Last week an old high school friend, now a 12th grade math teacher at International High School at Union Square (IHSUS), asked me if I would like to participate in a panel of professionals in her class's Career Day to share my experience as a physical therapist with her students. Coincidentally I'd been on the lookout for PT-related opportunities to volunteer in the NYC community so I happily obliged.
I have to take a moment to describe what makes this school and it's students unique. IHSUS is a Title 1 school, meaning it receives federal subsidies to aid in the education of its many students from low-income families. A majority of these students have been in the country for four years or less, and altogether immigrated here from 49 different countries speaking 30+ languages. English is the second language for almost all the students. A number of students are older than the typical age for their respective grades, and many have experienced a temporary interruption in the course of their formal education. The academic program at IHSUS addresses these considerations with a curriculum that fosters interaction, communication and group work among the very diverse student body.
Interacting with the most culturally diverse group of young men and women I've ever encountered in a single room was a remarkable experience. They were eager and inquisitive, asking me what a physical therapist does, the educational requirements, and more. Others asked me what's the best way to get a six-pack or to get in shape, and spoke passionately about sports they loved and past injuries they've experienced.
We were allowed to set up our stations however we liked, so I decided to bring several items which I thought would represent the profession as I saw it. This stuff also makes for fun toys that the students can get their hands on and play around with. They were particularly curious about how the Trigger Point foam rollers worked and were astonished to discover the degree to which we know human anatomy from flipping through my Netter's Anatomy textbook.
Other members of the panel worked in an wide assortment of industries and professions. There were photographers, ad agency and digital media strategists, lawyers, jewelry designers, doctors, writers, chefs, makeup artists and more. We were grouped together in rooms based on our fields, and we interacted with small groups of students as they made their way from room to room and table to table.
There was much perspective to be shared from the professionals, many of whom were self-employed entrepreneurs and many with non-linear career paths. One common piece of advice shared among the panelists was to pursue interests and things that you are passionate about, and not even necessarily from a vocational perspective. We encouraged them to have an intellectual curiosity for the passions, hobbies and talents that make you tick as a person, and that process of self-discovery can aid in the search for what can eventually translate into a career.
I was careful to stay grounded in my advice because I didn't want to drop any "do what you love, love what you do" cliches. I didn't know if some students maybe needed to help contribute financially to support their families, and I think it can be idealistic to assume that everyone can simply package their interests or skillsets into a tidy bundle that would always result in a well-compensated dream job. One thing I regret not sharing was that it doesn't necessarily make you a greedy person if financial viability is a strong motivating factor in this decision-making process. Yes, some of us can do what we love but we must not devalue the work of those who may not have that calling and must instead do what is needed, which isn't any less virtuous. Perhaps the topic of compensation is something better left discussed at home, but I don't think it is something these students are too young to start thinking about now.
After we debriefed and exchanged goodbyes with the students, I walked past the NYU Hospital for Joint Diseases located a few blocks away. Eleven years earlier I volunteered in the outpatient physical therapy department here, not much older than many of the students with whom I had spent my morning and asking myself their same questions. It was kind of a mind trip for me as my volunteerism back then was the first step in my long journey to a PT career, and today here I stood having just served on an professional panel as a physical therapist entrepreneur in a high school career fair. In that moment I felt deeply grateful for the opportunities that I was given and for all the people who helped me along the way. I hope I can inspire future generations to similar pathways and also help give others the opportunities that I was fortunate to have received.
Special thanks to Meredith Klein for this opportunity. For more information on how Ms. Klein is impacting her students and community, check out her exclusive feature on the NYC biking blog Bike New York.