In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three topics selected by ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt. This week Aaron Szarowicz, City of Douglasville, GA, writes about finding the right career path.
Taking time to reflect on what life events have led me toward my career path has been an interesting process. I chose this topic because I am sure there are many stories similar to my own: a story of no direction, fear of failure, or just misplaced priorities. Some people know early on they would pursue a career in the public sector – maybe they were on the debate team, maybe public service is in their blood, or maybe they were that person in class that always spoke up at every opportunity. I am not that person. I have always found different and inconspicuous ways of getting an idea or point across. Suffice to say, the events that played a role in my career choice are quite fitting.
The best place to start is with a field trip I took with my 11th grade government class. Our teacher invited us to attend a state-wide local government retreat that the city manager and councilmembers were attending. Thinking I would seize this opportunity to miss a day of school, I immediately signed up. At the retreat, speakers gave insight into the legislative process at the state level and shared techniques that cities and counties could use to combat problems which they were facing at that time. For whatever reason, I was totally enthralled. My interest in the very “unpopular” class continued throughout the semester and I did very well. By the time the school year was ending, I contracted a serious case of senioritis. The senioritis that I picked up in 2006 did not to go away until I graduated from college. Throughout a daze of collegiate extra-curricular events and required classes, I had not thought of any career goals or aspirations—I took the “C’s get degrees” mantra to heart.
After college, I took the first job I could get. I spent thenext two years sitting at a desk, making phone calls and shuffling paperwork in a very disconnected fashion. One day I woke up and it all dawned on me: I was wasting a lot of time and opportunities. Coming to that realization was humbling.
I wallowed in self-pity until it just so happened that I bumped into my high school government teacher after church. We started talking about my disdain for my job and about local politics. While talking, we arrived at that weird point in the conversation when there wasn’t much else to say, but you don’t know exactly how to end it. When I reached my awkward silence limit, he looked up and asked me had I ever thought about a career in government. Something I had completely forgotten about in the six years since his class. I began research and thinking about government. Fast-forward about five months and I was pursuing a Master of Public Administration degree.
I was hesitant going back to school, especially since I had begun paying back student loans for my undergrad degree. However, I was fortunate enough to get a Graduate Assistantship that kept costs to a minimum and provided the opportunity to interact with the faculty.
As I started the MPA program, I heard from advisors, professors, staff, even my classmates were how rewarding a career in public service would be and how opportunities to affect change in your community could be, blah, blah, blah. It did not take long to realize how wrong I was and how right they were. After my first semester, I was totally hooked. I could not get enough. I could not learn enough. This hunger to learn and desire to excel helped me to realize what kind of doors can open if you just open your eyes and work for them.
Success in the classroom led to a fantastic professional opportunity. I was accepted into the ICMA Local Government Management Fellowship program. From there, I interviewed and was offered a position with the City of Douglasville, Georgia where I found two of the best mentors I could ask for. I now have the opportunity to carry out that passion each and every day.
Coming full circle, I find myself daydreaming of what could have been had I taken the “right” path. Would I be further along in my career? Maybe, but maybe not. My focus is not necessarily where I have been, but where I am now and where I am going. I think it is important that we take the same outlook in local government. Yes, it is important to know where we have been, but it is more important to learn from successes and failures and use them to guide our strategy today and in the years to come.