I grew up as one of the only nonreligious people in my small town (and I was related to the others!). This circumstance and my choice to be open about my lack of a religious affiliation determined my evolution into an activist role. Often, I was the first or only atheist my fellow denizens had ever met. But this personal brand of activism—basically not lying about being pious—was just the start of my personal and professional activism. Too often, high school and college students leave their passions at the door when they graduate, believing that entering the real world means focusing on some business success or goal. But youth activism can—and should—translate into a long career for those who feel the calling.
It can be hard to break into nonprofit spaces, especially to find a nonprofit that is invested in the same issues that you find personally motivating, and then to find a job at that nonprofit that pays a livable wage. Here are my tips for turning your student passion into a career path:
- Start with your school. When you’re in activist spaces at your high school or college, demand that those spaces are open to all who want to be there. Are meetings happening in physically accessible spaces? Is the time you meet determined exclusively by traditional students living nearby? Does your meeting box out students with children, commuter students, and night-shift workers? Do all of your events have a financial cost or obstacle (even just chipping in for snacks)? Making your voice heard in a way that increases equity for all will provide long-term benefits to both you and the groups both your student and professional organizations serve.
- Get your name out there! It’s much easier to transition into a career when the hiring manager has already heard of you, or if you actually come up in a Google search of your name. Most online publications are always on the lookout for unique stories. Start with a small outlet. If you’re in the secular community, bloggers at Patheos and other outlets are usually open to guest posts. You can also pitch right here at TheHumanist.com. Most topics you’re passionate about will have a niche group of bloggers and digital outlets. Finding those and pitching them while you’re still a student will lend you name recognition and increase your future job opportunities. Plus, you’ll have the perfect writing sample to submit when you apply to that dream job!
- Request informational interviews. Most organizers and activists are deeply passionate about the work they do and ensuring that the work continues effectively. Because of that commitment, professional activists are often willing to meet with students, recent graduates, or early career professionals for informational interviews. To schedule one, do some research into groups working on a topic or issue area you’re interested in. Then, find a staffer in a similar career area as yourself. If you’re interested in working in creative spaces, look to see if the organization has a graphic designer or art director. If you’re a natural fundraiser, check out the group’s development director or associate. Often, nonprofit organizations have a number of public-facing emails, including individual emails for staffers. Draft and send an email asking for an informational interview. Making it clear that your schedule is flexible, you’re willing to meet them where it’s convenient for them (or conduct over the phone if that’s their preference), and that you won’t be asking for a job—or anything else—will increase the likelihood that the staffer will say yes. When they do, make sure to keep the appointment and be prepared with plenty of thoughtful questions. In addition to gaining insider information on the organization and the sector, you’ll also demonstrate that you take yourself and your work seriously—making you a no-brainer when a position does open up.
- Invite partners to your student work. There is strength in numbers, especially in activism. But don’t let those numbers be limited just to students. Nonprofits across the country are invested in creating a younger membership base, since the average donor is older. As a leader in on-campus activism, in either high school or college, you can take advantage of that by reaching out to larger, professional nonprofit organizations for partnership opportunities. This may be asking the “It’s On Us” movement to financially sponsor your organization’s sexual health or wellness workshop, or asking the local Chamber of Commerce to purchase the food for your student group’s end-of-year meeting or celebration. There are so many ways to connect with the groups that want to support your work but often don’t know how or don’t want to infringe. Besides raising the profile of your student work, a partnership with a professional organization will offer you unmatched networking practice and work to build your network of connections in the issue area of your choice.
- Fully utilize the resources available. Many colleges—and even some high schools—offer career counseling or a career services office. At my undergraduate institution, less than a quarter of the student population actively utilized those services while on campus. The career services staff want you to be employed in a field you love—it helps their numbers and, often, those professionals are some of the best connections you can make on campus. They have their fingers on the pulse of hiring trends in your community and may even know of opportunities before they’re posted publicly, giving you a huge advantage. But that’s not the only team who can connect you with career opportunities. Your teachers and professors have a great network in their fields, and often have much more specific career knowledge. If you’re passionate about racial justice, for example, connect with a professor in your university’s Department of African American and African studies (or the equivalent) or your history or social studies teacher. If you’re deeply committed to advocating for a Universal Basic Income (UBI), a professor or teacher of economics may be a better choice. Teachers and professors entered their field to help students, but they can’t help you if they don’t know exactly what you’re looking for.
If you’re deeply passionate about the work you’re doing as a student activist, there is certainly an opportunity to turn that volunteer activism into a paid career path. These tips are a great starting place, but they won’t be all it takes. Work to make your resumé and cover letter stand out, and take advantage of everything that falls your way. Once you’re stably employed in the job of your dreams, the best thing you can do is turn around and give another person a helping hand. Breaking into the nonprofit sector is exceptionally challenging—taking an internship is posited as the default way to break into the community, but far too often, those positions are unpaid and only available in large cities with high costs of living. By creating opportunities in the sector for students and early-career professionals with less social power, you can use your success to create a better nonprofit sector to serve us all!
(And in the vein of this article, I’m always available for informational interviews at firstname.lastname@example.org.)