by Jennifer Biller
When Alexandria Marino was in eighth grade, she was supposed to choose a career path that would map out her high school classes and a potential job.
Was it too early to be deciding on a foundation for the future?
Marino, now a senior at Bridgeport High School, thinks so.
"I think they try too hard to make you decide what you're going to do with the rest of your life, when you're only in the eighth or ninth grade," she said.
"High school is the time you should get to try a variety of classes and pick what you like -- while it's free."
Marino will be attending Yale in the fall, where students don't choose majors until at least their sophomore year. She isn't sure yet whether she will be studying biology or music.
Ike Maxwell, a guidance counselor at Liberty High School in Clarksburg, agrees with Marino. He believes that classifying students too soon can add extra frustration and confusion to an already difficult decision.
"Our vision ought to be the exploratory courses instead of the funnel vision we have now," he said. "I try to remind them they will be working the rest of their lives, and it's important they find something they like."
Researching the possibilities
A doctor, salesman or a photographer? Those are just a few professions on an endless list of choices. It's a list that can overwhelm even those who have done their homework on career possibilities.
Students should evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, as well as their grades and test scores before making a decision, Maxwell said. Career counselors at high schools and colleges have a number of tools available to test students' interests.
"You should begin with looking at all the options and then try to narrow it down," Maxwell said. "Unfortunately, the reality is most make a decision based on economics."
"The first question I usually get is, 'How much does it pay?'" said Sally Fry, director of career services at Fairmont State College. "If money is the top priority, then that's OK. But there are just thousands of career choices out there, and if you aren't exposed to them then you can really limit yourself."
Narrowing the choices
At Liberty High School, about 60 percent of the students choose college, Maxwell said. Much of the remaining 40 percent opt for technical school or the military.
For those who haven't done well in high school, they shouldn't automatically dismiss college, said Judy Poe, a guidance counselor at Grafton High School. Community colleges often allow struggling students to take courses, she said.
"Most of the colleges will let individuals take a light load to prove themselves and let them be a part-time student," she said. "Then, you have to pass with a C average."
For those who cannot afford to go onto college right out of high school, returning to school after getting a job is an option.
"Colleges are full of nontraditional students," Maxwell said. "Education is a lifelong process, and the more you learn, the more you earn."
Heather Phillips, 28, of West Milford, started her education years ago at West Virginia University in general studies. Unsure of what she wanted, she quit school and went to work. She is now back in school at United Technical Center in Clarksburg in the licensed practical nursing program.
"I just wasn't prepared, and I didn't know what I wanted to do," she said. "But I think if you work in bad jobs making little money, then you appreciate school."
Joan Smith, director of United Technical Center, believes vocational and technical schools are the best kept secrets in career training. They offer a realistic approach to education, by combining textbook knowledge with hands-on experience internships, she said.
Classes are available in a wide range of subjects at UTC and can be completed in usually just two years, she said. Students have graduated and gone into jobs making more than $45,000 a year, she said.
"If you look at the statistics of four-year college students, they aren't getting jobs or the jobs aren't what they expected," Smith said. "Here they have the opportunity to try careers out before they spend thousands of dollars in college and then realize they don't like it."
Those attending traditional four year colleges should meet with career counselors at the onset. This may help decrease the possibly of having to change majors, Fry said. It's a move that can be costly if the change requires adding on extra semesters.
National statistics show that students change their majors two to three times, she said.
"It has to do with them being there on preconceived ideas," Fry said. "Once they start taking classes or doing job shadowing and see the day-to-day tasks, they may realize it's just not something their interested in."
Fry recommends talking to people in the chosen professions and asking lots of questions.
If college or technical school doesn't fit, the military is a good way to earn income and gain a skill that can be used in the civilian labor force. It is also a great opportunity to make money for college, said Air Force Recruiter Scott Myers.
He usually recruits about 40 high school seniors or recent graduates per year, at the Meadowbrook Mall office in Bridgeport.
"Most of the ones we're putting in have been out of high school for a year or more and have found out college wasn't what they thought it would be," he said.
"I've been in for eight years and I don't regret it," he said. "I've seen the whole world, I make good money, and I'm working on two associate degrees. It's one of the best things I've ever done."
Staff writer Jennifer Biller can be reached at 626-1449 or firstname.lastname@example.org.