By Michelle No ’12
When Annie Phoenix ’11 first arrived at Scripps, she felt uncomfortable with her new environment. It was a common first-year scenario, even for someone who had traveled from Northern California to a college campus in the same state.
“Scripps is a place of extreme privilege, and that was difficult to navigate at the time,” Phoenix says.
That dissonance led her to seek guidance from Sheila Walker, Laura Vausbinder Hockett Endowed Professorship and professor of psychology, who encouraged her to start working in communities to find her “reason for education.” Phoenix began working at Afflerbaugh-Paige Camp, where she designed and taught classes and discovered an organization that would ground her work at Scripps and beyond.
“I think it made me really passionate about making higher ed accessible for everyone, from the person sitting in prison to kids at home with no examples [of a college education],” Phoenix says.
Since graduating in 2011 and obtaining her doctorate in philosophy, Phoenix has played a central role in passing six Louisiana laws and worked on legislation in several other states, in addition to federal bills—all in support of making higher education more accessible to incarcerated people. Thanks to Phoenix’s work in 2017, Louisiana became the first state to pass legislation that makes it illegal to include criminal history questions in college applications. Now, she runs her own consulting firm, Rosewater Advisors LLC, helping other social justice-oriented nonprofit organizations design programs and secure funding.
Suffice to say, Phoenix did not expect her career journey to lead her here.
“I remember at Scripps, talking to friends about what our jobs would be when we were older. And I said, ‘I’m pretty sure whatever job I’m gonna have doesn’t exist yet. So, I’m gonna have to make it up,’” Phoenix says. “To be honest with you, I’ve always been pretty recklessly optimistic.”
Traditionally, many students vying for leadership positions have been encouraged to think of their future in terms of linear trajectories—a series of calculated decisions that lead them to desired power jobs.
But for many people who graduated in the last few decades, their career “paths” have felt more like wild, unpaved roads, crowded by towering trees that give zero indication of which direction is the better one for them. It’s a landscape that has resulted in many graduates switching jobs, industries, and even countries at a staggering clip.
At the same time, such circumstances have also tested and honed the very skills that groom them for positions
In the case of many leaders across Scripps faculty, staff, and alumnae, including Phoenix, it’s a sense of conviction—or a persistent decision to follow their preferences—that has served as an essential step to leadership, more so than creating a 10-year plan.
Especially when it comes to jobs that have yet to be conceived.
I remember at Scripps, talking to friends about what our jobs would be when we were older. And I said, ‘I’m pretty sure whatever job I’m gonna have doesn’t exist yet. So, I’m gonna have to make it up.’
—Annie Phoenix ’11
When Rima Shah, who serves as the current and founding director of the EmPOWER Center, first finished her master’s degree at the University of California, Berkeley, she wrestled with the types of questions that might stop a career short.
“I moved between many jobs because I kept thinking, ‘Okay, maybe the problem is just this job, maybe I’m in the wrong field,’” Shah says. “And then I thought, ‘Well, how is that possible? I’ve always been passionate about these things since I was a child.’”
Shah asked herself what would make her want to go to work and what issues she was passionate about, and eventually found herself at DePaul University in Chicago, the nation’s largest Catholic university, as the institution’s first sexual health and violence prevention specialist. Following that tenure, she came to Scripps to set up its first 7C Violence Prevention and Advocacy Center.
Indeed, for many grads consistently taught to think outside of norms, centering their goals around the community they might serve has helped crystallize big ambitions. It’s a pathway that requires abundant faith in personal passions that might not be associated with traditional jobs, and that derives meaning in the change they’re able to affect for external constituents. In many ways, it’s a process that trains graduates in the essence of what it means to be a leader who works at the service of others.
After graduating from Scripps, Antoinette Myers Perry ’12 (she/they), who served as Scripps Associated Students president in their senior year, went on to work as admissions coordinator at Urban School of San Francisco, and then, at the age of 25, became assistant dean of students and director of Oberlin College and Conservancy’s Multicultural Resource Center.
“I had to learn to expand my definition of leadership,” says Myers Perry. “What was I seeking to do? Ultimately, it was seeking to be a megaphone for other people’s work.”
According to a sobering report, Women in the Workplace 2021, published by McKinsey, for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 86 women are promoted. For many female leaders, finding those opportunities happens when they’re able to zero in on their strengths, sometimes cutting through the white noise of conventional career advice.
Eulena Jonsson, director of assessment and institutional research at Scripps, still remembers taking her first elective classes as a student at Wake Forest University and knowing “instantly” that she did not want to go into medicine.
“At that point I knew generally what I wanted to do, but had no idea what to do with that information. I loved, loved my social psych class, and remember going to talk to my professor, Dr. Cecelia Solano, [asking] if she thought there was any way I could continue in social psychology. I was expecting a ‘No’ or a ‘Sorry, but it’s impossible.’ She said, ‘Let’s see what we can do!’” says Jonsson.
Like Jonsson, Myers Perry has found myriad leadership roles by becoming a “detective” in a job search as opposed to someone “begging for someone to give you an opportunity,” she says. It’s a point of view that encourages them to lean into body cues and other personal triggers to find roles in which she knows she can thrive.
Similarly, losing a “hyperfocus” on perfection as well as opening herself up to a more personal definition of knowledge or academia, is a habit that’s served Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology Melissa Mesinas ’12.
As an instructor, Mesinas has learned to be more receptive to different ways she can teach a class, incorporating her students’ real-time needs into her course plans. She knows how liberating it can be to connect the dots between lived experience, or what might lie outside of conventional knowledge, and the classroom.
When she was a student at Scripps, she remembers spending a summer doing research in her mother’s native pueblo, meeting teachers who knew and taught the indigenous Zapotec language, which, until a few years ago, was “an oral language with no written history.” Using that research, she created a course that could introduce children of Zapotec ancestry who had resettled in the United States to the language.
It was only at the suggestion of the late Raymond Buriel, emeritus professor of psychology and Chicana/o Latina/o studies at Pomona College, that she decided to use this research as a basis for her senior thesis.
“My mind was blown. No one had ever told me I could connect these very personal and familial and cultural ties to a professional setting or in a career,” Mesinas says.
Associate Professor of Spanish, Latin American, and Caribbean Literatures and Cultures Carmen Sanjuán-Pastor reiterated a similar point. She recalls one professor at Arizona State University who changed her life, if only because his classes were “really about integrating these academic subjects or theories, and theorizing a personal experience.”
My mind was blown. No one had ever told me I could connect these very personal and familial and cultural ties to a professional setting or in
—Melissa Melina’s ’12
Finding and accessing new points of entry isn’t exactly a talent that admission staff or companies look for when interviewing candidates. But it’s tangential to other catchphrases we regularly see in job descriptions: the ability to innovate, going above and beyond, and being independently driven.
As Scripps students enter the workforce, it takes a certain comfort with uncertainty to redefine such terms for themselves.
Even before the pandemic, Myers Perry says that giving “permission to take care of their mind” has been central to creating that place of groundedness.
She counts reading the work of Thích Nhất Hạnh, using their Calm app, leaning into nature, and playing with their neighborhood cats as some of the activities that relaxes them.
While the isolation of COVID-19 might have escalated the need for self-care, it’s also the case that reaching inner and outer balance—however antithetical to the pervasive definition of work ethic—has often been the foundation of success.
Besides, when prestigious titles or accolades aren’t an end, but something that simply happens along the journey to personal fulfillment, no one really feels a rush to abandon mental health to get there.
“I work hard, but when something feels too hard, it might not be the right time for it,” says Phoenix. “Because chances are, if something’s not moving forward, or you keep running into roadblocks, it’s because you should be doing something else.”