After the last presidential election, I knew I needed to make some changes. 

I had been drifting, exploring beautiful places, only working enough to survive. The bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies I completed at UCSC in 2010 hadn’t gone exactly as I’d hoped, and my burgeoning career in habitat restoration had dried up into a series of seasonal farm labor gigs.

My life was getting stagnant, and my work felt unimportant, so when some friends offered me the last cheap room in Santa Cruz, I took it and enrolled in a couple summer classes at Cabrillo.

I’m one of these entitled millennial snowflakes who never learned what it meant to exercise their free will until the last of the college loans ran out. I had no concept of the fundamentals of employment or the economy. I had never really considered how I wanted to earn a living in society. 

When the money ran out, I got a job in native plant restoration, like I had been training for, but I was unprepared to be a full-time professional. I barely made it a year before my restlessness won out. 

Then I thought I wanted to be a scientist, but my degree didn’t include enough of a science background, and the closest I ever got was an eight-month internship pulling weeds at the Grand Canyon. 

I went through phases: I wanted to be a baker, a chef, a winemaker, a farmer. I started entry-level jobs all over the country, only to quit after three months. It always felt like something was lacking. 

Back to School

As someone with a strong white-knight complex and a background in ecology, my existential concern was always that I wasn’t doing enough to help people and the planet. And at the end of 2016, when everything seemed so dire, I finally found an organization that felt the same way.

London nonprofit 80,000 Hours researches and offers online advice on how best to use your career to address the world’s most pressing problems. In working through their process, I decided to go back to community college to fill in some gaps in my education, try working in new industries and figure out what graduate programs to apply to. 

Cabrillo turns out to be the perfect school for that. It’s super affordable at $46 per unit for California residents, and there are fee waivers and scholarships available. Students can take any class, as long as they meet the requirements or get permission from the professor, and the college attracts great teachers because so many people want to live here.

Academic and career advisors are always available to answer or ask the important questions, offer assessments and help students understand their options. There’s even a class through the counseling and guidance department to help students choose a career goal based on self-analysis and occupational research, which I took my first summer at Cabrillo.

Most of it was Meyers-Briggs personality tests and vision boards, but I also learned how to conduct informational interviews with people working in the positions I was interested in, and started asking myself a lot of questions that I hadn’t been asking.

Through that class, I decided to look into a career in nonprofit operations. In the fall, I contacted internship coordinator Matthew Weis and arranged to work in fundraising at the Homeless Garden Project. 

Weis said internships help students get a look behind the veil at what a profession is really like.

“With internships, students can break down the barrier between doing something conceptually in the classroom and actually having to understand and perform that in the form of a professional competency,” Weis said. “For someone in a new field, that’s a particularly nerve-wracking moment when you leave the safety of the college.”

For me, it’s also about zeroing in on the jobs that land in my personal Goldilocks zone in terms of impact, aptitude and work culture. And helping with fundraising at a nonprofit, while interesting and rewarding, helped me decide to keep looking.

Next, I took a class in macroeconomics that was perspective-inducing verging on vertiginous, a yoga class that was transcendental after nearly a decade of hard labor, and a fiction class that reinvigorated my writing muscles.

Suzanne Gochis, vice president of Student Services, says that most students at Cabrillo are determining their career paths based on the courses they’re taking. 

“I can’t tell you how many students I’ve talked to that have changed their mind based on a course they took that wasn’t in their major, but that cemented where they want to go,” says Gochis. “We offer a lot of unique classes with a lot of instructors who are very passionate about their projects and their subject matter, and I think exposure has been a big help for students to figure out their pathway.”

Student Services also puts on workshops for resumé building, the University of California transfer admission guarantee program and an annual job fair.

New Direction

A year ago, I enrolled in a class that changed everything. It was Brad Kava’s journalism and newspaper production course, and with it, I took an internship at the Santa Cruz Sentinel under editor Kara Meyberg-Guzman and supported by the generous Rowland Rebele scholarship.

I think I worked harder and learned more in that time than I had in my entire stint at the Grand Canyon (which involved a lot more hiking). I interviewed candidates for city council, professors, poets, the mother of an overdose victim, and a 100-year-old woman. It was all so new and intimidating, but at the same time, it felt like something I could be good at—a piece of this puzzle I’d been trying to solve.

Last spring, I served as editor-in-chief of the Cabrillo Voice with a staff of 18 while freelancing and taking a great screenwriting class. Now I’m at Good Times, getting to flex my brain in a slightly new way, and finally applying to those graduate programs. Cabrillo is helping with that, too. Let’s hope I don’t change my mind again anytime soon.