Life in the Petri Dish



Those two things can feel so disparate sometimes. “The Academy” and everything beyond it can feel totally beyond reach from within the Scripps bubble. I had a kind of rough time freshman year finding my place at Scripps. Transferring from small-town breadbasket to (sort of) big-city liberal arts was not easy for me at first. I don’t think I realized how disoriented I felt (feel, sometimes) at Scripps until I came back here and found myself feeling more comfortable and grounded.

So whenever it would re-occur to me that I had to write an essay linking my on-the-ground, Midwestern, political experience with my radical, liberal arts, legal studies education so that I could get Scripps credit for my internship, I would freak out enough to push the whole thought from my mind for awhile.

And three months later, here I am, still struggling to find words to help me make the mental journey from here to my classes that start in two weeks.

I wish I could say that connecting my education to my summer job is easy. It isn’t. You may feel like you’re living your education when you’re pushing through a heavy round of midterms, but you’re not. You’re not actually living your education until you have to walk it and talk it in a room full of people who aren’t your professors or classmates.

You’re not actually living your education until a person’s path crosses yours one time, and one time only, and in the ten minutes you share together, the only thing you can tell them is that the law doesn’t require Veterans Affairs to provide them with health care benefits they know they earned during their service.

It’s hard to connect what I’ve learned at school to what I’m doing at work not because my education isn’t relevant or because my home state is some utopia far removed from the stuff I’ve learned in my classes. I think it’s hard because when you’re examining something “in theory” and from a distance–and this goes for any subject, I think, not just the humanities–you get a bird’s-eye view of a problem. But when you’re out in the world, you’re not granted that perspective. It’s easy to examine bacteria in a petri dish when you’re looking through the microscope. It’s totally different when you’re living and working in the petri dish and are trying to make acquaintances with the other bacteria. Looking at a problem in a controlled environment is so much different than looking a person in the eye. And I struggle to incorporate the complexities of my education into the unique situations I encounter every day.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. When I was first starting my tutoring job on campus, the hardest part was knowing the right questions to ask and the most helpful (and realistic) advice to give. After probably a year of tutoring, I realized that my response to each situation came from the same mold but carefully tailored to each new person and her essay. I’ve had to do the same thing as I learned to collaborate with the staff at the Scripps newspaper. I’ve had to do the same thing as I learned to take disgruntled constituents’ phone calls this summer.

So I guess what I’m saying is that it takes more time and more careful thinking to incorporate your education into your every day life than most people (including me) ever realize. It requires experimenting, adjusting, and continued learning. If there’s anything I’ve learned in my legal studies classes, it’s that the law is heavy and onerous and at the mercy of the whims and shortcomings of everyone who touches it. That much I can say without a doubt has been true. But I’ve struggled with knowing what to do with this information.

This is probably why my career prospects are all over the place. You don’t really get a ton of guidance in this area in the classroom, but that’s because it’s unique to each person, and it’s something you just have to learn as you move about in the world after college. That’s really, really daunting. A career in sheep herding is sounding pretty great right now.

“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”
(photo credit: MissMPhotography)

I always struggle with coming up with an ending for things that I write, probably because the way I write and think always produces more questions than answers. I always feel like I need to impart some important piece of wisdom to tie it all together (thanks, 8th grade English), but rarely do I have that kind of clarity. I told a good friend who reads this blog that I sometimes feel like I should have a huge banner above each of my posts that says “DISCLAIMER: I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT.”

Full disclosure: I’m lost inside and outside of the petri dish.

This summer has been such an experience. I’ve learned a lot about politics and what (good) legislators actually do, certainly, but I’ve also learned a lot about myself and what I expect from myself going forward. This summer has reinforced one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned at Scripps: it’s okay to not know what I don’t know. I hate to leave you with that, but this work in progress has a lot more learning to do.

Thanks so much for putting up with my ramblings all summer. Take care, and good luck!

All the best,

How to Spoil Your Intern

I am a very lucky intern.

So lucky, in fact, that I almost feel bad writing this post–I think we’ve all heard of the Internship Coordinator from the Black Lagoon, and unpaid (or grossly underpaid) internships are becoming more and more of a controversy. So writing a post about how spoiled I am seems a little silly, especially since it’s most likely job-seekers who are reading this blog, rather than employers.

But then it occurred to me that those of us who are scrounging for internships now will eventually get to a point where we’re going to have entry-level or interns under our supervision. So if nothing else, maybe these lessons will stick with those of us who have been there. Maybe this will help us to not be the future Internship Coordinators from the Black Lagoon.

“Who can tell me what ‘leverage’ means?”

The most important thing, I think, is to make sure your intern is a necessary part of the team. I’ve said before, I’ve never felt like the smallest or least important voice in the office (even if I am the littlest fish in the pond). My coworkers are sure to include me whenever they can–my manager in particular will stay back at the office so I can go on outreach or to events with the group. My manager has also been careful to ask me what my interests are so that she can include me on projects that are related to my goals. Even if I’m only doing a small part of the project–research, drafting a letter, whatever–I’m still learning more about the process and the topic itself than I would have had I not been involved.

But then there are the little things my coworkers do for me. They make sure I don’t pay for anything. Obviously I pay for my lunch every day and my gas to and from the office, but if we go out for food or drinks as an office or have to travel to an event, they refuse to let me pay for myself and will let me take my car only if it’s by far the most convenient option. When I persisted once about buying my own lunch when we took a coworker out for her birthday, the office director said that when he started his first job with an elected official, his boss’s policy was that interns didn’t pay, and he’s made sure that’s how it’s been in every office he’s been in. This seems a little much, and I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to include it in this post, but considering they don’t pay much for the 40 hours a week that I work, this is a really kind gesture.

There are so many more things that my coworkers do for everyone in the office, not just me, that make this such a great place to work. One woman brings fresh roses from her garden for our desks. Everyone brings treats: we’ve had doughnuts, treats made from fresh rhubarb, and ice cream. We celebrate birthdays and holidays–we even had a retirement party for a man from a different office one time.

I’m so spoiled, I won’t even get out of bed for anything less than fresh rhubarb bars. (Click the picture for a recipe! But only if you can say ‘rhubarb bars’ five times fast!)

Do you have any dream-team internship stories? Or horror stories? If the office environment is terrible but the experience might be good, is a job worth it?

Summer Transitions

As I’m writing this, I’m facing my last week at my internship. The summer feels like it’s gone by in a blip. I’m doing a lot of wrap up—documenting the processes I’ve used so they can be continued, teaching a new analyst how to use a tool, creating slide decks for my two final presentations. The transition will be pretty abrupt for me. This Friday at 5 or so, I’ll leave work. Sunday morning I’ll drive down to southern California to visit with relatives, and then I’ll move back into Scripps on Tuesday for RA training. These last few weeks have been super busy, since I’ve been trying to cram in seeing all my friends and family around my normal work schedule. (I’ve had to sacrifice my daily workout, but hopefully Tiernan will be open when I get back).

I had a great, lengthy conversation with my manager yesterday about life choices and grad school and career options. She’s been tremendously supportive and appreciative of my work, and I was happy that she validated some of the unusual choices I’ve been making.

1.       Taking lots of math and economics, even though I’m all humanities on the inside: My manager got her MBA (while getting an MSW) for the same reasons — people who have quantitative or technical knowledge have power. I don’t want to let anyone mansplain why a policy I support isn’t economically feasible without the tools for refutation.

2.       Not returning next summer to my current internship, even though it’s well paid and at an organization I eventually want to work for: My manager (and my mentor, and my mom) stressed that internships are about exploration, and while they’d welcome me back, they understand that I want to figure out where I fit best.

3.       My semi-secret, maybe-probably-won’t-do it-but-maybe-I’ll-try-anyway dream of becoming an economist: My manager actually just assumed that path might be on my radar, since I’m interested in being a research assistant after graduation. It feels too big for me, and there certainly is a chance that I won’t make it all the way. I’m no math genius, and economic research is heavily math-based. Six years in a PhD program is a long time, and might conflict with babies and other life things. But there’s no danger in trying. It’s not as if I’ll be unqualified for any other jobs because I’ve taken too much math and econ. I can still go into policy, tech, teaching, or anything else, because of the magic powers of liberal arts education. At the moment, being an economist seems pretty appealing, because your work can involve theoretical research, policy focused research, and teaching. We’ll see if I survive multi-variable calculus!

I’m excited to switch gears next week for RA training. I’ve missed Scripps: the sunshine, the people, the beauty. I’m hoping that as much as I’ve stretched my analytical thinking at my internship, I’ll stretch my interpersonal intelligence in the next few weeks.

Figuring It Out. Maybe.

Sometimes there’s nothing scarier than infinite possibilities. But it’s also terrifying to make decisions that could limit your options down the road. So as I consider how I want to proceed with my post-graduation job search, I’m terrified of limiting myself to certain areas and industries, but I also can’t just magically produce a million resumes and drop them on the desk of every potential employer in the country.


I’ve come up with some parameters for my search that won’t necessarily make me feel like I’m eliminating too many good options, but I am still sort of freaking out about eventually having to choose something. Or, you know, not getting any jobs at all. But we’re going to pretend that won’t happen and that something will work out, ok? Ok.

In terms of industries, I’m considering trying to get into the judicial system, either as a clerk in a law office (preferably a government office, but I’m not going to rule out other options); a caseworker in an immigration office, child services office, etc. (whatever I can secure without a Master’s or targeted degree); or a career planning/job services office (that one’s a little random, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot). I’d like to try and do something that will compel me to use my language skills, and it’d be awesome to be in a place where I can attend language classes for cheap (at a local college, for example).

I’m really scattered when it comes to locations. It’d be so great to be near my family and back in my home state. But it’d also be fun to experience a new city–I love Minneapolis/St. Paul and Chicago so much, and Madison, Wisconsin, is a close third. I have good friends in all of those cities, and it’d be great to be close to that network of people I’m close with. I also just found out that my best friend will be moving to Portland after she graduates. I’ve never been to Portland, so moving there without even visiting freaks me out, but my friend and I were basically inseparable during high school, so having her nearby after four years apart would be amazing. It’d also be awesome to follow my sister wherever she decides to go to college in the fall of 2015, but she’s also looking all over the country, so I’m not sure I’ll be able to predict her plans in time to secure a job nearby. My sister and I are super close, and it’d be great to keep each other company as we adjust to post-high school and post-college life.

And then there’s the part of me that just wants to pack up and move to Morocco or New Zealand or something and figure it out.

To Whom It May Concern: I have none of the qualifications required for sheep herding. Please hire me anyway. Love, Em.

And then there’s feasibility of working somewhere. The economy and job market here at home are much better than other places in the country (and in Morocco, for that matter…no clue about New Zealand). But there are more immigration jobs in, say, Minneapolis than there are in a little town somewhere. Then there are things like the cost of living, the availability of public transportation, the safety of the city…all of which will have to be weighed against the money I could make at a job.

This is majorly tricky stuff. But as I start my job search, writing down my priorities and needs has at least given me a framework within which to operate. And as much as I hate having too many possibilities and tough decisions like these, it’s nice to know that no matter what I choose, there will be things I love about wherever I end up.

And, of course, that I can always change my mind.

Women in Technology and Leadership

When I told people where I would be working this summer, I got several warnings that my organization–big, old, traditional–would be an old boy’s club. It has nothing in common with a hip young company where you might expect to see innovative feminist practices sprout up. But what it does have are tons of women working in technical roles: as developers, architects, data modelers, and QA testers. Also, there’s a surprising amount of women represented in leadership roles within the IT department–program managers, directors, vice presidents (one of which is a Scripps alum!), group and senior vice presidents. It wasn’t just my team, in the more frequently lady-inclusive world of project management, where my manager and almost every member were women. There were smart ladies everywhere!

I’ve taken two key points from this unexpected environment.

1) The extremely varied but effective leadership styles of the women I saw in leadership are a toolbox I can use to develop my own.

2) Big organizations, as unhip as they are, can be more supportive and inclusive of women and marginalized populations than startups, because they are so deliberate.

Leadership styles: 

When I first started work, trailing behind my manager to many, many meetings, I was blown away by the authority and directness of the women leaders I saw. These women are fierce to question vagueness, to correct information, to redirect discussion, and to stake their claim. These are qualities I’m sure their male peers shared, but I was fascinated by the women. Part of this is just my subconscious, culturally constructed created view of femininity. But my appreciation was also based on my lived experience as a frustrated loudmouth in a sea of girls who seemed more polite, more attractive, but also so quiet! I don’t know whether it was debate, my hippie church, my feminist mama, or some genetic factor that made me stand out in middle school and high school as that girl in class. I was (and basically still am) a know it all, a chatterbox, a teacher’s pet, bossy, annoying, blunt….the list goes on. But in these meetings, unlike in class, it was considered helpful, appropriate, and impressive for everyone to speak decisively and directly on the subjects they owned.

Obviously, in most of these meetings, I wasn’t the subject matter expert, so I didn’t speak up. But when I do know something, and no one else shares it, I chime in. This didn’t happen from nowhere; I was imitating the behavior I saw from effective female leaders.

The universal factor I saw was authority, as I’ve mentioned before. But apart from that, I saw different women use a variety of styles and tactics to lead.

Empathy: This is an old stereotypical lady strength, but I’ve seen women who embody this value without losing their toughness. For example, our chief product owner frequently backs up her points by referencing the impact it would have on her reports, the product owners. Managers and officials who make a point to understand and be appreciative of their team’s effort are well-liked and well-respected.