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Not sure what you’re going to do after college? Don’t hurry to come up with an answer; God may have some surprises.

“Tell me: Where do you see yourself in five years?”

Oh boy.

I had taken care in dressing, styling my hair, and getting to this job interview early. I had brought along an extra copy of my resume and a list of references. I thought I was so prepared — until now. Was it over before it had begun?

The kind lady whose job it was to question candidates looked at me, unblinking, as I squirmed. The only clear thought that came to my mind was “shoot, man.” Not an appropriate answer. I noticed the wall hangings behind her and the tall plant in the corner of the room. I wondered what the other job candidates had answered before me. I considered how it would reflect on me as a potential employee if I said I’d like to have a graduate degree, or be a full-time mom, or be working somewhere better, or still be right here with this company, in five years. I was stymied.

I smiled. I shifted in my seat. I took a breath.

“I’m not really sure,” I said, trying to act as though that was the most normal response in the world. I considered elaborating, to demonstrate that I had so many interests and possibilities before me — but then I remembered that it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt. I cocked my head intelligently, raising one eyebrow involuntarily.

Need I tell you? I didn’t get that job. But that day I began my quest to find an answer to that ubiquitous question.

Sometimes I have longed for whatever “good old day” it must have been, when a person was born into a profession, trained to do it, expected to do it, and paid to do it. Meanwhile, I have found a sour-grapes kind of comfort in the point that James makes to his fellow followers of God about relying too heavily upon our own plans:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” — yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in arrogance. All such boasting is evil (James 4:13-17).

I can’t exactly whip that verse out in a job interview, though. I have to admit: It is important to make reasonable plans. The point that James is making is that we also should remain humble and know that our plans could be changed at any moment by factors beyond our control.

The college years are some of the most intense when it comes to that gnawing feeling that “I just have to figure out what I am meant to do and start doing it.” Maybe the year or two before college is worse, when you have to decide whether to go to college at all, and where, and then write essays to convince an admissions committee that you know exactly what you are about. But certainly once you arrive on campus, you find that everyone has something called a “major,” and without one, you’re in some sort of limbo land, taking core classes and electives that you hope might unearth your hidden genius in … whatever it is you were meant to do.

Hopefully someone at your school has told you that you are not alone, and that a significant number of incoming freshmen are “undecided.” Those who have declared a major are likely to change it in the next year or two anyhow. You have at least a year to decide. Take it one day at a time.

When I was a freshman, my transcript said “undecided” at the top, like some kind of scarlet letter indicating that I hadn’t grown up yet. Perhaps you are fortunate to attend a school with more sensitive administrators, such as Valparaiso University, whose Web site declares that students who arrive “with a mind full of aspirations” (and without a declared major) are called “exploratory” students.

Whatever they call it these days, if you are not absolutely certain about what degree you’d like to earn, you may sense that you have some serious decisions to make. Take heart; even the most successful people have been where you are. Here are some “friends” in this quest for a career that you should get to know:

The core curriculum

Every core program has some infamously difficult or tedious classes, but even these are sure to be helpful. At my school, everyone was required to take three full semesters of humanities (a.k.a. “human-agonies” to some) — the same three courses offered every year covering the arts, culture and literature from the beginnings of civilization to the “modern” age. And juniors would sweat at the mere mention of the name of the poli-sci teacher, who assigned loads of reading and called on students in class with no apparent regard for whether they had their hands raised or their heads under their teeny-tiny desks. His course was mandatory, too. Honestly, the things I learned in that course have provided the most useful information to me in life after college. Core curricula are designed to help all of us be well-rounded, even those enviable folks who have known what they wanted to do for a living since they were 5 years old. If you are at a college or university that requires you to take humanities, English, foreign language, math and science, count yourself lucky. At the very least, you will discover what you absolutely do not want to major in.

Academic advisers

These people, usually faculty members, have seen lots of students in your position and are pretty good at matching your skills and interests with potential career choices. A word from the foolish on the other side of the pomp and circumstance march: Seriously consider taking the courses they advise. I’m about to enroll in an undergraduate course I could have taken long ago, just in order to meet the prerequisites of a post-graduate program I want to apply to enter. I could have saved myself a year on this end if I had listened to my adviser and taken more math and science while I was in college.

The community

Volunteering at various sites in or around your college or university can be very informative. For instance, by adding occasional volunteer work to your courses and bookwork, you could learn that you love — or hate — working with children; that you love 6-year-olds but can’t stand 12-year-olds; that you cherish the environment enough to pick up trash every Saturday morning; that you are far too much of a “people person” to survive as the lab researcher you thought you wanted to be; or that there’s nothing out there you would rather do than fiddle with computers all day. Also, as you offer your time and talents to the community, you are bound to meet interesting people of various ages and professions. Before either of you know it, one of these individuals could end up teaching you just what you were trying to figure out.

One caveat: This is a fallen world, so please keep your eyes open and your conscience alert. If you’re at a college or university where the above-mentioned “friends” are not really friendly, such as some of the ones I have read about in the past on Boundless, then beware. If your core courses force you to regurgitate things you know to be irreverent, or your “adviser” has a plan for you which includes activist demonstrations and political statements before he or she has memorized your last name, or if your community-volunteer duties begin to include running mysterious packages down remote alleys, it’s time to find some new “friends” to assist you in your pursuit of a career.

Even the strangest experiences can teach and strengthen us. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to do the wrong thing, so it is important to keep your eyes wide open. Far better to end up in a more humble position in life than you had projected — but with a clear conscience — than to have achieved your somewhat arbitrary 5-year plan with a wake of broken trust and damaged relationships behind you.

One summer day during my college years, I was thrilled and a little bit intimidated to find myself in line at a wedding reception behind Larry, a man I admired. He was a policy expert in the department where I was merely a summer intern. He was kind, smart, gentle, insightful, and funny. He had a lovely wife, three healthy children, and a house near the mountains. I imagined that he had a clear plan for his life, and that this was it. I was at a loss for anything intelligent to say to such a man.

Fortunately, another intern standing in line between us was more talkative. He asked Larry a few questions about his life, and soon Larry was sharing with us the tale of an elaborate journey. He and his family had moved from one state to another — more than once — to follow job possibilities, or even to escape a miserable situation. He had been a pastor for a time, then a counselor. Later he had held some other random jobs, and for now he was a policy analyst. He hadn’t known how all this would turn out. There had been days along the way when Larry and his wife didn’t know how they would pay their bills. In fact, at that moment, Larry didn’t even know what God had in store for him next. From where I stood, it was clear that Larry was very good at what he was doing right now, and that all of his past experiences had prepared him for this. As though he had planned it. Only … he hadn’t.

I don’t know whether Larry ever had a 5-year goal at any point along the way. If he had, he may not have fulfilled it completely — but he certainly had been faithful to God and to his conscience. As a result, he was where he was meant to be. God had planned it all, and He was still at work in the twists and turns we call surprises, disappointments, and opportunities.

How simple it is to see that there is a Divine plan unfolding when you are looking at someone else’s life. With this in mind, we can be sure that there is also one for our own.

So, where do you see yourself in five years? Even if you’re not sure, I do advise coming up with some sort of intelligent answer to that question before you have a job interview. Think of it as an expression of where your talents and interests, combined with your efforts, could plausibly take you, and don’t lose sleep over whether you will have to revise it in 60 months. Here’s a good beginning: “Lord willing, I would like to….”

Copyright 2002 Laurel Robinson. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Laurel Robinson

Laurel Robinson is raising two little girls and writing in Maryland.

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