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A Job Loss Helped Her Find a New Purpose

A woman’s determination to mentor young graduates turns into a national program that levels the playing field for those who do not have the resources in finding their dream job.

A woman mentors a graduate student

On a beautiful June day seven years ago, I lost my job. It wasn’t unexpected. The website where I’d worked for 10 years had been sold to a publisher in another state, and my colleagues and I were waiting for the axe to fall. Most of us were laid off that day. When it was my turn, the HR manager and I cried a little together. She understood that my situation was different. I was 63 years old while most of the other staffers were in their 20s and 30s, their careers still ahead of them. Was mine over? Who would hire me? How would I earn a living? And who would I be without a job? For 40 years much of my identity had been wrapped up in my work.

This was in the midst of the economic recession. For the next two years, I job-hunted (no luck), did freelance writing, and volunteered once a week as an after-school tutor. The frantic pace of my life subsided. After many years of commuting, rushing between home and job, between raising kids and pushing ahead professionally, there was quiet. In those silent spaces, I had time to ask myself what I really cared about.

Intuitively I came to an answer. I cared about young people and was concerned about their future. But that was a pretty broad-brush outline. How could I fill in the details? What contribution could I make to creating a better future for the next generation?

At that point, my husband shared an idea he was mulling. Ken had retired from a varied career in social work, government, real estate, and life and career coaching. We had often discussed that, as bad as the economy was for my job prospects, the effects of the recession were even worse for young people just starting out. Burdened by huge education debt, unable to find even an entry-level job, many were feeling hopeless and stuck. They were in danger of becoming a lost generation. Ken’s brainstorm was to start a free program in which coaches and mentors would volunteer to help unemployed and underemployed young people launch their careers. “Let’s do this together!” he urged.

It felt right. I’d enjoyed mentoring younger people at work, and this fit with my desire to assist the next generation. We started in a small way–putting up a flyer at the local YMCA to find recent college grads who wanted coaching. Through my husband’s coaching contacts, 25 wonderful life and career coaches signed up to volunteer. Grad Life Choices was born!

Five years later, we have 85 certified professional coaches all over the country (including Alaska) whom we match with college grads in their 20s. The young people find us on the internet and through word of mouth.  Coaching is done by phone or Skype, so location doesn’t matter.

So far more than 220 grads have received coaching, and 55% have found career-track jobs within a few months of finishing the program. Ninety percent have rated the coaching positively and say they are closer to their goals.

Over the course of 12 one-hour sessions, the coaches help them figure out what work aligns with their values, skills and passions, and then assist them in making a plan to more forward–including helping them with résumés, networking, interviewing, and job search strategies.  

One of our hopes was to level the playing field for economically deprived young people without contacts or support to access good jobs. So we were surprised and happy when it turned out that many of those reaching out to us were first-generation college grads, some even the first in their family to graduate from high school.

In exchange for the free coaching, we ask all the young participants to “pay it forward” to someone who needs their help. We explain that we won’t know whether they do or not, but the potential is there to create a ripple effect of kindness spreading outward in unforeseen ways. In fact, a number have offered to mentor other grads in the program.

Wendy Schuman is a former editor of Beliefnet.com and Parents Magazine. She is co-founder of Grad Life Choices (www.gradlifechoices.com) and co-author of the forthcoming book, “Millennials in Wonderland.”

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