Bernadette Black, career and life planning counselor, University of Virginia School of Continuing and Professional Studies, Alexandria


Bernadette Black , 61, career and life planning counselor, University of Virginia School of Continuing and Professional Studies, Alexandria. (Benjamin C. Tankersley/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
January 5, 2012

When I was in college, we had a 90-year-old nun who’d never had a job advising us on what we should do. There was no such thing as a career counselor. When I graduated, I was asked two questions: “How fast do you type?” and “Do you take dictation?” I resented it — how narrowly it defined me to what I can and can’t do. I had a very difficult time finding a job and had to kind of work around the margins of higher education, because I knew that’s where I wanted to be: in a place where you are always learning. I got my master’s in 1973, when “What Color Is YourParachute?” came out. Oh, my goodness — it opened my eyes to the fact that I wanted to be a career counselor. I knew if I were this confused about where to go next, other people had to be, too.

We ask the wrong questions. We ask, “What do you want to do?” That’s so narrow. But narrow is easier. If someone asks you who you are, it’s much easier to say, “I’m a lawyer” than to say what you’re curious about, what excites you. And usually that person, especially in status-conscious Washington, just wants to put you in a box and move on. The right question is, “What do you want to learn about?” If you find something that lights your fire, then you’re going to keep finding ways to apply your skills to it. Jobs we had 10 years ago don’t exist. Training people for jobs of the future is tough when you don’t know what those jobs are going to be, so why not concentrate on those skills and passions that are transferable?

I work with adult students who are coming back to college after being derailed — by life, by money, by illness, by families who didn’t value education as much as they do. Whatever it was, it kept them from getting a bachelor’s degree, and now they’re running into barriers. They’re coming to a community college, taking classes at night so they can still hold on to that job that’s paying the bills. They are all learning — not about how to fit into a box of a job but about what they’re good at and what they’re curious about. Learning is what you have to keep doing to keep moving.

I was teaching a seminar, and this man came up afterwards [who had] taken my career and life planning class 20 years ago at NVCC. He says: “You changed my life. After that class, I quit my job, came to Charlottesville and started a farm. Now I’m back, going after my doctoral degree.” That is such a privilege to be allowed into such a critical moment in someone’s life. I don’t think my tires hit the ground on the drive home. I just floated.

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