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I listened to this TED Talk recently, How everyday interactions shape your future, in which Mesmin Destin presents research that shows how strongly we are affected by the things that people say about our education and career interests.

After listening to this talk, I reflected on my own path and the discouragement that I received and how it influenced my decisions. Unlike some people who know what they want to do when they grow up from a young age, I never knew what I wanted to do. It was not an easy or linear path to where I am now, picture a big haphazard zig zag. It felt like stumbling through a dark room trying to find my way to the door. I’m hurled back to memories of playing Blind Man’s Bluff with my cousins in the dark; fun and games until someone accidentally broke a window.

But I digress, early on, I was a Psychology major interested in becoming a School Psychologist in K-12, but someone who worked in K-12 told me that there was a lot of paperwork and bureaucracy involved. I wish I had spoken to actual school psychologists to ask more questions, but instead, I lost interest in Psychology. When I was changing majors and told a family member that I was considering Studio Art with an emphasis in Photography, she told me to choose a “real” major. This time, I chose it anyway, but I always felt like it wasn’t practical and like I wasn’t “good enough” to be an artist or make art. Please don’t just this family member. I know they love me and would never say anything to intentionally hurt me. If I told her the impact that her words had on me, she would likely apologize and explain her good intentions. My stint as a budding photographer ended after my ego was crushed during my last critique. I figured if I couldn’t take the criticism, I wasn’t cut out to be an artist. Upon graduating with my B.A., I decided to pursue a multiple-subject teaching credential, but with widespread teaching layoffs after completing my credential program, I chose higher ed and Mt. SAC which eventually led me to earning my M.S in Instructional Design and Technology and to my current position as an Instructional Designer. Thankfully, I’ve found ways to use my creativity in my career and in my personal time, but I have often doubted my artistic/creative alibies over the years. This TED Talk made me wonder what different path I may have taken had I received more encouragement and support from those with whom I shared my interests.

My point in sharing this story is to remind us of the power of our words; to share our stories with students so they see that we’ve experienced challenges too but learned and grew from them to get to where we are; to encourage us to be intentional with how we respond when a student or someone else in our lives shares their interests with us; to validate their interests even if they are different from what we consider worthwhile; and to connect them with resources to help them reach their goals. In a start of term survey, you can ask what their major and career goal is and use their interests to connect to course material and examples or share resources that you may know of or come across. In Canvas, you can include an additional resources page with this and/or other TED Talks or videos, links to Career Services and other helpful sites, etc.

I have another related story to share: My daughter, who is 8, wants to be a scientist when she grows up so that she can figure out how to turn herself into a mermaid. I love that she wants to be a scientist, but she lost me at mermaid. Initially, I told her that it was impossible to become a mermaid. In so many words, she reminded me that throughout history scientists have made discoveries that people didn’t think were possible. Now, I just focus on nurturing her love of science, allowing her to explore her interests, and being ok with her interests evolving or not evolving. She’s going to be her amazing self, and I’m here for it!

I’d like to point out that an important move to implementing these recommendations is to reflect on our unconscious, or implicit, biases. Brain science tells us that we all have them; our brains make shortcuts based on our previous experiences and our exposure to information and images. Not sure where to start with uncovering biases? Start with these two:

  1. Consider participating in Project Implicit, a Harvard research study, by taking Implicit Bias Tests.
  2. Read about uncovering and overcoming unconscious bias; here’s just one article on the topic, Are You Aware of Your Biases?

Do you have a related experience to share, either from your personal journey or from an interaction with a student? How do you support students in their academic and career interests? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

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