Thursday, February 23, 2012

On Being Young and Doing My Job Well

This post is for the young professionals.

My entire working life, I have battled with ageism. Ironically, ageism is a term that was first coined in 1968 to describe prejudice against seniors in the workplace. Now, however, my own experiences and discussions with my peers prove that ageism extends to today's young professionals.

A recent trip to see family in San Angelo, TX brought up the discussion. My uncle, who had returned from taking his mother to M.D. Anderson said of the doctor, "She looked about 15." My aunt's friend chimed in with a story about leaving her dentist because he sold his practice to a man she coined Doogie Howser (who was, by the way, an early childhood crush of mine) comparing her dentist to the 16 year-old on the popular show from the early 1990s. The fact is, the doctor and the dentist were not 15 or 16, in all likelihood, they are, like me, in their mid twenties. The stories struck a chord with me because I am all too familiar with the similar scenario. I walk into the classroom on day one every semester and receive comments like, "I thought you were a student" or "How old are you?"

I don't answer that question. It just isn't relevant to the purposes of an English class. The fact is, I may be young, but I also have a Bachelors and two Master's degrees in my subject area. I'm an excellent teacher, and my students, some of whom are far older than me, quickly come to realize this. Being young has its advantages: I understand how to use applicable technology in the classroom, I'm on email far more than the average teacher, I grade papers quickly and have lots of energy, even in an 8a.m. class. I'm understanding, not grumpy, and easy to relate to.

My young professional friends have many similar stories to share. They are in all different careers: the arts, college recruiting, head-hunting, psychotherapy, advertising, finance. They constantly field questions from supervisors, clients, or even people they themselves supervise that are along the lines of "Are you really qualified to do this?" Even worse, people are sometimes patronizing, addressing them as if they are a child.

I get it. People want to believe that they are in the best possible hands. They want a knowledgable teacher, a capable dentist or doctor, people with experience. I forgive the ageist comments of my students or anyone else for that matter. I love my family, and I totally see where they are coming from. People are only human, after all, and it is only human to have concerns. However, I do want to put this out there: people don't last in jobs they are not qualified for. If I was incapable of teaching, I would have lost my position doing so in graduate school. I wouldn't be now in my fourth year of teaching higher ed courses. Likewise, doctors, dentists, therapists, and anyone you see in a professional position, would not be where they are without years of school and passing exams.

So, are people who are older and more experienced better at their job? Maybe. And maybe not. Every person is different. I know teachers with decades under their belts that I admire and aspire to be like. It brings me great pleasure to "talk shop" with them, and I am always looking to learn from them. I also know some that I wouldn't take a class with. Ever. Like every job, the performance is dependent on the individual and how much he or she cares about the job. True ability has little to do with the individual's age. And consider this: that doctor just out of medical school is coming out with the latest knowledge about the newest technologies and techniques. Even in high stakes careers, younger doesn't necessarily mean "worse."

I think we live in a hypocritical society of sorts. I sometimes hear people in older generations complain about what they deem to be "my generation." We aren't responsible, we want everything handed to us, we are too entitled to work hard, etc. etc. Yet, when people in my generation do take responsibility to become educated, find a job, and work our hardest at it, we are doubted and looked down on as somehow not being capable enough to do the job. Thank God the people with these attitudes are not the people in charge of every single hiring committee.

Hats off to those in the older generations who have done nothing but nurture my generation. I was lucky enough to come across many of these people during my time in graduate school at McNeese. These professors helped me not only to become better at my job, but to grow into a capable, dedicated teacher and adult. I consider them dear friends, and I will always consider myself in debt to them for their generosity and patience.

Times have changed. In my mother's generation, the mid twenties was seen as full adulthood. My mother, at my age, was not only working on her doctorate, but she had already been married and divorced, and held numerous professional jobs. Today, people perceive the mid twenties as a time people are still "discovering themselves," but many of us find that stereotype silly. While I'll be the first to admit, I know immature people in their mid-twenties (and mid-thirties, and early sixties, etc. etc.), I don't think all my peers are enduring a "quarter life crisis" that renders us only capable of committing to a job at Barnes and Noble for the next few weeks. The only thing that makes people's expectations of me different than the expectations that were placed on my mother is that life spans are longer now. The thought process goes, if we're all going to live into our 80s (hopefully), twenty something is basically nothing.

But, it's all I've got. I'm twenty something, and I've used all my years as wisely as I could to give myself the best advantages in life. I worked hard in high school, cried on the postman when I received my acceptance to a top notch university, and was thrilled to have the chance to work my way through graduate school doing something I love (teaching) in exchange for a stipend and tuition paid. I may still be a "child at heart," but I'm also an old soul, one that doesn't have cable T.V., enjoys a cup of hot tea, and reads a book every night. I also look younger than I really am. I am carded when ordering drinks, and last year, when I took a cruise with my mom, I was even invited to join the "teen club." But you know what? I keep telling myself looking young comes with its own advantages.

In the mean time, if you see me, or someone like me in a professional position, I only ask that you give us a chance. Like you, we just want to do our very best. We are hard working, caring, and committed to doing what we can to make this world a better place. We're the mentors of the future. We're the people who may help your children when they are in college or just starting out in their careers. I promise, if it turns out you don't like us as your teacher, dentist, or doctor, you are more than free to find someone else, but in the meantime, give us one opportunity to prove ourselves. Oh, yes, and please do so without asking us if we're 16 yet. It becomes less funny after a while.

You just might be surprised.

"This instructor was absolutely awesome. She made writing fun and kept everybody interested in the course. I got so much out of this class. I would recommend her to anybody, she is a fabulous teacher."
-one of hundreds of my positive student evaluations. (4 years in, and I've still never received a fully negative review).

Here's to all the young professionals. Keep on keeping on!
<3 S


  1. Stacy, you nailed this one. And how. Bravo for your brilliant and positive perspective on this issue. I can personally attest to the truth of what you say here. I recently needed to see my dentist quickly, but he couldn't get to me right away and I was asked to see his son-in-law-to-be. I mean, a new dentist? Really? These guys use drill bits and giant needles in your mouth! But, I really had no choice. Then, when I met the guy, Dr. Scott Hanniman, he looks 20 years old and I was even more scared. Turns out, he recently graduated from dental school and his methods were much less painful and a great deal less invasive. Plus, he will put one bud of your iPod in his ear and sing along to your music.

    Now, I use him exclusively :)

    Maybe that has more to do with knowing my doctor for 15 years, I don't know.

    But I do know that I always tell my students that they are the smartest people on this planet right now and that they have the accumulated knowledge of the history of mankind at their fingertips--therefore, there is nothing that can hold them back. This blog submission of yours makes me feel good about telling them that.

  2. Thanks for the kind words B.J.! I'm glad that you gave the young dentist a chance, and I'm glad that you are empowering your students. No one ever needs to apologize for having a lack of experience; just work hard and go for the goal--that is the only way to gain experience! Thanks for reading! <3 Stacy


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