07/21/2011 06:12 pm ET | Updated Sep 20, 2011

How College Catapults Careers

I have interviewed a number of achievers whose lives provided data to demonstrate a model of life-long success skills which had been developed in college. These stories were published in Making College Pay Off (and later in Launch You Career In College), but I remember some of the back-stories of their interpretations -- and sometimes their misinterpretations -- which were never printed. Hindsight allows many people to recall details of those activities which created new interests for them as well as their mentors who encouraged them to proceed.

One of the most telling was my interview with Gloria Steinem, the renowned feminist leader, who was initially resistant to reveal her college experiences. In fact, she warned me that college was a complete wash-out for her. But I doubted her because she achieved so much in her lifetime. She went to Smith, an elite women's college, so I was sure that something critical had happened there. I persevered with specific questions to jolt her memory. I can still hear her voice:

Q. Did you become involved in any activities, such as the campus newspaper or magazine or activist groups?
A. No. Not at all.

Q. Did you have any special professor who served as a mentor to you?
A. No.

Q. Did you participate in a junior semester or year abroad?
A. Yes. I went to France, but it's not what you think. I didn't even speak French there.

Q. Did you write papers that inspired any interest?
A. No, nothing at all.

Q. Did you have a job lined up before you graduated?
A. Yes, I had a job offer as a researcher for Time/Life, a major news magazine.

Q. Did you take it?
A. No.

Q. Why not?
A. I was going to but I went to my favorite professor, a woman who taught Indian history, and told her about the offer as well as my engagement to my boyfriend.

Q. What did she advise?
A. She told me that I had two dead-end offers. She said I'd never get any credit for my work at Time/Life since women were relegated only as researchers back then. She also told me not to marry.

Q. What did she counter with?
A. She told me she'd arrange a US government-sponsored year-long internship to India where I would help to "quell caste riots."

Q. Did you understand what those words meant?
A. No, but I began to find out during that year.

Q. What did you do when you returned?
A. When I came back, I didn't have an apartment or any idea of what kind of job I'd want. I just slept on friends' sofas for months before it dawned on me that I had become politicized during that year.

Q. So, then, is it fair to say that your college professor was your mentor after all and your internship shaped your life?
A. Yes, it is true, but I never thought about it like that, not until this moment.

I was grateful that Gloria was willing to dig deeply and share what she had done during those years, years that she had written off as unimportant. I did so because I have found from all my interviewing that in every four or five years, achievers try on new ideas: practice relentlessly until they become masterful: and find mentors to coach them providing them with invaluable leads, guidance and inspiration. The more passive students just wait for opportunities to come to them, as they are automatically promoted from year to year and caught in paralyzing system-dependence.

This other way of engagement, this active kind of curriculum, isn't written anywhere in college guides, but such opportunities for involvement outside the lecture hall are there for you. All you have to do is seek the approach yourself. Ask and keep asking, keeping engaged until you find something that compels you. Then it's up to you to take a leap into the unknown without letting your fear stop you from trying. And those leaps and falls are what can shape your future. What have you got to lose when there is everything to gain?

Make your luck happen!