Exploring Career Paths with High School Student Leaders

By: David J. Smith, June 29, 2016

This week the World Affairs Council – Washington, DC is holding its 5th Annual Leadership Academy on International Affairs. Designed for high school students, the program brings

World Affairs Council – Washington, DC  Leadership Academy

together area youth interested in globalization, trade, economics, human rights, peacebuilding,  multilateralism, and  sovereignty, among other issues.  During the week a host of DC-based experts and educators work with the students to explore contemporary global issues.

Today I had a chance to work with the group.  My presentation was titled “A Career as a Global Peacebuilder: Where to Start!”   My goal was to get students thinking about their future career paths.

I started off by having students think in terms of their interests, rather than  particular job titles.  Too often we focus on a job we have in mind based on the job’s title: lawyer, doctor, teacher, and such.   This is a typical way of exploring careers, but I think it has its limits.   I shared with students this quote:

“60 percent of jobs ten years from now haven’t been created yet.”

This is by Thomas Frey, an editor at The Futurist, a magazine published by the World Future Society.  My point with students was to have them focus less on the name of the job, which as Frey contends, will be difficult to predict, and more on the objectives of the job.  To accomplish this I had students engage in an exercise called “What Am I Seeking in a Career? Bingo.”  Using a sheet with 24 boxes (there are actually 25 boxes, but as in bingo, one is “free”) where each included a statement such as “work to promote human rights,” “try to end violence against women,” and “work overseas to promote peace.” I then had students interview each other to complete the bingo sheet.  Five in a row was bingo. Though I had a winner right away, the other students did not want to stop and continued to ask each other questions until most everyone had bingo. The point of the activity was to refocus students from a job name to the objectives of professional work.

I followed with an exercise  where I used four autobiographical profiles from my book Peace Jobs: A Student’s Guide to Starting  Career Working for Peace.   Working in groups of five, students where given a young professional profile. I shared the profiles of Matthew Johnson, Rachel Zink, Jerry Doran, and Melisa Ashbaugh Johnston. (Obtain a copy of my book to read the profiles).  After reading the profile as a group, I had students answer three questions:

  • What did you find most interesting about the person?
  • What would you like to learn more about after reading the profile?
  • What is one question you would like to ask the person in the profile?

I found that the students dug deeply into the profiles.   For instance, they were interested in the Critical Language Scholarship Program that Jerry Doran participated in, and how he

Reading the profiles of young professionals

wove his IT skills and peacebuilding work together. For Rachel Zink, students wanted to find out if she was now in law school and if she was still focusing on human rights. In Matthew Johnson’s profile, they wanted to find out more about the Conflict Resolution Center of Montgomery County (several of the students lived in Montgomery County, MD). They were also interested in learning about the University for Peace in Costa Rica that Johnson had considered. Finally, in Melisa Johnston’s case, they wanted to find out more about 2020 A Year Without War, and how they might be able to help.

I am convinced that career exploration is best done by sharing with young people the journeys of others who are doing important peacebuilding and conflict resolution work.  In this way students can reflect on their own interests and can use other professionals’ experiences as pathways.



Published by David J. Smith

I am a career coach, consultant, and head of a not for profit - the Forage Center - that offers humanitarian education training. I also teach at George Mason University and Drexel University. A one time lawyer, I spent many years teaching in a community college where I was a Fulbright U.S. Scholar teaching in Estonia. I'm the author of Peace Jobs: A Student's Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (IAP 2016). I've been married to my best friend for over 31 years and we have two well adjusted adult children who teach me something new everyday. I live in Rockville, Maryland.

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