How Taking Risks Led to Finding My Passion
By President Karen Haynes
I did not know this would become my passion. I never aspired to be a university president. Well before my days as a dean, professor, social worker, or businessperson, this career path was not on my radar, especially as an undergraduate.
So how then did a first-generation college student from the New Jersey shore find herself down a career path she never intended? It began with a series of calculated risks stemming from an unexpected place: an elective course in sociology.
Before arriving at Goucher College, I was drawn to helping people, so it felt natural to consider a job in human resources. I knew that field. I knew that I didn’t want a job that was just marking time; I didn’t want a life of clocking in and clocking out. Psychology felt like a good fit at first. However, as my studies began to focus more on the experimental side rather than the clinical, I questioned if I wanted to go in that direction.
Then in my sophomore year, I enrolled in an introductory social work course. In full disclosure, the class happened to fit perfectly into my schedule (solid reasoning, I know). Professor Olive Westbrooke Quinn, who became a mentor of mine, taught the course. It was unlike anything I had previously taken. It was experiential.
All of a sudden, I realized, this is my passion. Seeing and feeling those issues and then realizing that there was an entire profession devoted to trying to right the injustices by creating better solutions at both a clinical and policy level, I knew this is what I wanted to pursue.
I changed my major the following year from psychology with a sociology minor, to majoring in sociology with a minor in psychology. That switch opened new doors. Doors I never knew existed. I began blazing a new path in the field of social work and it was exciting!
I continued to build my career upon a foundation of calculated risk taking: Working abroad. Earning my master’s degree and then my doctorate. Moving across country. Being the first female professor in my department at Indiana University at Bloomington, and then later the first female administrator at the University of Houston. I wasn’t afraid to try and I wasn’t afraid to change my direction if it wasn’t a fit for me. I knew nothing had to be permanent.
It was during my tenure as a dean at the University of Houston that I got the call. I was asked to step into the role of interim university president at the University of Houston-Victoria. The chancellor knew I had the skills needed to repair the chasms of distrust that were created by the mismanagement of the previous president. I considered myself the case manager brought in to listen, to give structure, to institute policy, to restore trust, to evaluate the strengths of my team and to delegate accordingly. I put people – students, employees, community members – first. That same passion for helping people remained my focus.
I was convinced that this would be a temporary appointment. I did not want to be a president... and then, it happened – that "interim" year turned into almost nine years as president of that university!
Doing the job gave me a passion for the job.
My unexpected career path is one reason why I encourage today’s college student to explore, to be intellectually curious and to take calculated risks. Try an elective outside your major. Enroll in a class that offers service learning experience or an internship option so you can apply what you learn immediately to see if it’s a good fit. Study abroad. Attend a seminar that might open your mind to a perspective you never considered before. Find a mentor. Think of graduate school, certificate programs, or other ways to continue building on your foundation of learning. Free yourself from the restrictive thinking that there is only one perfect path to your career. It’s simply not true. And yes, there is still time to figure it out.
Trust that those “pesky” required general education courses are well thought through and foundational to skills that will prepare you well for the future, irrespective of your major or future job and career choices.
As institutions of higher learning, it is our job to remove barriers so students can graduate in a timely manner. But it is also our job to prepare you for a future – a future none of us can clearly see. So, within those expectations and constraints, intentionally take risks.
As the semester is now well underway, it can be easy to develop tunnel vision. Remember, this is not the beginning or the end—and just because you started down one road it doesn’t mean you have to keep going that way.
My journey to university president was never a straight line—chances are your path won’t be either. So, as you explore what stirs your heart, I encourage you to seize the opportunities that will help you develop new skills and expand your horizons. You may just find your passion in an unexpected place. I surely found mine.