May | 2019

17th

Friday

From Confused Undergraduate to Focused Graduate: Personalized Career Matching in action

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My name is Grace Wofford, and Dr. Brunner invited me to share my career mentor experience as he has helped me progress from a once confused and uncertain undergraduate to a focused and confident postgraduate of the University of Arizona.

Prior to the start of my work with Dr. Brunner, I switched majors three times from journalism to psychology and finally sociology. As I struggled to find my place on campus, I also struggled to define a clear career path. 

I have a feeling that my experience was similar to a lot of undergraduates, where you feel no deep academic or connections with those around me; I felt more like another number on the student roster rather than an individual student in the eyes of my instructors and academic advisors.

My work with Dr. Brunner began around July 2017.  The first day of the Personalized Career Matching process began as I identified the professional and academic interests that readily came to mind.   While this is the beginning and end of traditional and very brief academic guidance, this was only the beginning of Dr. Brunner’s intense and in-depth Personality Career Matching process. 

Discovering your professional calling is no small feat.  However, Dr. Brunner guided me through a broad yet focused process to help make such an overwhelming task seem manageable, resulting in a whittled down list of possibilities.  After listening to what my interests were, Dr. Brunner recommended as part of his early pieces of advice, that I begin reading Robert Cialdini’s book “ Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”.  

As I read in my hometown library that summer I became more and more interested in the sociological and psychological factors involved in persuasive communication strategies.  Dr. Brunner suggested I also contact professors and private sector professionals within the fields being considered on our collective list, to learn more about the course work offered in various collegiate programs.  All along I followed his advice to rate each of the many courses composing each major area of study I was interested in to constantly assess my “pulse rate” as I reviewed various areas of study.  

Using 1 to 10 scale to indicate my level of interest in each course composing that college major areas that were in close proximity to my initially defined interests, I was able to systematically and objectively assess my level of passion in each of these areas. 

With a little push from Dr. Brunner, I reached out to Dr. Cialdini himself over email to send my admiration and inquire about his research. I still keep in touch with him to this day and look back at this time fondly as it was the start of significant personal discovery and professional growth.  I started creating relationships with leading thinkers. 

This process allowed me to see that my professional passions were not confined to the conventional tracks that compose academia where you are required to choose narrow majors and minors.  I soon realized I needed a career that would utilize the interdisciplinary interests I was passionate about: psychology, sociology, decision-making, decision influence, marketing, environmentalism, green product choice, and consumer selection.

Because of Dr. Brunner’s extensive but systematic and narrowing process, I was able to confidently identify my major and minor focus areas for the upcoming spring semester.  I soon registered as a sociology student pursuing a double minor in psychology and marketing. I no longer felt that I had to compromise my interdisciplinary leanings as this process helped me see how I could weave together isolated areas to address ultimate intellectual concerns I knew would address critical real world problems. 

Dr. Brunner was critical in helping me to construct a custom career path, one that was completely individualized to me.

As I continued to dig deeper into the questions that most energized me through the meetings with Dr. Brunner, I began to realize the untapped potential of utilizing sociological and psychological decision-making principles in the effort to understand and encourage sustainable consumption and behaviors.  As planet Earth’s resources are increasingly used up, I had always found interest in understanding the process through which individuals make choices that impact the environment.

Dr. Brunner and I discussed various ways to explore my new focus and identify opportunities on campus that would allow me to theoretically and empirically explore the deep-rooted questions that ultimately can affect the survival of human society, that I took so much interest in.

After a few weeks of articulating key areas I was most passionate about, Dr. Brunner proposed that I look into research opportunities on campus.  The idea was in order to know if this path was right for me, I needed to gain hands-on experience in a social science research laboratory on the University of Arizona campus.  With some initial guidance from Dr. Brunner, I identified, and spoke with several graduate students, professors, and local professionals over email, on the phone, and in person to learn more about their research focus and lab environments.

Eventually, we were able to identify a very well-established and respected University of Arizona Scholar – Dr. Sabrina Helm.  Dr. Helm had an impressive professional portfolio. Dr. Helm was more than willing to meet and was open to discussing my interdisciplinary research.   Dr. Helm was thankfully very receptive to my research interests and was open to the potential of exploring them more deeply.

To begin this process of developing my proposals, I continued to meet with Dr. Brunner to identify the exact questions which I wished to answer through work with Dr. Helm.  I began exploring various successful sustainable brands, such as Tesla and found myself wondering what it was exactly that made them so successful.

Why are some green products, like Tesla so widely desired, while others struggled to overcome common sustainable stereotypes of high price points and poor performance? Questions like this led me to contemplate the consumerist nature of our society and the status motives that fuel it. Furthermore, this process led me to think about perceptions regarding earth’s limited resources and how consumption and anxiety of our earth’s future could direct our consumer behaviors.

I soon began thinking about the applications of Terror Management Theory to these questions. Terror Management Theory (TMT) is an existential psychological theory that I had learned about in a previous social psychology class during my sophomore year.  A significant amount of research appeared to indicate that TMT could have significant bearing on a wide range of consumer behaviors and decision processes. Proposed by Dr. Jeffery Greenberg, TMT proposes that because humans are aware of our inevitable death we may often make decisions based on our perceptions of our mortality. 

If there is one thing I have learned from working with Dr. Brunner, it is that you must always prepare for meetings thoroughly. We reviewed the detailed proposals I planned to Dr. Helm. This allowed me to create a visual guide to help present a cohesive thought process to Dr. Helm.  Dr. Helm expressed her interest in my proposals and recognized the effort I had put into the presentation. By the end of the meeting, she asked if I would be interested in working with her to conduct a literary view on exploring the presented topics that semester by utilizing the Independent Study academic mechanism. 

Dr. Helm advised me to conduct literature reviews to further explore some original ideas I presented to her.  I perceived there were minimal previous articles connecting or empirically examining the potential relationship of death anxiety to climate change perceptions and green consumption.  As I dug further it was clear that there were gaps in the literature, and critically relevant questions that needed to be explored.

Dr. Helm reported wanting to pursue a formal academic study based on the proposals I presented to her a few months prior.  Dr. Helm’s interest in continuing the exploration of my proposals meant a great deal to me.  I knew this was the beginning of a foothold allowing me to begin defining what is continuing to be an intellectual journey giving my life a greater meaning. 

I then found myself with an interview for an internship with the Mayor of Tucson, Jonathan Rothschild.  While the position was focused around administrative work, I began to connect with city officials to share my research and find opportunities in the city that would allow me to further develop and build off my interests in a professional setting.  

Dr. Brunner and I began identifying and developing my network within the City of Tucson which allowed me to meet other professionals willing to lend a hand to my pursuits.  With the help of the Mayor’s Communication Director, I was able to extend my internship responsibilities and work alongside sustainably focused policymakers as an intern at Tucson Water.  That same summer I achieved more than I thought previously possible as I completed my marketing minor, and developed a website review for the Tucson Water.  My interest in how to influence consumer decision-making with limited resources continued to develop.  

My experience working with local policymakers sparked my interest in applying my research to sustainable policy communication and environmental outreach strategies.  Dr. Brunner helped me to expand my network in Tucson as I began to grow more professionally and personally connected with the individuals I would meet in the city that I now call Home.

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As the fall semester began, I utilized my new confidence to pursue an internship at the Sonoran Institute, a well-established and endowed North American environmental conservation non-profit company.   I was proud to return to Dr. Brunner’s office that following week and share with him that I had been hired as the new Marketing and Digital Communications Intern.  My internship with Sonoran Institute has allowed me to learn more about sustainable communication strategies in the nonprofit sector and apply my experience with survey design to identify and answer relevant questions that will help to better understand the perceptions and preferences of the Sonoran Institute’s donor base.

I continued to check-in with Dr. Brunner as we began focusing on opportunities to present my work as I continued to refine my graduate school goals. We began identifying the key focus, purpose and valuable applications of my research to the marketing strategies of green products and limited resource usage mitigation, as I began searching for poster research forums on campus.

My first research poster presentation was that February at the 2019 Student Showcase. To my surprise, the President of the University of Arizona, Dr. Robbins, selected my research to receive the first place Undergraduate Student Showcase President’s Award.  Presidents Robbins’ recognition of my research was tangible evidence of the dedication and persistence of the last year and a half of work made possible through the helpful collaboration and guidance of Dr. Brunner.  I am thankful to Dr. Helm who also played a major role in helping me develop my ideas.

In a little over a year’s time, I had overcome so many obstacles and achieved more than I ever thought I could.  Today as a postgraduate I am excited to continue my interdisciplinary path and contribute to the mitigation of climate change with my uniquely holistic lens.  A year ago I would have never imagined that I would be involved in creating research proposals, collaborating on graduate level projects, and interning at one of the most impactful environmental nonprofits in the southwest.

Dr. Brunner’s career mentorship process was critical to the progression of my professional and academic journey. His unique process allowed me to feel supported. I graduated this May with the confidence in my ability and my professional path, which was the best graduation present I could have asked for.

While my path to this point was anything but traditional, I think every student feels like they are in the labyrinth.  Every student needs a mentor who works with them in depth.  I would not have wanted it any other way.  I am so thankful for Dr. Brunner’s guidance, and tireless dedication to helping me find my voice. 


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