Making the Transition From Academia to the Real World: Tips and Takeaways from the 2012 Civically Engaged Alumni Roundtables

In the spirit of Martin Luther King Day, the Office of International Program Development/Global Health Studies (IPD) and the Center for Civic Engagement hosted the Civically Engaged Alumni Roundtables Event on January 17th. An opportunity for students of all backgrounds to network with accomplished alumni, this event illuminated how NU academics and extracurricular opportunities have fostered diverse career paths across and within various fields of interest.

Of the nineteen alumni present at the event, six had participated on IPD study abroad programs and three of those six had global health minors during undergrad. Benjamin Harris attended both Public Health in Chile and Contemporary Brazil, Yogesh Khanal and Kay Kim participated in Public Health in South Africa, and Brenna Rosenberg went on Global Healthcare Technologies in South Africa. Exploring a different part of the world, John Romankiewicz embarked upon Science and Engineering Research in China and Navita Sahai enrolled in the Public Health in Mexico program. Since studying abroad, each of these young professionals has chosen a different career path. At the Civically Engaged Alumni Roundtables, they represented three sectors in the public interest: Health/Medicine, Science/Technology, and Global/International Work.

Yogesh Khanal (WCAS ’07), a prospective doctor of internal medicine, and Benjamin Harris (WCAS ’10), a health analyst at Erie Family Health Center, recounted the experiences that had impacted their divergent trajectories in the health field during the Health/Medicine Roundtable. Both pointed to travel abroad, which gave them practical knowledge of fieldwork in both clinical settings and public health. But while Yogesh desires to treat individuals, Benjamin opts to study health outcomes at the population level.

On advice to students pursuing medicine, Yogesh asserted: “Make sure they have explored all possibilities. My interests have continued to develop and change and so keeping an open mind to all those possibilities is always worthwhile.” Benjamin similarly suggested keeping an open mind, but for a different reason: “You don’t know everything right now and you’ve got a lot to learn. A lot of your talents will be developed later on.” It is clear that for these health professionals, exploring and actively pursuing knowledge and skill-building opportunities in the United States and globally has been pivotal in their young but fruitful careers.

In the Science/Technology Roundtable, John Romankiewicz (McCormick ’06) of the China Energy Group at Lawrence Berkeley Research Laboratory discussed his internationally geared focus on clean energy development in the U.S. and China. To complement his environmental engineering track, Brenna Rosenberg (McCormick ’09) of the US Department of Defense touched on how her past clinical experiences led her to become a biomedical engineer, conducting studies on traumatic injuries at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

Reflecting on his undergraduate studies, John emphasized language and intercultural study as an important component of a science and technology career. He declared, “I encourage students to go abroad. It was such a formative experience for me and opened my eyes to a whole different set of things that I hadn’t seen before, especially for engineering majors that don’t take time to study language… Having learned the language I was able to get in such closer touch with China and Chinese people.” Brenna likewise expressed that creating relationships with professionals across the world is a vital experience for personal development. “Through talking to them you really understand where technology fits into real life, into real settings- and that’s something at NU… we don’t have an appreciation for nor an understanding of really.”

Like John and Brenna, Kay Kim (WCAS ’07) and Navita Sahai (WCAS ’09) expounded upon complementary but distinctive professional tracks within the umbrella term of Global/International Work. Kay has spent her life living and working in different countries around the world; these experiences helped land her a position as the Resource Development Director of Global Peace Connect, a nonprofit connecting rural communities with development initiatives. Navita Sahai is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public health at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health. She just returned from a six-month stint in Kigali, Rwanda aimed at reducing gender-based violence and previously completed a three-month USAID fellowship in Cambodia.

Kay and Navita gave many pointers about finding meaningful work in the international arena, even if one is unsure about the next steps after graduation. While Navita advocated signing up for various nonprofit newsletters to gain insight into the various opportunities available in specific sectors, Kay suggested that keeping abreast of international news is crucial to being a valuable company asset. Both also encouraged learning a second language, saying that it was essential for gaining opportunities across the world.

From their discussion, it became clear that international work requires a commitment to networking and a broad background with specific interests. Kay said, “After graduating Northwestern I didn’t have a clue about what I wanted to do.” However, she added, “ I always knew I wanted to work in a place where I could make a social impact.” This mindset seemed common amongst the students at the session, to which Navita suggested: “Be very multidisciplinary…If you can do a little bit of everything sometimes that can be a big benefit.” Kay’s professional background is in finance while Navita’s is in public health; because they had focal skills which influenced their outside pursuits, they were able to gain positions within their fields of interest but also explore other facets of nonprofit work through their experiences abroad.

Undoubtedly there are many takeaways from this event. Network, travel, build a diverse skill set, learn a second language, and ultimately be open to opportunities outside of your comfort zone and field of interest. As Brenna thoughtfully expressed: “See the world. Realize that seeing the world doesn’t just mean going somewhere really far; seeing the world could mean walking across the street and understanding that people have a very different life from you. “ She continued, “Open your eyes and try to get out of the shell of standard experiences.” This is something all of these incredible alums have in common; they have taken risks, explored new worlds, and are building a unique legacy for themselves. Each of these young professionals is constantly delving into new opportunities and weaving their diverse experiences together into a fulfilling and exciting career.

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