Ike Onyeador is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania studying Urban Studies with minors in Sociology and Africana Studies. He is a sports writer for The Daily Pennsylvanian and, after submatriculating, will graduate with a master’s degree in Public Administration.
“So, what are you going to do with that?”
I literally cannot count the number of times I have received that response after the typical rapid-fire, small-talk questions that initiate almost every conversation college students have in new interactions.
Urban Studies. It’s not Business or Economics. It’s not Engineering. Not Pre-Med, or Nursing. Heck, it’s not even Political Science. It is an interdisciplinary major popular mainly in universities that are located in utterly devastated urban spaces such as Detroit or Philadelphia, or world-renowned urban centers like New York and Los Angeles.
I’ll be the first to tell you that people underestimate less quantitative and traditional majors. The good news is that with these lowered expectations, there are plentiful opportunities to overachieve and distinguish yourself from your peers.
At the core, it is all about what you bring to the table. I will avoid the cliché pacifier that “your major doesn’t matter”. It actually matters a lot. Allow me to explain.
You need to convey to whoever is listening that your major has ignited your passion and pursuit of knowledge, and you then need to connect that passion with whatever goal you are pursuing. No employer wants someone who will not hold themselves accountable for the decisions they make, and so thinking that you can walk into an interview without a good explanation for why you chose to dedicate four years and tens of thousands of dollars to a particular concentration simply will not cut it.
As an urban studies major, I was still able to get two internships on Wall Street (typically believed to be for business or econ majors), admission into a government administration graduate program (typically believed to be for political science majors), and a host of other opportunities that are not related in any direct way to the history, planning, and revival of urban spaces. As a result of success at my internships, I will begin working full-time at Citigroup this summer. “How’d I do it?”
The following is by no means a comprehensive guide, but I can confidently advocate for each one as a strong contributor to the (relative) amount of success I have realized thus far in life. And it all starts with being comfortable in your reality as the deviation from the norm:
Don’t apologize, or make excuses
If you don’t treat your major seriously, no one will. As I said before, people want to see passion. Showing that you are passionate about what you are doing (and how that relates to what you want to do in the future) outweighs giving the same boring spiel about an embellished desire to work on “Wall Street” for the rest of one’s life. Not even Wall Street bankers want to be there for the rest of their lives. For my first Wall Street internship, I simply connected the trajectory of cities and suburbanization to the present state of many once-prosperous urban cities. We then had a very interesting conversation about how business and commerce can be injected into struggling cities to revitalize them, and the role that Wall Street can play in terms of social impact. It worked.
Round out your person
Don’t just be an academic. Don’t just be a jock. Please don’t just be a partier. Hone your extracurricular, professional, academic, spiritual and social endeavors. Regardless of whether you want to work on Wall Street as a banker or on Broad Street as a community revitalizer, you will need people skills. By demonstrating that you are a well-rounded individual with interests more diverse than the job you are applying for, you will distinguish yourself from the pack. Every opportunity lends transferable skills, and it will be advantageous to be able to concisely and convincingly communicate them.
Also, don’t forget to use your resources. Stay up to date on current events in the industry (Wall Street Journal, Google News, etc). Take an accounting or finance class as an elective for the hard skills. Join student organizations that count professional development amongst their core goals. Finally, keep in mind that more and more firms are investing in strong training programs for all new employees. If you have the aptitude to learn quickly, you can absolutely keep pace and perhaps even overtake some of your “traditionally majored” colleagues. After all, many business programs do not teach on-the-job skills as much as they do theories and principles.
Reach out — early and often
Being ‘self-made’ is an imaginary concept. No one, no matter how adamant they are, achieved their success solely off of their own merits. While individuals’ levels of perseverance, resolve, motivation, etc. can vary greatly, the fact that they needed to network in some form or another to get where they are is true for all. And I know, networking can initially be very awkward. But with practice, it becomes second nature – and that’s when you’ll really begin to see results.
We are young. You don’t have to sell yourself as someone who has got it all figured out. In fact, in doing so, you might tip off your interviewer to a lack of authenticity in your character. At this age, most career moves are a means to a greater end that is largely unclear to us now. Just convey that your head is on straight, that you have something valuable to contribute to the larger group, and that you will make your boss’ life easier. It worked for me.