Planned Happenstance

by Jessica Li

“Your major does not predict your career.”

I majored in Drama with a minor in Education Studies, and I am the College and Career Advisor at ScholarMatch.

My major did not predict the job that I have now.

First things first — I love my job at ScholarMatch. It combines my passion and joy of helping others with my unique and wonderful talents.

Did I ever want to go to Hollywood and become a famous actress?

Yes — maybe — but actually, not really.

The plan was to become rich and famous so that I could use my fortune and status to create a non-profit similar to ScholarMatch. Funny how things turned out, right?

I didn’t study something that seemed practical on the outside in regards to my career trajectory. Rather, I got the opportunity to dive in and learn about a “taboo” subject — the performing arts. I enjoyed my major. I loved the performing arts from the academic and practical side of things. Through honing in on my acting skills, I’ve gained empathy, compassion, a better understanding of body language and public speaking skills. Through my stage management courses, I’ve gained essential and efficient event planning and programming skills. Costume design and lighting? Perception and setting the tone of going into a meeting. The history of theatre? Literature and symbolism of digging deeper into the underlying meaning of events.

Jessica and her Acting class. Fun fact: the Teaching Assistant for this course is Grace Gealey, who stars in the TV series, “Empire.”

I had my checklist for Hollywood ready: head shots, make-up and costumes for my character, monologues, list of auditions, etc. When it came to actually looking at my list and going forth with my plan, I realized that this was not for me and froze.

This moment came exactly two weeks before graduation.

Thanks to the sage advice from my friend, I stepped into UC Irvine’s Career Center and met with a Career Counselor. I thought I was going to the Career Center to figure out how to land my first job out of college and to get my results from the Strong Interest Inventory, a career assessment. I was wrong. During my career counseling session, I became nervous, scared, and panicked. I am fairly certain my Career Counselor provided me with a lot more information, but the only thing I took away was that I “majored in the wrong subject,” that I didn’t know what to do after graduation, and “holy sh*t, I’m screwed.” I knew the performing arts wasn’t my true passion. It was a thought circulating in my mind, a doubt that was being repressed because I finished my courses and was graduating. I couldn’t go back.

I was struggling to land my first professional job out of college. This moment was filled with stomach-wrenching questions of:

“What do I want to do with my major in Drama?”
“What is my worth?”
“What can I bring to an organization?”
“How do I even know if I’m qualified for the role?”
“How do I put together a resume?”
“What’s a cover letter?”
“Shouldn’t I know this stuff already?”

How was I supposed to go home and tell my parents that I didn’t have a job and that I didn’t know what to do with my life? How do you even tell your parents, who’ve basically invested in your entire education, that this was all a sham?! The fear that I, the eldest daughter, would bring “shame” to my family surfaced and lingered in my mind.

I grew up with privilege surrounded by atypical standards and expectations. I am an Asian American woman and the eldest daughter of immigrant parents. I would describe my family as outliers compared to “typical” Asian American cultural expectations. While growing up, the messages at home were “try your best” and “education first.” I was never pressured to “only get all A’s” or to pursue a STEM occupation. My mother was never pressured to have a son to bring honor to my father’s family name. In fact, my father is blessed with three lovely daughters filled with sass and different but somehow similar personalities (fun fact: we can even match pitch to have the same evil laughter). Another thing to note is that my dad is a professional photographer, an artist. It was a rare scenario that my paternal grandparents allowed their son to pursue the arts, especially in the 1970’s. Despite the typical setback as an artist, my father has done well.

Coming out of the Career Center was when reality hit. The results from the Strong Interest Inventory looked me straight in the eye told me that this — Drama — wasn’t it. I started to think, “How did I even get to this point?” and “Did a career assessment really just tell me that I studied the wrong major?”

Looking back, I noticed how my Drama major classmates’ eyes lit up when they checked off another play they watched or read for fun or how they randomly acted out a scene or wrote their own plays. Basically, their passion bled out into their personal lives. It was truly them — and yet it wasn’t truly me. I didn’t have the drive like they did to be successful onstage, nor did I have the hunger and energy to want to make it into the industry.

The thing about college is that people do not talk about what you do after college until your last term. We push these fundamental questions aside, hoping to avoid them, until we have no choice but to face them. The hard part for me after having studied something I thought I loved over a “practical” major was not thinking thoroughly about life after graduation. This realization cut deep and made me question my past decisions. I did not have a job lined up. I did not know which direction I wanted to take, and I was pretty much clueless in the whole post-graduate “adulting” business. Even after college, with the assumption that you’ll have your life together, life still and will continue to throw curveballs at you, and that uncertain moment was definitely one of them.

Fortunately, we know that now I do have a job and a direction for my career.

After graduation, I moved home to the Bay Area and spent two long and hard years reflecting and finding myself. I am fortunate to have the support and patience of my parents, family and friends while I went through this process. During those two years, I worked as and volunteered at a variety of positions, including an administrative assistant, director of communications for a non-profit, production assistant, overall coordinator, program coordinator, design coordinator, e-commerce marketing assistant, retail associate, and intern with the county. After working at an education company, I finally found direction in my career path and went back to graduate school to earn my Masters in Career and College Counseling.

Jessica (center) with her family at her Master’s in Counseling graduation

Six years out from undergrad (and now a self-proclaimed career nerd), I can share a few words of wisdom to current undergrads:

1. Go to Your Career Center

Don’t wait until the last two weeks of your final year to go. The earlier you start dialogue about your major or a job that you’re interested in, the more you begin to start piecing the information together.

2. Every Career Journey is Unique

People will often give you advice that worked for them around job hunting in hopes that it will be true for you. Know that their advice may not be true for you, and that is okay.

3. Embrace the Curveballs

If it wasn’t for me running around in circles, I would not be where I am today. I treasure all the pit stops (related and unrelated) that got me to this point. In the midst of the pitch you’ll hate it, but it won’t be until after these moments that you’ll begin to appreciate them.

4. Job and Internship Searches Can be an Emotional Roller Coaster Ride

There will be hope and excitement, and then there will be moments of doubt, frustration and anger. A majority of people feel this way about the job search process and we never like to talk about it (the bad stuff at least). And I can guarantee you, I’ve felt all of these emotions listed above. This is a very intimate and vulnerable process. So be kind to yourself and know that you’re not alone.

5. Your Major Does Not Predict Your Career

If we chose to believe that “your major predicts your career,” we miss the curve balls and adventures that make our lives remarkably unique and amazing. If you can, take classes that you love and wouldn’t normally get the chance to learn more about (such as “Intersections of Race and Gender Performed in Japanese Theater”). You’ll never know where these gems of knowledge and experience will take you.

Jessica Li received a BA in Drama and a minor in Education Studies at the University of California, Irvine. She later went on to earn her Masters in Career and College Counseling at San Francisco State University. Jessica spearheads ScholarMatch’s Career Connections program, which connects college students with career professionals. In her free time, you can find Jessica practicing bikram yoga or rock climbing.

#MyCollegeStory is a ScholarMatch original series highlighting the diverse and varied journeys to and through higher education. Check back each month for new stories!

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.