What My Winding Career Path Taught Me About College

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I struggled with what to do after graduation—but in our data-heavy landscape, today’s students are much more empowered

By Anna Esaki-Smith ’83

During my senior year, I didn’t know what I wanted to do after I graduated. I had majored in Asian studies, largely because I had taken a lot of Japanese language classes and needed a way for all those credits to count. I told people who asked about my future that I wanted an international career; that sounded legit, right?

Before graduation, my roommates and I plastered the walls of our Cayuga Heights apartment with the many “ding” letters we received from companies that didn’t want to hire us.

Anna Esaki-Smith

I racked up my fair share—from banks to magazines to consumer goods companies—as I cast a wide net to find an employer that might see something in me and my degree.

I even wrote to the manager of the English rock band The Police when I heard they were planning a tour in Japan, offering my vague services as an on-the-ground coordinator.

Quite incredibly, the manager wrote a kind letter back, informing the naïve, soon-to-be Cornell graduate that they had already hired someone who could help them.

As Homer Simpson would say: D’oh!

Anna Esaki-Smith in Japan during a college summer.
In Japan during a college summer program.

Yes, Cornell provided me with a truly fantastic and formative college experience, one that I treasure to this very day.

But with today’s tech-disrupted economy, it matters less if you went to an Ivy League school than bringing specific skills and knowledge to the table.

Being innovative and unafraid to fail are big pluses, too.

While a university’s brand and global ranking are still a powerful draw, elite institutions are no longer the sole gatekeepers to a graduate’s ability to succeed.

But nowadays, high school students feel more pressure to know what they want to do before even starting college than I did when I was about to graduate.

With high tuition fees, there is little time—or money—to “find yourself” during your four undergraduate years.

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‘What’s Your Purpose in Life?’ Psychology Prof Explains Why that Question Makes All the Difference

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If I were starting college now, maybe all those hours I spent throwing a Frisbee with friends at the old “Dust Bowl” on West Campus would have been spent Googling careers.

If I were starting college now, maybe all those hours I spent throwing a Frisbee with friends at the old 'Dust Bowl' on West Campus would have been spent Googling careers.

I eventually did find my way, but not before stumbling a bit.

After a few jobs here and there, I got a master’s in journalism at Columbia and became a foreign correspondent with Reuters in Tokyo. Hooray, Asian studies degree!

My less-than-linear career trajectory inspired me to write my book about navigating the college admissions landscape: Make College Your Superpower: It’s Not Where You Go, It’s What You Know aims to support students in what’s become an anxiety-ridden application process.

I was in many ways lucky. But students today don’t need to rely on luck as much in terms of taking those initial post-graduation steps.

Today, there is a lot of data students can tap when deciding where to go to university.

They have a wider variety of ways to get an education, and they can readily see the projected salaries for various majors.

For example, Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce ranks 4,500 colleges based on their return on investment, and even offers that rating from the perspective of low-income students. It examines the economic value of business, journalism, and communications programs, too.

The cover of "Make College Your Superpower"

I still have some of those “ding” letters, which at this point are about as parched and worn as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Maybe today’s university graduates, hopefully a bit more focused than I was, are getting fewer of them.

Anna Esaki-Smith ’83 co-founded the research consultancy Education Rethink and helps universities and edtech companies with their internationalization strategies. She's also a contributor to Forbes, writing about higher education. After many years living and working overseas, she resides in Westchester County, NY—and, happily, was able to attend her 40th Reunion.

(All images provided.)

Published March 18, 2024


  1. Gina Strauch, Class of 1980

    I graduated from Cornell in 1980, and back then it was possible to graduate from the Ag school without debt if you had jobs and scholarships. I have never worked in my field of study, never made much money, and have never for a minute been sorry I got a degree from Cornell. Here I learned how to ask good questions, and how to find good answers, and, for the first time, met people different from the lower middle class mostly white American community I grew up in.That opened my eyes to the wealth of possibilities in life, and though I chose something other than a straight career path, it’s been a full and wonderful life.

    • Anna Esaki-Smith, Class of 1983

      hey gina! thank you for your very thoughtful comment which i absolutely love. you sound like you were a very resourceful and mature student, open to new ideas and scenarios. agree that cornell was incredibly special, embracing such a wide variety of students as it had both public and private schools with so many programs. and yes, here’s to a less-than-straightforward career path and the benefits we perhaps inadvertently reap. we were in many ways lucky!

    • Alyssa L Bickler, Class of 1983

      Hi, Gina, I was able to graduate from the Ag School with minimal debt in 1983 (10K) and also never worked in Agriculture. I have had a great career in sales, and am profoundly grateful for my Cornell experience! Worth every $115.12 I paid on my loan for 10 years! LOL

  2. Alyssa L Bickler, Class of 1983

    Great article! I am looking forward to gifting your book to the high school students in my family.

    • Anna Esaki-Smith, Class of 1983

      Thank you so much, Alyssa! Your support means a lot, especially coming from a fellow Cornellian. Here’s to our college community and Go Big Red!

  3. Janet Rose, Class of 1983

    I graduated from Cornell in 1983 with my degree in Nutrition from Human Ecology. I was rejected from every medical school and did not get a dietetic internship. I went back home to NYC and was told I was “overqualified” when I applied for work. Two weeks before the one year anniversary of graduation, I entered U. S. Navy boot camp. For 13 years I was a Navy Corpsman and loved it. I met some amazing people and got to work in labs, x-ray and the OR side by side with doctors. I taught numerous classes in first aid and CPR and I tutored shipmates in math. After the Navy I spent 20 years as probation officer with the majority of my years supervising youth who committed sex crimes which I also loved. Not the outcome I expected after graduation but definitely no regrets. I can look back and see I’ve made a difference.

    • Anna Esaki-Smith, Class of 1983

      Wow, Janet, your post-Cornell life reads like a compelling bestseller! Your experiences certainly eclipse mine, in terms of breadth and impact. Perhaps becoming a novelist or screenwriter might be the culmination of your “no regrets” career 🙂

    • A. Jorge García, Class of 1983

      I graduated from Cornell in 1983 from the school of Arts & Sciences with an AB in Physics. I decided not to pursue a graduate degree in Physics as I saw all the PhD students struggling for years and getting paid peanuts. I continued with a 5th year at Cornell in the Engineering school getting an MEng in Electrical Engineering. I got half way through that degree when I found I was only getting job offers from military defense contractors and I wasn’t interested in building guidance systems for bombs. I then switched to an MS in Applied Mathematics from CW Post College at Long Island University which lead me to a 40 year career in teaching Math, Computer Science and Physics at the High School and College levels. Loved every bit of my time with my students until the pandemic forced me to retire early. Don’t miss the High School politics nor the Long Island commuting. Still teach college, mostly remote, part time and love it! Thanx to Cornell for opening many doors and a varied career path as well!
      Be well,
      A. Jorge García
      Applied Math & CS
      Nassau Community College

      • Anna Esaki-Smith, Class of 1983

        Hi Jorge! I loved reading about your academic and professional journey and how wonderful to have had a long and storied career in teaching. The pandemic was such a challenge for those working in education but I’m happy to hear you’ve continued teaching your lucky students remotely. And I, too, am grateful to Cornell 🙂

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