Alexis’ Journey to OWHE

You can be anything you want to be when you grow up.

This phrase was told to me often, but it wasn’t always shown. While my childhood was full of support and encouragement, it was lacking in the knowledge that comes from growing up with career-minded parents or mentors. My dad bought and sold used office furniture; my mom was a preschool teacher’s aide. I loved my childhood. I have no criticism of my parents in terms of the unconditional love I was given. So is it wrong to criticize my circumstances?

Currently, I’m an academic counselor for first-generation students at Oregon State University. Like many of them, I had no career or college counseling; I had no one challenging me to develop myself beyond midterms and finals.

While in high school, I only applied to one state school where I knew I would be accepted automatically for being among the top 10% of my graduating class.  Actually, I was in the top 1% in a class of more than 500. I was active in extracurriculars and did well on my college entrance exams, but I never even considered myself a competitive applicant. The extent of my college application advice was: You don’t have to go to college if you don’t want to.

But I did go, and I loved it! I loved learning! I loved challenging myself! My main downfall: I didn’t know what I was working towards or how to navigate the world outside of being a student. I thought earning a degree of any kind was all I needed to do. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not afraid of hard work, and I usually excel at any task I tackle. I made straight A’s throughout high school and college.  Perhaps it was my stellar academic record that led others to believe I had it all figured out.

In fact, I loved school so much that I always answered the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with the idea that I could just be a professional student. Perhaps others thought of this answer as a clever joke. To me, it was a statement of vulnerability because school was the only world I had confidence in. I remember deciding to switch from a pre-accounting major to an English major because I was intimidated when I thought about working in a professional office. Honestly, it was largely because I didn’t know what to wear. I went on to earn two master’s degrees – neither of which required a thesis because I was afraid of such things. I was never taught how to “do research.” My ambitions still lean toward the practical and away from the theoretical.

Deep down, I’m very much still a student, waiting for the teacher to tell me what to do. It’s taken me years to figure out that I must take charge of my own learning and set my own path.

So while I never explicitly got career advice, I have received life experience. More than a few times over the past 15 years I’ve changed jobs, I’ve changed careers, and it wasn’t until only recently that I started to figure out what I was working towards: me.

Circumstances are still an issue, though. What happens with a lack of thoughtful advice often is conflicting advice.  Unfortunately, this has occurred for me with multiple bosses. 

By one boss, I was told that my strength was my positivity. When I asked for something more tangible that didn’t involve my personality or attitude, I was told, “You smile a lot.” When applying for a promotion in that same department, I assumed that I would be judged by my record of service, leadership, and innovation, along with outstanding recommendations by colleagues and campus-wide partners. Instead, I was told that my frequent smiling made me seem somewhat immature and not like “management material.” The same advice that was celebrated as a strength once was now my Achilles’ heel. I worry that many other women have been in similar situations where their merits unfortunately are boiled down to their personalities.

In another job, I thought my boss’ constant refrain in questioning me about my plans to have a family was simply a bonding strategy. I quickly realized, however, that this was the only topic my boss chose to talk to me about despite my desire to job shadow and get advice on professional development opportunities and feedback on my performance. Suddenly, I realized the idea of family wasn’t being celebrated but rather my lack of having a family was being criticized. When eventually I did become pregnant, I was immediately subjected to the idea that I should, of course, stay home to take care of the baby. The moment I became pregnant, I no longer had a future at that institution. Perhaps, in his eyes, that was the case from the moment biology determined my sex.

At yet another job, I was inspired by the personal concern my boss had said she felt about all of her employees and their wellbeing – that is, until she told me that the inappropriate sexual comments I’d received from a male coworker were my fault because, “As an educated woman, you should know better.” In fact, I had no idea what to do in that situation, and when I reported the incident, I learned that there was absolutely no one to coach me through it. The boss I’d reached out to for help suddenly decided I was a liability. Though I wasn’t fired, I was ostracized by the rest of the staff after the boss told everyone I should be avoided. I left the job of my own accord, not knowing what else to do.

Though I look back with disappointment for multiple instances of being mistreated for being a woman, it hurts me even more to realize all the ways that I wasn’t professionally supported or developed, and thus that mistreatment continues to have lasting effects.

That brings me back to my goal: me.

Education is often about following directions and abiding by expectations. But life is all about steering your own ship, so to speak. As fellow OWHE member Katie Linder recently wrote, “Courage is more important than confidence.”  I made career choices based on the ideas given to me by others who thought they knew what was best for me. Doing so was a limitation, but it made me feel safe. Now, more than ever, I realize that confidence is overrated. Confidence comes from courage, not the other way around.

So it’s with courage that I’m reaching out for the first time in my career – not only to help others but to help myself. I will be forever grateful to those who have taken my desire to improve myself and my future career opportunities with the earnestness both deserve. I’m learning to ask for the mentors I need – to make my own path and not wait to be told what to do. While the judgements of others are unavoidable, there’s no rubric for life except the one you make yourself.

 

Alexis Terrell is a MAAPS Academic Counselor at Oregon State University. She also serves at the Director of Marketing, Records, and Outreach for OWHE. Alexis can be reached via email at Alexis.Terrell@oregonstate.edu

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