Carolina alumni offer advice for college, career success

Pressley Baird, collegetownnc.com

Photo by Amanda Nguyen, collegetownnc.com

College Town recently asked four young alumni from UNC, N.C. Central, N.C. State and Duke to give students and graduates their best tips for a successful college and post-college career.

The highlights? Take advantage of the unique opportunities you have in college. Do something you love. And — conveniently — ask other alumni for advice.

Derek Sisterhen

Derek Sisterhen, UNC

What he does: He’s the director of finance and stewardship at Hope Community Church in Raleigh. In layman’s terms, he runs “all the operations, including the finances,” of the church.

Why UNC?

Sisterhen is originally from Maryland, but he’d always been drawn to UNC — in part because of its great business program.

Also, when he was applying to schools, “I really wanted it to be Carolina because I did not want to go to the University of Maryland,” he said, laughing.

He has family in North Carolina, and he liked UNC’s atmosphere — “a college town with big-time sports and lots of school spirit,” he said.

What would he do differently in his college career?

He would have finished his English minor. He was a business major, but he loved to read and write and took several English courses at UNC.

“I started to take a lot of the fun English classes, where you could do creative writing,” he said. But “I never wanted to take the tough ones, like classic literature.”

And since the English minor didn’t fit neatly into his business school plan, he didn’t see a need to keep taking English classes.

“Now, when I look back on it, if I could’ve just taken those two extra classes somewhere along the way,” he’d have completed the minor, he said.

What’s one piece of advice he’d give to new graduates starting their first jobs?

Your first job won’t be your last job.

Sisterhen is proof of that. He has a literal 25-year plan he keeps in his office.

“I have a piece of paper, with every five years, what the different milestones were going to be,” he said. “That thing became irrelevant after about 18 months.”

Sisterhen went into banking right after graduation but quickly realized that “the corporate climb,” as he says, wasn’t for him. But he loved personal finance — teaching people how to best handle their own money. So when a job opened up at his church to lead financial efforts there, he jumped at the chance.

“I’ve never strayed from that joy and passion for the world of finance and business and making things run well,” he said. “It’s just gotten translated from what I thought I was going to be using it for into the church world, which is fun for me because I feel like I’m able to make a bigger impact that way.”

Take his path as an example, Sisterhen said.

“It’s not going to be your last job,” he said. “Don’t put that pressure on yourself that it has to be perfect.”

Andrea Wheeler

Andrea Wheeler

Andrea Wheeler, N.C. Central

What she does: She’s the director of creative services and emerging media for Alabama State University’s athletic department. In layman’s terms, that means she designed all the graphics you might see on Alabama State tickets, billboards, t-shirts, “anything they need,” she said. She also runs the athletic department’s social media accounts and does other branding for the department.

Why NCCU?

She’s from Durham, but she went to Mount Olive College originally to play softball. Going from Durham to rural North Carolina “was a huge change for me,” she said, and she didn’t love it, so she decided to come home. She played softball at N.C. Central, too.

What would she do differently in her college career?

She’d do more beyond play softball and go to class. Until she quit playing softball her senior year, she wasn’t involved in school beyond athletics, she said. But once that changed, it led to a job opportunity.

Wheeler tells a story about an event she attended her senior year. It was hosted by the Durham Bulls, and representatives from several major athletic organizations talked to students about their jobs.

Wheeler went to get extra credit for a class. When Kyle Serba, the athletic director at N.C. Central, stood up, she had an aha moment.

“I’d seen this man so many times, but I had no idea what the heck he did,” she said, laughing.

As Serba described his job, Wheeler thought, “‘Dang, I think I would be good at that,’” she said.

She started volunteering, unpaid, in the athletic department. Shortly after she graduated, the assistant sports information director job came open. After some encouragement from Serba to apply — and a misunderstanding on her part that her time as a volunteer was considered real, valuable work experience — she got the job.

Her story, she said, should be an example to other students: Take these volunteer opportunities, and take them seriously.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize that you can do it while you’re in school,” she said. “They just don’t take it seriously, because it’s for college credit or work study. You can really treat this as a job. You can literally get a job just like that.”

What’s one piece of advice she’d give to new graduates?

Wheeler’s advice is simple and to the point: You’re young, and that’s OK.

“Don’t let age or lack of experience stop you from doing your best,” she said. “Don’t use it as an excuse. Just continue to work hard. It’s OK to be the youngest one there. It’s OK to have the least amount of experience. Don’t sit back and wait to be told what to do.”

Meaghan Lynch

Meaghan Lynch

Meaghan Lynch, N.C. State

What she does: She’s the press secretary for Rep. G.K. Butterfield — her home congressman, since Lynch is from Rocky Mount. In layman’s terms, she handles all the communications for Rep. Butterfield’s office. She also gets to use her law degree from Howard University to work “on behalf of people who look like me and are from where I’m from, in Eastern North Carolina,” she said.

Why N.C. State?

It was the only school Lynch had eyes for.

“My dad went to N.C. State, and he raised me up to love the Wolfpack,” she said. “When I got in, I didn’t even wait to see what other schools I would get into. I was really excited to go to Raleigh.”

What would she do differently in her college career?

Use the connections you have as an N.C. State student to find alumni who can give you career advice “and soak up as much wisdom” as possible, Lynch said.

“You can cut out a lot of the mistakes and get the insider tricks when you seek out people who have come before you, even if it’s as simple as emailing people and saying, ‘Can we get coffee one day?’ or ‘Can we talk on the phone?’” she said.

It’s scary, of course. Lynch said it takes her time to get the courage to ask for advice.

“When you’re in college, you just feel like, ‘Oh, she wouldn’t have time for me. She’s a major surgeon,’ for example. ‘She’s so important,’” she said. “But people are people.”

And when you ask, people say yes.

“I almost never get a no,” she said. “People are happy to help you.”

What’s one piece of advice she’d give to new graduates?

Do something you love, and it won’t feel like work, Lynch said.

After she finished law school, she interned in Rep. Butterfield’s office. She loved it, but she eventually left for a full-time job in a political strategy firm.

After about a year and a half there, “I wanted to come back on Capitol Hill. I wanted to work for a member of Congress and be right in the center of things and feel like I was really making a difference,” she said.

In other words, she wanted to do something she loved again.

“It’ll take a few tries to find that awesome job,” she said. “Choose a job you love and that speaks to your passions. You’ll feel like you’re making the world a better place.”

Nicole Schlegel

Nicole Schlegel

Nicole Schlegel, Duke

What she does: She’s the digital marketing manager for Universal Pictures. In layman’s terms, she helps promote the movies Universal releases. If you see an ad or a social media post promoting a Universal movie, Schlegel has likely had a hand in creating it.

Why Duke?

Schlegel was not a lifelong Cameron Crazie. But her twin brother was a huge basketball fan and encouraged her to apply.

She’d just gotten back to Los Angeles (where she’s from) after touring NYU, Columbia and Princeton, so she couldn’t afford to fly out to North Carolina. She had the school send her a VHS tape (showing how old she is, she joked).

“I just loved everything,” she said. “The school looked like Gothic wonderland. It just looked like the college experience I thought I wanted.”

What would she do differently in her college career?

If she could go back, she would study abroad — in Italy.

She had other opportunities that conflicted with study abroad: Duke won the basketball national championship, and she was a cheerleader for the team during the semester she could have gone. She got a paid internship in Los Angeles during the summer she could have gone. Her mom told her she’d have a chance to go to Italy someday.

But “everybody who did do it had such an amazing life experience,” she said.

(And her mom was right: She did get to go to Italy with her husband several years later.)

What’s one piece of advice she’d give to new graduates?

Schlegel has two pieces of advice, but they both center on getting outside your comfort zone.

In the career world, “take a risk and do something you think maybe you shouldn’t pursue but something you’ve always wanted to try out,” she said. “You’re so young. Do it now.”

In the more personal realm, do something outside of your norm. For Nicole, that would have been getting involved politically and experiencing things that weren’t her cultural cup of tea.

“When you’re at Duke, you’re almost in a bubble when you’re on campus there,” she said. “I’d do a few more things outside my bubble that made me uncomfortable.”

 

Pressley Baird is the editor of collegetownnc.com, where this article originally ran.

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