When it comes to young people doing what they love we often send mixed messages that can be confusing. On one hand we have our commencement speakers and graduation cards filled with inspirational messages telling young people to go after their dreams. Yet on the other hand, when the graduation bash is over and reality has set in, we tell young people to do whatever they can to get a job. We are trying to be helpful, but we nudge them towards the first employer that offers a paycheck and job security. This is a problem. Young people have the best possible environment and circumstances (most of the time) to take risks, big risks! Someone in my life that has always lived life to the fullest and is living proof that taking risks can end well, is my friend Nina Duong.
Nina grew up in Texas, and attended University of North Texas. When she enrolled in college she also enlisted in the army as a means to pay for college. Her college experience included all the great times in and out of the classroom like many other students, but it also included a tour of duty in Iraq. When she returned from Iraq she took on more responsibility in the residence life department in a new position they created for her. She loved her experience as a student leader and had incredible mentors at UNT, and so she decided she would go into Student Affairs. Which sets us up for Nina’s first (of many) leaps of faith.
Nina had been doing a lot of research on graduate schools and had a list of about 4 schools that she was going to apply to. On the day she needed to submit her list of schools to receive her GRE test scores, she says she vividly remembers working in the residence life office that day. She received 3 different calls from either students or parents from NJ. She took it as a sign, looked up which student affairs grad program was in NJ, saw Rutgers had a program and added it as her 5th and final choice on her list.
Nina is pretty amazing so, many graduate programs were recruiting her. When she came to Rutgers she interviewed for a graduate position with my wife Courtney. The position was brand new, so Nina had to decide on the position based solely on the interview and a belief that this would work out. After falling in love with the faculty, and an instant connection with Courtney she took another leap of faith. She turned down some pretty killer offers at other programs and packed her bags for New Jersey!
When Nina arrived, Courtney convinced her to play on the softball team. I can still remember the first game of the summer before Nina arrived at the field Courtney was telling me and some friends, “I invited my new grad to play. She says she is terrible at softball but she is an Iraqi war veteran how could she possibly be bad at softball?” Nina was AWFUL at softball, but she brought the same excitement and enthusiasm that she brought with her to New Jersey onto the softball field. She came to every game, gave it all she got, and when our team made it to the championship she gave one of the best pep talks I have ever heard in my entire life.
Nina could have easily said, “why would I apply to Rutgers, I know nothing about that program?” Or, “why would I take a new position in a brand new grad program when I can go into an existing position at a grad program with a long standing tradition?” Or, “why would I play softball if I am terrible?!” But, Nina doesn’t second-guess things, she just goes for it.
The best example of this has come to fruition in the last year since she graduated from her masters program. When Nina graduated she had one of the best resumes of any grad looking for jobs that same year. She had residence life experience, leadership and training experience, she is a veteran, and she had experience with the multicultural offices on campus. Her resume was incredible, perhaps better than some folks that have been in the field a few years. Much like she was in high demand for graduate programs, Nina could have easily had her pick of jobs when she graduated with her masters in student affairs. But, Nina had a big idea and she had to go after it. After one night out with her friends Nina came up with an ingenious idea for packaging cosmetics. I am no expert in this area, but Courtney and her mom tell me it’s a really good idea. One of those, “why didn’t I think of that?!” type of ideas. Nina also possessed an entrepreneurial spirit and felt like if she was going to make this idea happen she had to do it now. First, she took some of the money she earned from her service in the war and traveled the world. She knew these experiences would help to not only clear her head and prepare her for this new entrepreneurial endeavor, but again she thought, “when else will I have the opportunity to travel like this?” When she returned she got right to work on her idea. She now works part-time for Apple as a means to pay the bills, but spends the rest of her time working on her new business idea.
Nina can always dust off her student affairs resume. There are folks that would love to have Nina join their team, and if/when she’s ready to work in higher education they will be lined up with opportunities for her. But, Nina is young, and so she is using her twenties to travel, learn more about herself and the world, and she’s taking the plunge on a bright idea.
What they have taught me:
Nina has taught me to trust my gut. She has this unbreakable belief that things happen for a reason. She has taught me to find the silver lining in things and to take more risks. She also serves as an amazing example when I am working with young professionals that need to hear it’s ok to take risks. I will often tell them about Nina as a way to encourage them to push outside their comfort zone and find something they love to do.
How they have inspired me:
I can’t spoil the ending just yet, but let’s just say that day 30 I will be announcing some big news for The Niche Movement. Nina has inspired me to take big leaps of faith and trust the process. If you are a good person and you work hard, you will come out the other end ok. The ride may be a little bumpy and may take some twists and turns you don’t anticipate, but at the end of the day you will make it. When I think of Nina I am reminded of this, and I can’t help but be inspired to do what I love.
Take risks. You are only young once in your life. When you have a mortgage and a family and more bills to pay it becomes harder and harder to take risks. Trust your gut, and go for the job that fulfills you and not just your bank account. You will gain incredible insight, perspective and life experiences from the risks you take in your twenties and thirties that will set you up for success later in life. Remember this, sometimes it is more dangerous to be cautious. Not all career paths look alike. Look at Nina’s path, it’s completely unconventional. Maybe you’re first step is doing some volunteering or working abroad. Look for a variety of different opportunities, not just the ones on your university’s career search site. And if you need a good pep talk, send Nina a tweet her handle is @sillybanina.