How My Time in Prison Opened My Eyes to the Benefits of Non-Linear Career Paths

Changing careers is a decision I’ve had to make twice now, both times for different reasons. The first change was entirely by my own choice, and the second change was because of the circumstances I found myself in. I had fully intended on having a linear career path when I entered college. I was passionate about art, and I wanted to build my career around it. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, but after a few years out in the workforce, I learned there weren’t many jobs that paid well in my field of study. I decided that I needed to pivot and chose to pursue a career in education instead.

I went back to school and earned my master’s degree in elementary and special education and then found a job in my new field. My excitement about this new career was short lived, however, as my life changed drastically overnight. Not too long after I was hired to teach in elementary school, a regretful decision landed me in prison. I had no idea what my future would look like anymore. I had hoped that switching tracks would empower me to improve my life, but everything went off the rails entirely.

After I entered prison, I felt lost and broken. I didn’t know how I could put myself back together again, right my wrongs, and rebuild my future. One day, I learned about a call center job opportunity that seemed different from the others inside the prison. And if I could get hired by this company, I would learn marketable business and technology skills that would help me forge a new career path. I was sold!

I applied immediately and was hired in a position where I began to learn about the art of sales and marketing. I started doing sales prospecting and qualifying and nurturing leads for huge technology companies. And I’m good at it! I was growing in leaps and bounds and eventually decided to transition to a project coordinator role where I’m defining project goals, communicating with stakeholders, and seeing projects through to closure. The learning is continuous and I’m staying current on tech advances while building a professional network that will stay with me when I complete my sentence. What’s more, I can see a future again, which means everything. While I never imagined myself in this kind of role, I’m incredibly grateful to be doing the work that I’m doing.

Every change along the way to where I am today was scary in its own way. And throughout this journey, I’ve learned many valuable things, both about myself and what a career can look like. Despite such a significant setback in my life and career, I see now that I still have many opportunities out in front of me.

That’s why I’d like to share the three most important lessons I’ve learned along the way, which I think will be useful to anyone worried about switching career paths or trying something new.

You don’t always need a degree to start a new career.

More companies have started hiring based on candidates’ skills, rather than their degrees or years of experience.  In some cases, companies are eliminating degree requirements altogether for certain roles. These organizations are seeing that skills-based hiring opens them up to a wider talent pool and expands workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion. As a result, non-traditional candidates and those who are self-taught have access to more and better opportunities.

When I started in the call center, I didn’t know the first thing about sales, marketing, or any of the clients whose accounts I would be working on. And while I had two degrees, neither were relevant to this kind of work. It was intimidating to step into a new role without prior experience. However, through rigorous training and a lot of encouragement from my colleagues and managers, I was able to learn everything I needed to do the job and do it well. And as I gained more skills, experience, and confidence in my abilities, I was able to move up in the company and take on more responsibility.

Being in prison, my situation was different compared to most people changing careers. But it showed me how important building new skills is and how much could be learned by actually doing the work. If you’re looking to change careers, focus on building the skills that best apply to the type of work you’re doing and don’t be deterred if you lack a degree in that field.

Surround yourself with people who are supportive and encourage change.

Back when I was first considering pursuing a career in special education, I was working as an aid at a preschool. I wasn’t entirely sure if the career change would be right for me, but my colleague there helped convince me. She gave me the tools and opportunities I needed to see the potential in myself and encouraged me to go get my master’s degree.

Similarly, I didn’t think I would be able to do well when I was first hired to work in the prison call center. The amount of information I needed to learn and retain was overwhelming and I didn’t feel confident on the phone. But I had an incredible support network of colleagues and managers around me who kept me going and helped me thrive. And when the project coordinator role opened up, it was one of my colleagues who pushed me to apply for it and take the job.

It’s so easy to let doubt turn you away from new and better opportunities. But one of the best ways to move past that doubt is by building relationships with other people who are focused on positive growth and change.

Your potential is greater than you think.

When I first started my career in education, I was excited, and I thought I had found a lifelong career. While things didn’t go as planned, I’m not sure I would have stayed in the education field even if I never went to prison. Because of rising pressure on teachers and stagnant wages, it’s likely that I would have wanted to make another career switch eventually.

My current role as a project coordinator has exposed me to a whole new world of opportunity that is available to me. I’ve gone from feeling like my life was over to feeling like I can do almost anything I set my mind to. I have continued my education while incarcerated, taking courses so that I can become a paralegal. I am interested in pursuing my PMP (Project Management Professional) certification to become a project manager. I am also curious about future opportunities in marketing where I might be able to reconnect professionally with my artistic side! These career paths would never have been on my radar had I not taken the first step and applied for the call center role.

Whether it’s networking with someone at the company you want to work for, earning a certification, or applying for a new job, take that first step. Starting is the hardest part of making a change, but you won’t know what you’re capable of until you try something for yourself.

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