Small Town Life, Big City Dreams: How to Make the Most of Your Career in a Small Town

Sunflower picking
Sunflower picking

I see so many young professionals fall into the trap of bitter resignation without making the most of the smaller, yet useful, networks that exist in their communities. Don’t make this mistake.

I was born in New York City, but from the age of 8 I was raised in a small city (or what you would call a 3rd class city) in central Pennsylvania called Harrisburg. As I got older my plan was to move back to New York or to a city of comparable size to get back to my “big city” roots. So I set my sights on admission to New York University as my ticket back to my place of birth. However, when that didn’t pan out and I instead found myself finishing up an associate degree in theater from the local community college, with my eye toward a more affordable public state school to complete my bachelor’s degree in English and education, I grew ambivalent about returning to New York and decided that perhaps I should set my sights on a moderately-sized location. Lancaster, PA fit the bill so I attended Millersville University and completed my bachelor’s degree and then on to Philadelphia to the University of Pennsylvania to complete my graduate work. It was during my time in Philly that I began to rekindle my plan for returning to a large city rather than returning back home to Harrisburg.

And while I did apply for jobs in New York and Philadelphia, getting interviews for positions at some prestigious institutions like Columbia, Penn, Drexel, and St. Joseph’s universities, none of them led to employment. So I bandaged up my wounded pride, packed up my belongings after graduation and took the two hour train ride back to Harrisburg to my mother’s house to try to begin what I hoped would be a promising career in higher education. It turns out that I had much more success in job searching when I moved back home. I was hired immediately at a student loan and financial aid servicing agency as a loan counselor and less than a year later was able to land a full time job as an admissions counselor at the very community college I attended during my first two years of my undergraduate education. And in 7 years, I was able to build the foundation of a successful career in college student affairs and enrollment management and brand myself as an expert in student outreach and college access.

I made a pretty decent name for myself and within 5 years of starting at the college, I advanced to managing recruitment operations for 5 campus locations that served over 9 counties across the state of Pennsylvania. I was pleased with the work that I had done, but somewhere around year 6, I knew that this wouldn’t be enough and I began to revisit my goals of continuing my career in a larger region. Now some folks in my position would have just taken the leap, packed up their worldly possessions and purchased a one way ticket somewhere. Admittedly, that’s not me. I take leaps, but I prefer to do it in a more calculated fashion. I knew that this was going to take some preparation both mentally and of course financially.

In this week’s post I’m highlighting a few strategies I employed in hopes that it will help you to expand your networks and engage professionals in both your local communities and in larger cities to prepare for transitioning to a larger city.

Engage in Your Local Community

Ok, so it’s no secret that you want all the things that a metropolis has to offer, but the fact remains that you live in a small town. I see so many young professionals fall into the trap of bitter resignation without making the most of the smaller, yet useful, networks that exist in their communities. Don’t make this mistake. Now in this area, I had a leg up due to the nature of my work in recruitment and outreach. But what I started to do is search for opportunities to connect and work on projects outside of work hours. So in my case, over the years I had accumulated a vast knowledge of the college search process, and using the information I had acquired from my first job working as a loan counselor at the state assistance agency, I was able to walk most students through the process of applying for student aid. Local non-profit organizations with a focus on youth development became eager to invite me to do workshops for their students, as well as give information about the college I worked for. These partnerships allowed me to flex some of my other skills in workshop/program development and it gave me an opportunity to brand myself not just as the local community college recruiter, but as a higher education expert. This would prove useful as I began to explore opportunities in other cities and sought to show my value as a professional outside the job I presently held.

It’s natural that once you achieve some measure of success that we start to feel like we have arrived. My advice? Don’t do this either.

Network (near and far)

I also joined local education consortium groups and professional associations to share information and keep myself sharp on current trends in my field, as well as keep my hand on the pulse of what was happening in education in my state. By doing this I gained the opportunity to speak on panels and present before a sea of other professionals who later referred me to other professionals doing similar things in larger cities close by. It was through this referral process that I became connected with other college access folks in Philadelphia. I began taking seminars on the usage of social media to maximize my networking opportunities and extend my reach even further beyond my immediate location by using Facebook and LinkedIn to showcase my latest projects and connect with like-minded individuals. This would serve me well for the next position I took at the branch campus of a large university based in Philly.

There were times that I was required to work in the Philadelphia so I took those opportunities to meet the professionals that I had been connecting with online for business lunches. This led to several speaking engagements and opportunities to do workshops for local organizations. I also started volunteering on the weekend for local Philly organizations and started to discover that the network of education and access professionals was pretty close knit and that made it easier to make additional connections. Slowly but surely, my name started to get around to major players in education and youth development in Philadelphia.

Stay focused on your goals

Avoid the desire to settle. It’s natural that once you achieve some measure of success that we start to feel like we have arrived. My advice? Don’t do this either. If your goal is to eventually relocate to a larger city, you’ve got to continue to challenge yourself to think beyond the boundaries of your town. You have to remind yourself that the sky is the limit and while you certainly can stay in your hometown where it’s comfortable and safe and still make a tremendous difference in your community, the world may be calling you to an even higher purpose. For every project that you engage in, ask yourself how this is going to help you move to the next level. Remember that everything should be a step forward or a building block.

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