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Davis, California

Monday, April 15, 2024

A clear path found only in retrospect


UC Davis faculty reflect on their transitions out of undergraduate careers

Professor Susan Taber Avila’s first thought after her graduation from UCLA in 1982 with a degree in textile design was a feeling that many students can relate to this spring.

“I kind of panicked,” Avila said. “I enrolled in a typing class. I thought [that] I better learn how to type so I can at least get a job as a secretary.”

With commencement just around the corner, UC Davis students — both those graduating this quarter and those finding themselves simply thinking of “the real world” with an air of desperation — are thinking about, and doubting, what they should do next.

Avila, now the chair of the Design Department, found her way not by deciding immediately what she wanted to do after graduation, but by taking every opportunity she encountered. She spent the first few years after graduation restoring antique textiles, working as a studio assistant, selling handmade belts, scarves and matching vests on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles and exhibiting her own work.

“At school you’re paying to learn stuff,” Avila said. “The next year out, you’re still learning stuff but you’re not necessarily paying to learn stuff anymore. I think students put too much pressure on getting the perfect job right away, and sometimes the imperfect job is just what you need.”

After moving to Oakland for cheaper studio space, she found a day job at Planned Parenthood and didn’t decide to go back to get her master’s degree until the ‘90s. After graduating from UC Davis with her Master of Fine Arts in textile arts and costume design in 1996, she took the opportunity to teach as an adjunct professor and has been a faculty member of the university ever since.

“It’s sort of a circuitous route that got me here, but I think my own experience has made me keenly aware of students,” Avila said. “I’ve had many a student come to me just crying because they don’t know […] what they’re supposed to be doing. There’s designers out there who didn’t study design, who came to it later in life or by other means. If you have a passion for something, there’s no reason why you can’t shift and do that.”

Encouraging students to take advantage of faculty connections, internships, research and projects that come with a university environment is one of her focuses as department chair, as any kind of experience can lead a student in a direction they had never before considered. But still, the question prevails of how one can get out and meet these opportunities head-on.

“I get that some people worry that they’ll become a Cheez-Its-eating lounge lizard [after graduation], not doing anything — [but] I don’t think so,” said professor of nutrition Liz Applegate. “You have a discipline you developed here at UC Davis and you [will] keep that intact. You got here by being disciplined [and] by being a hard worker. You’re going to still be that way.”

Before becoming a professor of nutrition and the director of the sports nutrition program, Applegate spent her undergraduate and graduate careers taking advantage of opportunities that helped her forge her own way on campus — something she couldn’t predict when she started on a pre-med track as a biochemistry major at UC Davis. Also, if it weren’t for her major professor who told her that she had to improve her writing skills, she would never have written her books, graduate thesis and articles for magazines like Runner’s World.

“I wish I had known [in my undergraduate career] how important writing was for my success,” Applegate said. “Every letter, every word is painful — I’m not comfortable with writing, but I do it all the time. I can’t emphasize enough to students that […] both written and oral communication skills are of the utmost [importance] and I was never told that. The [worker] that is the better communicator is the most successful, in my mind.”

Applegate’s success in her postgraduate career came through dedication and hard work, but not without a price. Applegate described a feeling of self-doubt once she graduated, something anyone embarking on a new chapter can identify with.

“I [had] always felt like I was inadequate, that there’s got to be other people who can do a better job,” Applegate said. “While smarts and intellect is part of your performance, the other part of your performance and your success is being a hard worker, respectful to others, organized [and to] get your work done on time.”

English professor Frances Dolan has found that this feeling of inadequacy unfortunately prevails all through life, and that figuring out one step in a post-graduation career path does not provide a solution — thankfully, this kind of feeling is what grounds even the most impressive graduates.

“Either you have a robust and inaccurate sense of your worth, or you’re most of us,” Dolan said. “Most of us are really haunted by the sense that we’re not smart enough, [and that] we don’t belong here. We all have those feelings.”

Dolan walked to Loyola University in Chicago from her parents’ house all four years of her undergraduate career to study English and classics and immediately pursued a graduate degree in English literature across town at the University of Chicago. Growing up with an Irish-Catholic background, it was out of the norm in her family for her to move to a different neighborhood after graduation. Because of this, Dolan remembered being excited to move on but recognized that she was working on autopilot.

“I worked really hard as a college student and then — boom — there I was in graduate school,” Dolan said. “In some ways I had a very limited scope of action [and]  in many ways it would have been great for me to work or do something else after college. Sometimes I think when I talk to students they want to know if I had this vision of my life, which I completely did not have.”

Despite the immediate transition into graduate school, Dolan’s path didn’t come without some perfectly-timed failures. Dolan spent many summers and school years working in her father’s office, being berated by bosses for her performance as a program assistant in the Newberry Library and even walking around the Weebles department store dressed as Mr. Potato Head — a job that taught her “that I have no dignity.”

“Don’t be afraid to fail — I learned the most in my life from the stuff that I did badly,” Dolan said. “It’s precisely because I had actually moved directly through [my academic career] in this way that I tend to encourage students […] to do some different things. The more experience that you get, the more you think of every experience as an opportunity.”

As Dolan moves along in her career, she reminds herself to take everything a year at a time, and advises graduating seniors to do the same.

“It has worked well for me in life to often think ‘well, what would I enjoy doing for the next year?’ — which is not exactly not a long-term plan,” Dolan said. “The more you can actually value your own responses and scrutinize them […is] really helpful. And you never stop doing it.”

Susan Keen, an associate dean and professor of biological sciences, decided to take two years to work as a lab technician after her graduation from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

“I thought I would always go back to school,” Keen said. “That real-world experience gets you in good stead.”

However, while at University of Michigan at Ann Arbor for her graduate studies, Keen decided to take a year to assist a colleague with their research — in South America.  

“At the time i was very worried that the whole year will damage my career,” Keen said. “And it was silly — but at the time, I didn’t know that was silly. I think very little can actually derail your whole life. At least, that’s my suspicion.”

According to Keen, very few people have a plan from birth that they set out on and accomplish in an ideal time frame. Instead, she described it as a process, with one step taken at a time. Expecting that every step will work is “just not realistic.”

“Sometimes you learn more when it doesn’t work than when it does work,” Keen said. “You also think that you’re supposed to have a path, and really almost nobody has a path unless they look backward.”

What’s important to remember at any turning point is to ground oneself in a search of happiness and self-improvement — no pressure from outside sources or what one believes is expected of them can justifiably forge a life outside of an undergraduate career. After all, this is not the beginning of life, it is “just a part of your life.”

“[If I could go back] I would tell myself to calm down, it’s going to be okay, you’ll land on your feet,” Avila said. “Lifelong learning is really important. Maybe I thought I was done with learning, but the reality is that I’m constantly learning, and the more I learn the more I need to learn.”


Written By: Emilie DeFazio — features@theaggie.org


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