Mary Whited and Matt Jackson were college classmates with similar interests, but widely varying twists in their academic and career paths. Matt was almost immediately "turned on" to sociology. His professors were good and the material interesting and challenging. He decided he wanted to major in sociology and perhaps teach in high school. With advanced degrees Matt thought he might even teach in college. Matt observed that, "Teaching sociology is not like other disciplines. The specific topics and cases are always changing. You could teach a class for twenty years and have new material each time. From a teacher's point of view this keeps the courses always fresh and interesting." But his dreams of teaching were cut short. Upon hearing of his decision to pursue sociology Matt's parents "raised some red flags." According to Matt, "My parents just saw no future with a sociology degree. They wanted me to get a safer degree. So, I ended up majoring in biology education. I was preparing to teach high school biology. However, there was a problem with this plan. After doing my student teaching I discovered I didn't really like it. At least not high school biology."
Because of this experience Matt decided he had no interest in pursuing a job teaching high school biology. While trying to figure out just what to do, Matt received a call from his college's department of admissions. He was offered a job as an admissions representative. His primary responsibility was to recruit students to the college. It was during this time that Matt decided to return to his first academic choice, sociology. According to Matt, "By this time my interest in sociology had grown and I'm sure that I had a greater appreciation of the discipline's power to interpret situations. I was in a practical setting where the product, a college recruit, was produced through the proper management of human relations. I could begin to see how the theories of the discipline actually played out in people's lives."
Matt began his return to sociology at the undergraduate level by earning a second major. He then moved on to the masters level where he earned his M.A. with research into to the experiences of minority students at small religiously affiliated colleges. In his job Matt soon found himself involved in multiple aspects of student life, from recruitment and admission to retention and graduation. "My education in sociology provided me with invaluable conceptual structures such as formal and informal networks, ingroup/outgroup, and minority/majority relations. I could see how these structures impacted the experiences students have in college. These ideas about structures were more than just abstract theories." Perhaps even more importantly, once these structures were understood and "seen" they could be intentionally adjusted or modified. A student's experience in college could be influenced by changing structures.
After several years Matt was "ready for some personal career advancement." He was heavily recruited by another college and took on the job of Director of Enrollment Services. Now, soon to become a Vice President, Matt has responsibility for nine professional and three support staff. Altogether this organization coordinates the work of admission representatives, admission of students to the college, financial aid distribution, and student retention.
Mary's interest in sociology was equal to Matt's, but she managed to pursue her degree to completion, including writing a departmental honors thesis. Her real interest was theory. While practical applications were interesting, abstract modeling was her passion. Because of circumstances Mary was unable to pursue her studies in graduate school. Instead, Mary worked at a variety of jobs including being an investigator for the adult protective service division of a county prosecutor's office and working as a computer consultant for businesses implementing new hardware and software. According to Mary, "What was interesting about each of these jobs was that while I had not been specifically prepared for them in a technical sense, I found that my background in sociology had prepared me to adapt to almost any situation. I had learned how to learn."
Specifically, Mary had learned how to translate her love of theory into practical applications. As a student Mary had often worked with theoretic models. The models represented clusters of sociological assumptions about why people behaved the way they do. "What I did was transfer the idea of modeling to my work. I would convert what I was experiencing to a model. Then I could examine the structure and see how best to approach some problem."
For example, in working for Adult Protective Services (APS) Mary often conducted training seminars for related agency personnel, such as the police. A seminar topic might be intergenerational abuse. As part of her ongoing work at APS Mary had collected data on cases of intergenerational abuse processed by her office. She then began to identify patterns and variables, such as social class and age. These patterns and variables would then be combined into an array of models which, when presented in seminars, would sensitize investigators, like the police, to signals of actual abuse. Without the models the police officer may not recognize the potential for abuse in some situation. According the Mary, "The problem is that people experience so much of their lives as a kind of chaos. They don't really see how the things that happen are interconnected. But if you have a correct picture of these interconnections you can begin uncovering the underlying reasons for what you experience. If you are going to have a real effect on peoples lives, then making them aware of the larger picture––the model––is a real gift."
The same process was in evidence when Mary worked as a computer consultant. Mary noted that, "I was always working in new settings and it was necessary to be a quick learner. I had to quickly and accurately assess the organizational situation if I was to be successful. This often meant paying much more attention to the informal rather than the formal structure of the business. Once done I could then begin introducing my ideas regarding computer hardware and/or software." Mary did this kind of work in businesses as diverse as banks and manufacturing plants.
Through her consulting Mary eventually came into contact with a local four–year college. Her skills and capabilities were recognized and Mary was offered a position in the college's admissions department. Specifically she is the Associate Director of the Women's External Degree (WED) program. This is a program for women whereby they can earn college credit, outside the normal classroom, and eventually earn a bachelors level degree. The women who enroll are non–traditional students. They are often older, have families, and are contending with more complex lives than 18–22 year olds. According to Mary, "The real task here is helping these women see the opportunity in WED. Although I must be careful to tell people when I don't think the program is right for them. Essentially, I help people reconstruct the realities they are presently living in. Most importantly I help them reconstruct how they perceive themselves."
After different academic and career paths Matt and Mary are now involved in the same type of work. Both see their studies in sociology as integral to success in that work. Research is a constant part of what they do. "If you can't process data then you simply can't make sense out of the important trends," according to Matt. If the school is not continuously sensitive to its environment then its recruitment efforts would easily be misdirected. Original research is a must for this kind of work. For example, Mary developed a survey to be completed by all prospective students. This data provided clear direction for future marketing efforts.
While Matt and Mary are at different stages in their careers, Matt as a new Vice President and Mary as a first year Associate Director, both see exciting futures. They are both constantly observant of their work, themselves, and their environment. As a result they are in a position to dictate opportunity, to some degree. They are on top of what is happening. According to Mary, "My sociological perspective is now second nature to me. With this I feel as if I can always find a way to exert influence over the situation. I am not simply waiting for something to happen to me." According to Matt, "I'm in the position I'm in because of my ability to organize and be proactive in my environment. My discipline provides me with the frameworks and skills necessary to do this."
Matt's and Mary's careers must be seen as constantly developing. Neither expected at the outset to be where they are now. Yet here they are. And they are comfortable with both the quality of work life and financial rewards. Mary is in her first year and earns approximately $20,000. While not a lot, Mary is quick to point out, "there are many fringe benefits, especially for those who enjoy the collegiate atmosphere." Matt, with five to ten years of experience now earns $40,000 – $45,000. But more than money, they are in work which is intrinsically satisfying and for which the future is wide open.
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