It was 5 a.m., I was dressed up like a second-rate real estate agent and my mother had her camera out.
I was about to go to the airport to fly to my first professional interview.
But while I spent the day navigating three airports and one office when I should have been in class, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the whole thing was a farce. I was no young professional. I was a 19-year-old kid in her mother’s five-year-old blazer. My black clothes clashed and my one pair of dress shoes made an inexplicable squeaking sound when I walked.
That I lacked an appropriate interviewing ensemble could be chalked up to my indifference to fashion before a severely restraining budget – though my cash flow would definitely tighten if I decided to invest in office wear. But as I lined my shoes with toilet paper to muffle the infernal clacking, I realized for the first time that my casual ways would have to go, that being a schlub might just cost me a job.
My mother had had the same problem. In a badly thought-out attempt at encouragement, she had told me about her first internship. As a young interior design intern, she had scraped together gas money to commute an hour from Ypsilanti every week for a summer. At the end of the assignment, she received good reviews on her evaluation for every category but “dressed professionally.” She was marked down for not having the clothes she was trying to work to afford.
Encouragingly enough, she ended up getting a better position with the same firm the next year. But, unlike me, my mother has never used a backpack until four fruit-sized holes threatened to spew its contents across State Street. And, unlike I will, she didn’t enter the working world when a tumultuous economy and shifting office dynamics threatened to eliminate prospective job options before she could even apply.
With those difficulties characterizing my own job search, it’s no wonder I’m anxious that seeming less at ease in the office setting will be a reason for an interviewer to hire some faceless Northwestern applicant over me.
But the transition from college student to young professional is tricky for even the most fashion-sensible student. Having watched my business school roommate, with her closet full of ironed button downs, and my engineering roommate, with his go-to black interviewing suit, negotiate the career world in between classes has cemented the universality of this plight.
While our talent, or at least titillating résumés, have landed us interviews, trying to put the best foot forward is difficult when the other is still planted on campus.
My business school roommate is in the midst of second-round interviews with investment banks. She has spent the last week racing breathlessly from class to interviews just in time to collect herself and seamlessly say what 23 multiplied by 28 is, or why she wants to work in an industry that is seeing new setbacks daily due to economic recession.
Next week, she’ll fly to New York and Chicago for zero-fun day trips while her professors begrudgingly mark her absences. It’s supposed to be the aim of the Ross School of Business, and the University in general, to facilitate the hiring of University students, but not at the expense of attendance rules.
The hardest part about negotiating a professional job search alongside college life is the unpredictability of it all. I can’t count the times I’ve seen my roommate have to field a call from a bank representative right as she was about to shovel the first bite of Ramen into her mouth or tell an inappropriate joke. Much like a dog that salivates at the sound of a bell, the change in her tone of voice has become a conditioned reflex to her ring tone.
Working for The Michigan Daily, I’ve experienced enough spontaneous work calls of my own. Too many times, I’ve fallen to my knees while walking to class to scribble down notes in the middle of the sidewalk because an elusive source finally called me back.
But the difference is even when I came off as frazzled or unprofessional I was able to collect and redeem myself. I knew that – if only for the sake of publicizing a cause/opinion/defense – the people on the other end of the line needed me as much as I needed them. I can’t say that for my prospective employers.
But of course, who’s to complain? I’m at a quality university with access to everything that ultimately gets people jobs. And while I could be filling out scholarship forms or doing work that would make me money now, I’m going to continue taking out loans and soliciting internship applications in the hope that some company will let me grace its office.
Maybe I’ll even buy a pair of shoes for the occasion.
-Jessica Vosgerchian is associate magazine editor for The Michigan Daily