Three years ago, I was honored to be asked to speak at my high school’s Cum Laude Society induction ceremony the night before graduation. Since it’s that time of year again, I thought it would be fun to share with you a slightly abridged version of the advice I gave to the graduates. Here goes:
One night, [now] 10 years ago, I sat alone in my tent staring at a paper packet covered in cartoon worms and wondering whether I would survive the night. The front of the packet contained no words. Just yellow, orange and blue worms that seemed to wriggle right off the paper. I emptied the packet’s contents—what I had been assured was anti-parasite powder—into my water bottle and shook it until the particles dissolved. After a few deep breaths, I gulped down the mixture, which tasted suspiciously like Tang.
I was in the middle of a two-month stint as a field research assistant in remote Madagascar studying primate behavior, and had managed to pick up some sort of stomach parasite that was about ready to finish me off. The nearest hospital was a three-day trek by car over washed-out dirt roads. But we had no car. Or any mode of communication with the world outside the nature reserve where we were living. So I just curled up in my sleeping bag to fend off the falling temperatures and lay listening to the growing sounds of night in the spiny desert.
As I fell asleep, all I could think was: “What the hell am I doing here?”
Upon beginning the field work, I figured out quickly that lying on my back under trees that spew human-blinding sap to observe lemurs—the least evolved of all primates—forage and groom, hardly resembled the romantic Jane Goodall-esque experience I had hoped for. Neither did scouring the forest floor to collect lemur fecal samples for hormone testing.
I decided I could now safely check primatology off my list of potential careers.
Did that make this entire adventure—or misadventure—a massive, reckless mistake? After all, I had been reduced to entrusting my life to the Malagasy version of Tang and still had no career path on the horizon. And if I died out here in the middle of nowhere, my parents would kill me!
As it turned out, the Miracle Tang worked. I survived the night and made it home a month later. And, after losing 15 pounds during the trip, I was relieved to be back in a land of clean water, electricity and properly labeled anti-parasite medications.
I also began to realize that the experience was far from a misstep off the path to a fulfilling career and an exciting life. It was the path—or a segment of the path, anyway.
What I gained from the Madagascar experience far outweighed what I originally thought the opportunity could offer me.
Because when I was not studying lemurs, I was playing with the village children, taking thousands of photographs and keeping a journal on my observations of life in a developing country where children in remote areas never even get the opportunity to learn the language of education or business (in this case French), where the infant mortality rate is more than 10 times that in the U.S. and where endemic plants and animals are tragically and rapidly being destroyed.
When I returned to school that fall, I put together a photo exhibit juxtaposing pictures of Madagascar’s children with the broken landscapes they will one day inherit, hoping to elicit from the audience the same question with which I was struggling: What will be left for these children?
Seeing the lack of public health services where I had lived further drew me to the field of public health. And I couldn’t stop writing about what I had witnessed, if only to organize the thoughts that haunted my mind every time I ate a meal that did not consist of rice and beans, or took a shower that did not come from a 2-gallon plastic bag filled with water I had drawn from a well and laid out to warm in the sun.
Little by little, the lessons I gathered from what I thought was a random summer in Madagascar seemed to weave together a picture of my future that I hadn’t seen clearly before. I realized my interests in writing, photography, health, environment, science and international development were not disparate after all. I did not have to follow a prescribed path deeply into one field at the expense of my passion for the others. I was not flailing, as I had felt I was for most of college! All it took was a few parasites and a couple groups of lemurs to show me that I really was moving forward, on my own path.
Following these varied interests led me to: work in the fields of public health and international development; write for numerous publications; intern at National Geographic and other magazines and newspapers; create photographic documentaries, travel extensively, earn a master’s degree in medical journalism and try my hand at freelance writing and photography.
I cringe to think what I might be doing now if I had never taken a risk and ventured to Madagascar or to the many other places and jobs I’ve landed along the way. If I had stuck to a path that was safer, one where I seized opportunities only if I knew exactly where they would lead, I would be lost in someone else’s world right now.
As you prepare to graduate, you may or may not have given much thought to your career path. Regardless, you will probably feel pressured at some point, by your peers, your parents, your professors or your employers to head in a direction that is of their liking, and which may be quite far from yours. You may be tempted by the careers that many consider the most prestigious. And those careers can be great options for people who are passionate about them.
But open your eyes to the limitless possibilities that await you. You owe it to yourself and the world in which you live to find something—or always keep searching for it if it eludes you—that you love, that you are good at and that will give you the opportunity to contribute in some way to the society in which you live.
As you head off to college, your world will broaden. You will encounter courses on topics of which you’ve never heard. You will meet professors and visiting lecturers who are the most accomplished researchers or practitioners in their fields. You will befriend students with life experiences very different from your own, and from whom you will learn quite a bit.
The opportunities will be endless. But they may also take more effort to find—both inside and outside the scope of your university—and to whittle down to manageable proportions. They can be overwhelming.
So here are a few tips that might help you discover your own path—one that balances career and life and brings in an income. (Yes, you have to do something that will get you off your parents’ payroll.)
First, be adventurous. Seek out and try new things even when you don’t know where they’ll lead you —whether they are unusual jobs or research opportunities, travel that might be less than comfortable or even dates with people who aren’t your perfect match on paper. Trial and error is your best friend.
Second, if you haven’t already, learn to communicate well. And I’m not talking about texting. A strong communicator can talk or write her way to success in any field. You could be a world-class engineer, but it will still be difficult to land your dream job without a convincing cover letter or, in the very least, an introductory email that involves proper punctuation, the word “you” spelled “y-o-u” instead of just “u” and a distinct lack of smiley faces. If you develop a treatment for a life-threatening disease but can’t for the life of you put together a journal article or presentation that demonstrates the strength of your trials, you’re out of luck. And so is the rest of the world. So make sure you can write and speak persuasively.
Third, speaking of journals, please learn how to read and evaluate—even in a basic sense—a scientific journal article. I don’t care if you plan to be an English major or if you took a vow of scientific celibacy following your AP biology exam. In the age of infotainment, don’t take anyone’s word for anything. You have easier access to information than any previous generation, so learn how to use it well. Go straight to the source and figure out how to devour it to become a more informed citizen.
Fourth, learn to listen to the other point of view—with grace. (I’m still struggling with this one.) Very few things in life are clear-cut, and the grey zone is what makes life interesting. You will open many more doors for yourself if you can be sympathetic and practical than if you are simply arrogant.
Fifth, get out of your bubble—whatever your personal bubble may be. There is always more of the world to soak in and try to understand. I can’t encourage you enough to study abroad and stay with a foreign family. Learn another language. Volunteer on the opposite side of town from where you grew up. Or take a class that sounds intriguing even if you might not earn an “A.”
Sixth, find balance between work and play. Until now, you have had a fairly regimented schedule of required courses and sports practices and family obligations. Now it’s pretty much up to you. And you will struggle for the rest of your life to find the proper balance of your time. Sometimes you will fail and pay the consequences, but always try to regain that balance—it’s worth it, especially once you have a family.
And lastly, develop your powers of discernment. Learn to distinguish what is right for you—based on your own strengths, interests and experiences—from the path that is simply popular or expected.
High school, I hope, has prepared you well for the future of your choosing. But let the process be one of trial and error. Seek out all types of adventures and learn from them. Learn what you enjoy learning. Learn how you enjoy spending your day. Learn the level of stress that prods you into productivity but keeps you from becoming institutionalized. And learn what you dream of for your future family, so you can find the balance to realize those dreams.
You don’t have to be fighting parasites in the middle of Madagascar to find your path. In fact, your parents would probably appreciate if your path were a little tamer. But don’t sell yourself short. You have already demonstrated in high school that you are prepared to take the world by storm. So do just that.
The world awaits you. Congratulations!
I'm Julia Soplop, writer and photographer. I believe there is something profound in bearing witness to moments of joy and pain in others’ lives. My husband, three girls and I live outside of Chapel Hill, NC. You can read more about me here.