offer to work as a summer intern for a tech startup in San Francisco in March. I couldn’t have been more excited; the internship was in business development for a very cool startup producing cutting-edge technology. Plus, it was in San Francisco—a city I’ve always wanted to try out despite having all my belongings stolen there last year. I couldn’t wait for the summer to start. I told everyone I knew that I was moving to SF for the summer and asked them to connect me to anyone they knew there. I reached out to T-bird alums in the Bay Area. I started looking for a place to live and making a list of all the things I wanted to accomplish during my summer in Silicon Valley.
And then, the last week of April, I got a call from the guy who had originally offered me the internship (you knew this had to go downhill at some point). Much to my chagrin—and complete and utter desolation—he had to rescind the offer. Funding wasn’t what they’d expected, and they simply couldn’t afford to take on a temporary intern who was just going to suck up training resources and then leave at the end of the summer. I completely understood the logic, but I was devastated. More than devastated, I was humiliated and ashamed. Most of my classmates had their summer plans set, and I couldn’t bear the shame of admitting the truth. I felt like a complete failure, and my mental vision was clouded with the absolute certainty that I was destined to be unemployed forever and that I wouldn’t amount to anything. So I didn’t speak to anyone or leave my apartment for several days.
Finally, I admitted to myself that I needed help. Still too embarrassed to share the truth with any of my classmates, I called Lisa, a T-Bird alum and close friend of mine that I met the very first week that I came to Thunderbird. At her house, with my face buried in her dog Luna’s fur, I spoke the words aloud for the first time since I’d received the call: “It’s May and I don’t have an internship.” She stared at me for a moment before breathing a sigh of relief. “Oh, Lauren,” she said to me, “I thought you were going to tell me that you had gotten kicked out of school or something. Don’t worry. We can solve this.” She let me wallow for a few moments longer and then gently reminded me that much of the fear and pressure that was paralyzing me wasn’t real. She reminded me that everyone—my classmates, T-Bird alumni, everyone—had struggled before, and that it wasn’t something to be ashamed of. She told me that by letting shame or embarrassment keep me from reaching out to my classmates for help, I was doing myself a huge disservice. And you know what? She was right. In the next couple of weeks, I went from feeling overwhelmed by pressure to overwhelmed by the support that I received from classmates and alumni. Eventually I landed the PR internship in New York City. And no, it wasn’t my dream internship. It wasn’t the most amazing experience in the world. But I did learn a lot about myself and about what I want from my career.
While I was living in New York, I attended the TIAA’s alumni event there. Several T-Birds shared similar experiences and times that they had struggled. One alum and friend of mine even shared a heartbreaking story about a T-Bird alum that he knew that took her own life. He never even knew she was struggling. What I’m getting at with this story is this: yes, Thunderbirds are amazing and talented. Yes, Thunderbirds have incredible, impressive careers. But they still struggle. They still face pressure and disappointment. They still experience “failures.” And there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. It isn’t embarrassing to reach out to someone for help, or to admit that the pressure of success is more than you can handle on your own. No T-bird is immune to these struggles, and this is a dialogue that we need to have openly. The perfect lives portrayed on social media aren’t a reality. It is not weak to show vulnerability. Together, we are stronger.