Alumni offer students career advice, encouragement through Taking the Next Step program

In a speech that mixed comedy and counsel, Taking the Next Step keynote speaker Tami Sagher offered second- and third-year students career advice that many alums would echo throughout the day: don’t be afraid of deviating from the life you planned for yourself.

Sagher, AB’95, entered the College certain her passion for math would guide her career. But an assignment for her Social Sciences Core course to observe a campus subculture pulled her into the orbit of the improv group Off-Off Campus and led her to a life in comedy as a television writer and producer for shows like “30 Rock” and “How I Met Your Mother.”

“I wanted to be a mathematician desperately, until I didn’t anymore. Losing my passion for math broke my heart, and I was terrified about what to do next—and then I discovered a new passion,” Sagher recalled. “That’s the best part of being 19 and 20. That’s the best part of being human: these passions. They’re important. Listen to them.”

Since 1998, Taking the Next Step has brought together students and alumni like Sagher to discuss their guiding passions and the career opportunities that await them. This year, some 900 students and 200 alumni representing fields from health care to urban planning to entrepreneurship gathered at the Chicago Hilton for informal lunchtime conversations and panel discussions. 

John W. Boyer, dean of the College, said the University’s focus on career preparation through events like Taking the Next Step and programs like the Jeff Metcalf internships reflected the values of UChicago’s founders.

“The men and women who founded the University were certainly very interested in the power of ideas and the power of learning to transform our lives, but they were also fundamentally pragmatic Midwestern people,” Boyer said. “Those skills of scholarly activity, while vital, also have to have a practical impact. You have to be able to translate them to help the world and to enrich the communities in which we live.”

Many of the students attending Taking the Next Step were just beginning to explore possible career paths. Second-year Bryan Tony Zhao, who plans to study economics and political science, said he decided to attend because “I wanted to explore and learn the advice that alumni have to offer.”

“The University offers so much like this. It would be silly not to take advantage of it,” said second-year Alissa Jared.

Throughout the day, alumni attendees reassured students they shouldn’t worry if they didn’t yet know what to study or have a clear plan for life after graduation.

“You’re 19 and 20. You’re fine!” Sagher joked.

In fact, Sagher said she was grateful the University forced her to explore new paths and take classes outside her comfort zone. “Comfort is dangerous,” she said. “Comfort convinces you you’re fine doing what you’re good at instead of failing at what you want to do.”

Like Sagher, Sara Wolfson, AB’98, now a business manager for the advertising agency Leo Burnett, followed a less-than-straightforward path to her current position.

She had planned on being an actor, but realized she needed the intellectual challenge and stability of a day job. Her mother suggested she look into advertising. Wolfson found she loved the creative and collaborative environment.

“A career, I think, is something that you can only see in hindsight,” Wolfson told students at an afternoon panel discussion on careers in advertising and public relations. “It’s like you’re clearing a path through a jungle. You can’t tell the path when it’s ahead of you, because you’re still hacking away at the underbrush with a machete. It’s only when you stop and look behind that you can see where you’ve been and understand how you connected the dots.”

“My best piece of advice would be to let yourself be open to whatever comes along. You never know what magical career is going to stumble across your path.”