“In college you can fail, and you are surrounded by people whose job it is to support you.” -Michelle Obama, Reach Higher’s Beating the Odds Summit 2018

As Michelle Obama uttered those words a mere five feet from me, a huge grin came across my face. Not only because as a young Black woman had I accomplished a dream, having been invited to meet the former first lady and even speak at her conference, but it was also the realization of the support I had received in college that even offered these very opportunities.

Four years ago, when I stepped onto the campus of Spelman College I thought I had everything I needed: Twin XL sheets, shower flip-flops, plenty of confidence as the salutatorian of my high school in Mobile, Alabama, and a plan. I wanted to major in computer science. Growing up, I watched my grandma tap away at the keyboard faster than any other typing teacher within 100 miles; meanwhile, my brother could troubleshoot any computer issue with ease. My love for technology seemed embedded in my DNA.

What wasn’t in my DNA (or at least I thought) was a 2.8 major GPA.

Even if my grades didn’t reflect it, I knew I genuinely enjoyed technology. But come that spring in freshman year, I watched other friends celebrate summer internship offers from places like Google, while I refreshed my inbox to only see rejections galore. Was it discouraging? Of course. To fix the issue, I took the steps below which I hope, class of 2019, will help you press onward in your last year.

Ask For Guidance

And it’s here, that I want to pause and say if you take away only one thing from this post let it be this: when you are faced with obstacles along your path to success, do not feel like you have to go ahead alone. Some of the best advice I received in college: “Breonna, life is all about building relationships, but not just relationships, but genuine ones.” Like Mrs. Obama said, you can fail, just find people around you to push you forward. Over my four years at Spelman, I was fortunate to develop many relationships with people who helped push my career forward.

Overlooked And Undervalued: Your Campus Career Center

Campus career centers are plagued by stereotypes and misunderstandings among students who frankly aren’t sure how to take advantage; therefore, they put that visit off until the last minute. Not smart. Rather, students should be visiting their career center early and go often. And no, you don’t have to be prepared with questions and a 5-year plan before you walk in there. Just go as you are and be honest about what you are hoping to gain. I went to the Spelman’s career center repeatedly and over the course of several visits, I developed a relationship with several members of the staff including the Director, Mr. Harold Bell. The more open I was, the more opportunities came my way, including job fairs, mock interviews, and leadership development training. They are literally tasked with helping you and the tools they can offer you are endless —resume workshops, cover letter templates, mock interviews, etc. Don’t wait until the last minute and be stuck with a limited scope of options as a result of your procrastination. Take advantage of your career center people!

Take Advantage Of Every Opportunity

It’s a fact: I wouldn’t have gotten a job at Microsoft had I not taken an internship at the Media & Information Technology Department. There’s always something from an opportunity. While I was familiar with most of the technical challenges, I did learn important soft skills that have helped me ever since. Working in the Media & Information Technology Department demanded visits to different offices helping faculty troubleshoot. During the process, I often discovered technical issues I wasn’t able to fix because they were due to configuration errors made by someone in the technology department. This forced me to have tough conversations with my colleagues, learning to point out their mistakes in a way that didn’t turn them away from helping me to fix the original issue. Learning to communicate your professional needs in a way that is genuine, polite, and direct will help you throughout your career. Right now, at Microsoft—I have no background in the technology I’m focused on—but I have so many people willing to teach me because I understand how to communicate and ask for help.

Prepare For Your Professional Opportunities

After the summer internship, I returned back to school where I continued to frequently visit the career center for job fairs and informational sessions with prospective employers. Before each visit, I’d browse the employer(s) Q&A and reviews on Handshake, a college career network that helps students navigate jobs and internships. Finding out about the business—what it does, what job opportunities were available, even the names of the recruiters—prepared me to start intelligent conversations with these visitors. It also enabled me to cater my resume specifically to a job opportunity, so when I met the respective recruiter—I had a personalized resume which I could share. (A note: platforms like Handshake allow you to keep a saved a PDF version of your resume on your phone so you can quickly apply for jobs and internships.)

Every networking event I attended, I made a point of introducing myself to at least five strangers. The reason goes back to my original point: there’s always one person in the room who knows at least one other person who is willing to help you in whatever it is you seek to achieve. Please remember, one of your biggest challenges is discovering and building your support network and to achieve this—you have to put your best self forward.

Put Your Best Self Forward

The only reason I found myself within five feet of Mrs. Obama was because I put my best self forward at a career fair at Spelman where I met Yulee Newsome who worked for Handshake. Yulee encouraged me to log in, fill out my profile and start applying for opportunities on Handshake, which I did soon after meeting him. Within weeks of creating a profile, I was receiving offers to interview at businesses like the FBI, and other companies. It really helped boost my confidence: it’s amazing when you have people in your life that see something in you that you may not see in yourself. For those first two years at Spelman I had only received rejection letters.

So, class of 2019, my hope is that you all realize as I do now, there is a village willing to help and guide you to your next level, you just have to find it!