I have always been something of an over-achiever. When I was four, I read aloud a Halloween poem my bus driver, Jennifer, had written in black marker on posterboard to share with her pre-school, kindergarten, and first grade passengers. None of the older kids responded to her call for volunteers, and Jennifer was set to read it herself, never suspecting that the quiet Preschool Playhouse girl in the second row could actually read.
At my eighth grade graduation, I won so many awards that the principal suggested during one of my walks across the stage that I should have worn roller skates. From the time I entered the local public school system in the fourth grade, it seemed a foregone conclusion that I’d be high school valedictorian. I competed in Math League, Science Olympiad, and Academia Nuts, as well as volleyball. I was “the smart girl.” That was my primary identity.
No one acted overly surprised when I won the valedictory medal for my class at Manhattan College. And, again, no one was shocked when I got into graduate school in Environmental Engineering at Stanford. Or when I finished with my PhD five and a half years later and started post-doctoral research.
Next in the logical progression were the interviews for professor positions. The academic job offers. And, shortly thereafter, my decision to quit academia and work for a travel agency. It certainly wasn’t a decision I came to easily or lightly. Everyone expected me to become a professor. I expected it, too. Hadn’t I always followed everyone’s expectations? Yet there I was, academic job offer in hand, an exciting opportunity to research and teach at a first-rate university, and I wasn’t happy.
During the next month, I thought a lot. I cried a lot. I met with a career counselor, and talked with anyone who would listen. “What I’m supposed to do” butted heads with “what will make me happy.” Complicating matters, I didn’t honestly know what it is that I would do if I didn’t take the assistant professor position, what would make me happy. I hadn’t really allowed myself to think about it. Then I went to Costa Rica.
A friend and colleague from my program at Stanford had just started an online travel business focused on sustainable tourism, and he asked me to be one of the four-person team representing Whole Travel , his new company, at a Costa Rican travel mart. I got hooked. I loved meeting the people there from different hotels and tour operators, the non-profits, and the government. I loved hearing their stories, learning about their sustainability efforts, becoming excited about people and dreams rather than test tubes and lab results.
When we returned, I reduced my post-doc hours and started working part-time for Whole Travel, developing Whole Ranking, a scheme to evaluate the sustainability of hotels, resorts, and tours. It helps customers make apples-to-apples sustainability comparisons and allows them to choose vacations based on environmental, socioeconomic, and cultural values.
Several months later, the opportunity arose for my part-time job to become a full-time one. I’m now Whole Travel’s Sustainability Specialist … but since it’s a small company, I really get to do a little bit of everything—including visiting some of the amazing places featured on our website. I feel like I’m making a difference, meeting incredible people, and working for something I truly believe in.
I can honestly say that I love my job. There are certainly people who don’t understand my decision (I’ve gotten used to fielding the question, “Why did you waste your time getting a PhD, then?”) but I know it was the right one. For me.
I’m happy. And to me, that’s the greatest achievement of all.