Students sit in chairs and talk to alumni.

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Al-Rahim Merali ’13 has some advice for current Whitman College students:

Relax.

“I felt a lot of anxiety and pressure, especially around sophomore year, to have my plan figured out and to know exactly what I wanted to do when I graduated,” said Merali, who studied psychology and biology. “It was really helpful when I understood that it’s OK to not have it all figured out — that it’s way more common than students think, and normal.”

That was his message to students participating in the second annual Sophomore Summit on Jan. 17-18, 2020. Hosted by the Student Engagement Center (SEC), Intercultural Center, Student Activities Office and Dean of Students, the summit brought together more than two dozen students with alumni and community leaders to explore careers and gain professional skills.

Merali delivered his message during an alumni panel meant to show students the variety of paths available to them at Whitman and beyond. Other presenters included Abby Seethoff ’16, Halley McCormick ’15, Brahm Coler ’19 and Sam Perkins ’18. Each talked about the ways their Whitman experience has guided them on their career journeys.

Today, Merali is a user experience (UX) researcher at Google, a field he didn’t even know existed when he was at Whitman. He stressed the importance of being open to different opportunities, and giving yourself time to carve your own path.

“The moment I started to accept that my life was a moving target and not something I had to completely figure out, it gave me the freedom to seek out opportunities and experiences that in retrospect were really valuable,” he said. As a student, Merali was a resident assistant, student academic advisor, intern for the Admission Office, a DJ for the student radio station, and participated in numerous community engagement activities through the SEC. “If you find yourself struggling to map out your path, instead, seek experiences that interest you; you’ll then be able to connect the dots and figure out the direction you want to head toward.”

Expand Your Interests

Coler, who majored in biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology, also found new passion through his involvement with different organizations on campus. Now a medical student at Washington State University’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine in Spokane, Washington, Coler began his Whitman journey by signing up “for everything at the activities fair.” That included Feminists Advocating Change and Empowerment (FACE).

At his first FACE meeting, Coler said he felt overwhelmed.

“But I got really passionate about feminism, and started seeing the role that I could play here on campus, here in Walla Walla. Then I really started to see how much it intersects with my passion for health care. That’s really driven me forward,” he said.

The search for that passion can also create stress, and it’s important for students to find balance.

“My advice is to say yes to as much as you can. There are so many doors that you don’t even know you’d be interested in walking through until you get a foot in the door,” Coler said. “But you also need to have a sense of balance and be kind to yourself, and know when to dial back.” 

Finding a Pathway

The SEC has another resource for students who want to explore how their passions might translate into careers: PathwayU. The online assessment tool asks students about their strengths, interests and values, and then uses algorithms to direct students toward information about possible careers.

During the Sophomore Summit, the students got an opportunity to explore the new tool.

“I didn’t know what I want to do, and when I did that assessment, I got a starting point,” said Fadia Chehadeh ’22, who is studying biology and psychology. “It’s good to know that there’s a platform we can use to see what our interests are.” 

The assessment confirmed that her interests align with studying public health or epidemiology.

“I want to use biology to help make a difference and advocate for others,” said Chehadeh, an international student from Lebanon and United World College scholar.

Chehadeh could relate to feeling stress and pressure this year.

“You hear about the ‘sophomore slump,’ and I was like, no that’s not going to happen,” Chehadeh said. But coursework, an on-campus job, and social life proved challenging. “I definitely fell into that sophomore slump and was stressing out, and my mental health fell down.”

Programs like Sophomore Summit are a good resource to help students realize they aren’t alone.

“It’s a good way to get the sophomore students together to talk about life, careers and how can we get started. A lot of us are still not decided about what major we want to pursue. It’s a difficult choice,” she said. “Having a summit, and people directing you, helping you with where to go next, definitely helped me and helped other students.”

That’s just what Merali hoped to see students get out of it, and why he wanted to participate.

“I remember quite vividly being a sophomore at Whitman and how anxiety provoking some of that time was. I didn’t have a sense for what life after Whitman looked like for me, and how to figure that out while I was still here,” he said. “I think that Whitman is a very special place. It’s an environment where professors and staff — like those in the Student Engagement Center or Academic Resource Center — genuinely invest in their students. I want to make sure that students take advantage of that opportunity.”