Lauren Smith: My Career Change

Lauren SmithIndustry Change: Non-Profit >> Art
Role Change: Operations Director >> Visual Artist / M.P.S. Candidate for Creative Arts Therapy

See Lauren’s complete Careerosity profile

1) What do you do now, and what did you do before?
I’m currently an M.P.S. candidate in the department of Creative Arts Therapy at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY and a visual artist living in Bushwick, Brooklyn.  My graduate fieldwork is at Village Care, a day treatment facility in NYC for adult individuals living with HIV/AIDS.  I’m also a core organizing member of the organization Arts in Bushwick and lead the Community Projects team. Most recently, I was the Operations Director for Growing Up Green Charter School in Long Island City, NY. My professional experience over the last decade lies mostly in the non-profit sector where I have held the various titles of Interim Director, Operations Director, Administrative Director and Development Coordinator for a number of organizations and institutions ranging in focus from public policy to education to health care and technology.  I have provided executive-level oversight for financial, operational, leadership and resource development within orgs.

2) So, why the change?
Over the years, I found myself increasingly divided between my “professional life” and my “artist life.” I was forever looking for a way to merge the two in a meaningful way.  I had accumulated a great deal of high-level experience in non-profit administration and had realized multiple professional achievements, including executing national and international conferences, multimillion dollar fundraising campaigns and leading organizations through challenging transitions in organizational infrastructure and leadership.  Still, with all of this under my belt, I was professionally unsatisfied and felt my abilities and creativity were at best misdirected and at worst, utterly stifled. I came to the conclusion that my position was untenable and a major shift in professional priorities was necessary in order to achieve personal validation in my career path and finally merge my professional life and artist life.

3) How did you pitch yourself to the desired industry/role? What worked well? In hindsight, what would you have done differently?
I began by exploring a certificate-level Creative Arts Therapy program offered at the New School. Before fully committing myself to the field and graduate study, I wanted a way to get my feet wet in the field and acquire a sense of what to expect. The certificate program was 2 years long, and I took evening classes while working as the Operations Director of Progressive States Network.  It was a decidedly slow path, but it laid a solid foundation. I also took several prerequisite courses in psychology at the undergraduate level, since my BA was in English Literature.  I volunteered as well.  I began working with adolescents at a residential substance abuse program as an art consultant at Phoenix House Academy in Shrub Oak, NY. This experience was an excellent trial run. While not an art therapist, I was able to use art in a therapeutic way and engage students in the creative process.  These combined efforts propelled me to applying to Pratt Institute’s Creative Arts Therapy department.  I would not have done anything differently.

4) What was the most valuable thing you did in preparation for the new industry/role?
Volunteering. It was an easy way to get immersed in my new role, on my terms.  It allowed me to try my new field on for size without the pressure of throwing myself into the commitment of a graduate program right away. I wanted to be 100% ready for that.  Since I’m now a full-time student – my life has shifted dramatically. Going back to school after working for 11 years is a challenge. I’m not a “typical” student and there have been adjustments, but the reward of pursuing a field closer to my heart far outweighs any potential disadvantages.

5) What other advice or insight do you have for readers seeking the same career transition?
I spent a long time in a career that on paper looked amazing, and that allowed me to push aside some very important questions like “is this career utilizing my best potential”, “am I living an authentic life” “what is the value of personal creativity” ?  I forged lots of valuable connections and built meaningful professional relationships in my previous career and I acquired irreplaceable skills in communication, management and leadership development. But at the end of the day, when I had no more personal capital left over to expend on my own creative endeavors, I knew that small changes were not going to make a dent in what really needed to happen. Which was a complete about-face. It was a tough decision, and one that took me about two years to plan and execute. It is not without sacrifice. I am sacrificing a previously comfortable salary level to begin from scratch in a career that compensates much less. Those were important considerations that I came to terms with in my two years of exploration prior to graduate school. What consistently motivated me throughout my journey to change paths, was the sense of satisfaction and validation I felt when signing up for new courses, volunteering as an artist and working within my community and with individuals on a 1:1 basis. It gave me a sense of real achievement and professional validation, that I had never fully experienced in spite of my full career trajectory in the non profit sector. I encourage readers to take stock of themselves and locate their own personal sources of joy and satisfaction. For me, it was reaching others and healing others through art.  Knowing that was an important step. Holding onto it and having the courage to take risks and being OK with starting at a very entry level place is important too.  I realized that changing careers was not a quick decision that could be executed in a span of weeks or months. Instead I became very comfortable with the fact that the process takes years but since the work I’ll be doing in my new field is so well aligned with who I am in my artist life and my professional life, it feels like a natural evolution and one I’m thankful to be pursuing.

See Lauren’s complete Careerosity profile and thank her for sharing!

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