When I first talked with former Planet Forward Correspondent and 2017 Storyfest Winner Sydney Greene in search of advice for class of 2020 graduates like myself, she assured me that her path had included a fair share of “pivoting.” After graduating from Arizona State University in 2017, she packed up her ambitions and her newly minted journalism degree and moved to Austin, Texas. In the time since, she landed bylines in publications including Texas Monthly, The Austin Chronicle, Teen Vogue, and USA Today, and has worked as the digital coordinator at the nonprofit Deeds Not Words.
I gotta say, this all sounded pretty enticing to me and my own newborn B.A., but Sydney was adamant that she doesn’t have all the answers (dang it!). Yet, as I enter the workforce, during the second unprecedented economic crash I’ve seen since learning long division, I’m satisfied with any study guide I can get.
Sydney said it herself: “A lot of millennials and older gen-z people, we’ve been through two recessions, which is not easy at all, and I kind of always knew that when I was in school that, first off, I was in a field where getting a job is extremely competitive. It’s very hard to find a full-time journalism job right when you’re out of college. That’s just, like, bottom line. No matter how good you are, no matter how many experiences you have or whatever, it’s hard.”
You can find my entire conversation with Sydney on Planet Forward’s Instagram TV and, for those anxious about their own futures in media, freelancing, or advocacy, I’m more than happy to let you copy my notes.
1. Get to know your values.
When searching for opportunities, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the different avenues available, and the possibilities of where they might lead you geographically, professionally, or personally. When navigating these intersections, it’s good to use your own values as a compass. However, finding these values can often be an adventure all its own.
“When you’re transitioning into adulthood, it’s kind of hard for a lot of us to detach, like, the feelings, the expectations that have been put on us by the people that have raised us,” Syndey said.
Take time to pin down what success looks like to you, rather than to others (even those who matter most!). Once you know what drives you, the destination is easier to find. Be patient with yourself as your goalposts are likely to change.
“That was something that I’m still dealing with today,” Sydney said, “… is figuring out who am I truly and what are my values as Sydney Greene, not as my parents, not as my friends, not as my grandparents.”
2. Get to know your niche.
Beyond knowing what you value, you should also pin down what others value you for (and this is certainly the part that brings me the most anxiety). However, it’s helpful to shift the thought process from a question of, “What are my skills?” to, “What are my interests? What subject do I feel most at home covering? What do people associate with me?” Sydney said she finds knowing her “brand” especially helpful when reaching out to editors to pitch ideas.
“I think knowing the stories that you’re passionate about, knowing the issues that you’re passionate about, and then creating a niche inside the passions is really important because when you are pitching something to someone or you’re just reaching out to an editor you can say, like, ‘Hey!’ Instead of doing a general pitch or hello, you can let them know, ‘Here’s what I do. Here’s the work that I’m interested in. If you need any gaps filled in your coverage that include these topic areas, I’m here for you,’” she said.
When you have an understanding of the specific knowledge and skillsets you possess, own them.
“Do not be afraid to promote yourself, y’all,” Syndey said. “Like, do it. Run with it. Be proud of the work that you do, be proud of who you are, and promote yourself.”
3. Don’t be afraid to change course.
As important as it is to know yourself, it’s just as important to understand that who you are, what you want, and what you’re interested in are always changing. Even if you’ve dreamed of something since elementary school, it might not be the right choice for you now. Sydney experienced this firsthand when she shifted from her dream of being a full-time reporter to pursue advocacy work. Yet, she made this transition by reassessing her values and, from there, breaking down what drew her to journalism in order to steer her toward her next move.
Sydney said, “When I knew I was not going to be doing [journalism] full time, I had to peel back the layers and think, ‘OK, what about journalism really interested me from a young age and how can I still maintain that passion into a different role?’ And that was storytelling, at the bottom of it, it was storytelling. Luckily, I was able to take that storytelling into the different jobs I do now.”
Your skills and interests can translate into a variety of different roles and industries, and there is no shame in switching things up.
4. You’re not in it alone.
Graduating from college, especially into the current state of the world, might feel a bit like free-falling from the nest and hoping that you can figure out how to use your wings before reaching the ground. While you likely do have more responsibilities and less structure than you’re used to, you also have support systems to turn to.
For Sydney, mentors have helped guide the way. She recommends seeking mentorship from people in different professions and across different age groups who will each be able to relate to you and speak to your experiences in different ways.
“I think it’s really important to have a lot of mentors across the board, whether that’s professional or whether that’s personal,” she said. “Having allies in general that advocate for you, whether that’s inside the workplace or outside the workplace, is incredibly important.”
Also, remember that wherever you are now, you have learned lessons that can benefit someone else.
“I always say, you know, pay it forward,” Sydney said. “Even if you’re two or three years older than someone and you don’t think that you have something to offer, you absolutely have something to offer. So, make sure just as you’re getting that advice from mentors, make sure you’re paying it forward and helping the people who are also up and coming like you were at some point.”
To keep up with Sydney, check out her website here.