September 2020 Alumni Spotlight
Gianina Chrisman, MSEd
In this month’s alumni spotlight, Associate Director of Career Development at Macaulay Honors College at The City University of New York, Gianina Chrisman recalls the first few years of work and her experience in the Marxe MSEd program.
Can you tell us about your first handful of years in the work world and your experience getting your MSEd at the Marxe School?
To be able to explain my first years of work, I really have to explain briefly about my background. As an undergraduate, I flirted with every idea for a career: actor, clinical psychologist, animal behaviorist, experimental psychologist, and nurse (in that order). Throughout, I held and had been promoted into various positions at Hunter College, including as Assistant Coach for many years of the Men’s and Women’s Fencing Team. And, basically my friend pointed out that throughout my explorations, it was the one consistent factor. And, that’s what led me to Higher Education as a career.
I started my Masters at Baruch 2007/2008 I believe and had finally decided to leave Hunter to pursue a full-time job. Of course, it was very difficult to find a job at the time – but I was oblivious to it – but was lucky enough to have one of my fencing peers recommend me for a position at this non-profit organization, where she worked. I am pretty positive that I didn’t give a stellar performance at the job interview but got the offer because of my connection. Unfortunately, my boss and I had differing opinions about my commitment. I was expected to work late nights but had disclosed that I was pursuing a master’s degree. Looking back now, I can see that I was impulsive and irrational (young) but was growing frustrated with repeated meetings to discuss said commitment. During one of the conversations, I looked at my boss and said “this is my two weeks’ notice.” It was the most satisfying thing I have ever done, sticking it to the man, but it was by far the worse decision I ever made. It was 2008, the highest unemployment rate at the time in the US. I thought: “I’ll find a job, no problem” because of how easy it had been to get the first one. I was wrong. I couldn’t find a job for almost a year. It was the most grueling experience ever to try to stay motivated; I remember, my little junior 4 studio apartment in Rego Park and feeling overwhelmed, crying in my tiny bathroom. I was going to interview after interview bombing each one. I was horrible at it! My palms got sweaty, I lost track of my thoughts, I spoke too much. So, I decided that I needed to educate myself about it. Besides, my first full-time job had been a mix of college preparation and career preparation for high school students at Flushing High School.
I visited the Career Center at Baruch and met with Elyse Mendel (now a colleague), who was the Director at that time. I watched loads of YouTube videos and I kept telling myself that practice makes perfect – and I was sure getting a lot of practice. I prepared, practiced, and re-did my resume and cover letters a thousand times. But, I didn’t like Workforce. I knew I liked advising, specifically at-risk students, and commuter/urban student experiences. I knew that I wanted to work with college students but couldn’t get a job – hiring freezes, etc. just made it that much more difficult. Since many of my colleagues at Baruch were in the field (and that’s what attracted me to the program because another program in New York was too theoretical and many of their students weren’t even in the field), they were able to give me a better understanding of the hiring process, and some were even able to get me interviews. It was tough balancing a crushing economy – not being able to pay my bills sometimes – and the pressure to do well in my studies. I cried a lot during those years. But, they were also the best! I made so many connections with people that I still see today and now I get to work alongside as part of the CUNY community, even professors! But, I had a great support network of friends within and outside of the program, and we pushed each other to be better.
After graduating, I was still unable to get a job in Higher Ed. I was at the end of my rope financially and was able to land a job with VISIONS a non-profit that provides services for the blind and visually impaired. That was my savior – I didn’t even know how I was going to get to work on my first day but found out a couple of days prior that they would be giving me a monthly Metrocard. I was the Youth Employment Coordinator and spent 4 wonderful years getting to know the magnificent staff there. I worked with high school and college students that needed vocational training throughout the year and then internship placements during the summer. I kept in touch with friends from the program at Baruch. Higher ed was calling again and I was getting antsy at VISIONS. Although it was incredibly rewarding work, I felt like I was an imposter because I didn’t feel the same passion and commitment for the work we were doing. So, again, here I find myself in workforce development and I want to get back into Higher Ed. By then, I realized I was really good at getting people jobs and started to go with it. But, it was still really difficult to get a job within Higher Ed. I decided to go back to old methods: I went to Hunter and met with a career counselor (Keith Okrosy, who is now a colleague) there and then went to SPS (I had earned a certificate in Disability Studies there because I wanted to serve the population at VISIONS the best I could and I’m a life-long learner), met with Shannon Gallo there (also a colleague now). I had no shame – I told them I wanted to get into higher ed, specifically career development, but was terrible at interviewing. I got the best advice ever. I was speaking to a friend of mine (from the program) and they recommended that I look at the Research Foundation at CUNY. I saw the position at Macaulay, advertised as the Assistant Director of Internships and Undergraduate Research. I had so many fears (I had never been an Assistant Director before, could I handle it?) but my friend convinces me that I should apply. The feeling for that interview was different, after it was done, I had an overwhelming sense of “you’re home.” And, it’s been my home for the past 6 years.
It was a long road to get here but I’m here. Student Services, Finance, Microcounseling, and all the other classes I took at Baruch are still relevant today. I noticed my education gives me a different perspective because of the exposure I had in the classroom to people who were in the field. It’s a full immersion. I still have my textbooks and refer back to them whenever I need them.
You were also an adjunct at Marxe. What was it like going from student to teacher at the same school?
Being an adjunct at Marxe was fun. It was so much fun. It wasn’t difficult going from student to teacher. Because I had worked in higher ed part-time prior to it and had done the same transition in fencing, going from peer to coach (that’s an interesting one). And, so it was a fairly smooth transition. I just always try to approach things like it’s going to be a symbiotic relationship. I’m going to learn from you and you’re going to learn from me. I also think because I was so close in age to the students that I was able to relate to them a lot and understand the challenges they were meeting. And, I learned how to be respectfully assertive when needed because the other side of that is that they think you’re going to be their friend. You’re not going to be friends. But, you’re going to be a mentor.