Alumni in ENVS

Seeing Beyond “Plan A” by ENVS alumna Sydney Wolchok (C’17)

My name is Sydney Wolchok, and I earned my degree from Emory back in 2017, having double-majored in Environmental Sciences and Human Health. To those who have just graduated, congratulations! It truly is a huge accomplishment to receive a degree from Emory. To those who still have time left to experience all Emory has to offer, enjoy it!

As the Spring semester has come to a close, everyone’s thoughts are focused on the future. But what does that even look like?

Recent grads: what we are currently facing on a global scale is definitely not ordinary or expected. If you are entering the workforce, continuing your studies, or have other plans, you are in charge of molding your own future. Your individual career path will not be the same as someone else’s, nor should it be. Each person has the unique task of discovering where they fit in and where they want to make an impact.

Graduating from college at age 22, you shouldn’t have all the answers or always know the crucial next step. And to that point, my friend and mentor Paul Bredderman at Emory’s Career Center asked if I would share a little about my own journey and how I ended up where I am now, at Brooklyn Law School pursuing a career in environmental law.

Throughout each stage of my life when I thought Plan A was the only option, I have chosen Plan B. I learned it is okay to be uncertain and seek guidance from another source and that there is always more than one pathway to achieving your goals – even if it is windier than you wanted or expected.

Before coming to Emory, I had dreamed about being an environmental lawyer for as long as I can remember. After suffering from a bone infection in my adolescence, I realized I had a passion for environmental health.  During the year it took me to recover, I had to teach myself to bend my knee and walk again, and soon found myself hiking to regain my strength. This spurred my love for the environment and subsequent desire to protect it.

Emory was not in the original plan. I applied early decision to an elite university known for its fantastic environmental science department that was just a short drive from where I was brought up in New York. The day after I received the deferral letter from that school, I applied Early Decision 2 to Emory, and got in. Knowing right away I was going to major in environmental science, I got busy immersing myself in courses focusing on geology and water resources. Then in my sophomore year, I enrolled in one of the Department’s environmental health courses, which opened my eyes to the world of public health. I had pivoted from wanting to study rocks or water resources to learning how the environment impacts one’s health.

Toward the end of my junior year, I began studying for the law school admissions test (LSAT). Knowing New York has always been home for me and that there was no other city I would consider living in, I researched the scores I would need for law schools in and around New York City. After months of studying and taking the LSAT twice, I applied to law schools during the fall of my senior year. And I’ll be honest:  I did not receive the score I wanted or had consistently achieved on practice exams. This stung a bit, as the only plan I had for myself thus far was slipping away. For the first time in my life, I genuinely had no idea what I would do.

I had many meetings with Paul during this time, and he urged me to have a backup plan in case my expectations for law school were not met. He observed that it might be important to think about why I had opted to take so many courses during junior and senior years in public health while satisfying environmental sciences degree requirements. Was there an option to consider an MPH program if law school didn’t work out?  I did not think so. After all, my previous summer internships had been in the field of law.

As I struggled to control every aspect of Plan A, I went away on vacation with my family during the winter break of my senior year, and that’s when the breakdown happened. What was I going to do in just a few months after graduation? Would I be accepted to a law school in New York? I became completely overwhelmed.

Paul helped me to be open-minded and realistic in my expectations without ever once making me feel that I had set my expectations too high, or that I was incapable of achieving my goals. Instead, he suggested, my timelines for achieving them might need to be relaxed.

Before returning from winter break, I decided I would apply to schools of public health for MPH programs for the upcoming fall, versus hunting for jobs when they seemed to require more experience and more than just a bachelor’s degree. I spent the rest of break emailing professors and past employers to request yet another letter of recommendation, this time for grad school.  As I raced to meet the early January deadlines, I realized there would be next to no time to take the GRE and submit my application on time.

What I did next, in hindsight, I do NOT recommend.

Upon returning from my family vacation, I studied for two weeks and before taking the GRE. Let me repeat that. I spent two weeks preparing for a test for which people prepare months on end, knowing their acceptance to graduate schools depends on it. Distracting me further, I received an acceptance to one of those NYC law schools the day before taking the GRE. Was graduate school a moot point with Plan A in the bag?

Before I could change my mind, my family encouraged me to move forward with the GRE, reminding me it was already paid for and I had nothing to lose. Further, I didn’t want to lose the respect and aid of the professors and employers who graciously wrote my letters of recommendation for MPH programs on such short notice, having stuck their necks out for me not just once (with law schools), but now twice. I owed it to them and to myself to see this through.

As a result of this decision, both law school and MPH options were available to me at the end of senior year. For those who knew me, going straight to law school seemed a no-brainer.

Spoiler alert: I did not.

Instead, I decided that my lifelong dream of becoming a lawyer could wait, opting first to continue to explore my interest in environmental health. Who knows? A change of heart, and I may decide I can make an impact without a law degree.

That decision would have a profound effect on me. At Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, not only did I expand my knowledge base in an area that intrigued me, but I utilized everything the school had by networking, interning, getting involved – things I wish I had done more of at Emory. Now, I am finishing up my first year at Brooklyn Law School, and even though I am finally on track to achieve my dream of becoming an environmental lawyer, graduate school was single-handedly the best experience of my life.

I am not suggesting to those of you reading this that going straight to grad school is the way to go; in fact, for many, a second degree isn’t necessary. What I can say is that, in order to figure out what you truly love, you have to put yourself out there. At graduation, all my other friends either had a job or was going to spend the summer searching for one. In the three years since, a few others have decided to go back to school, having been able to narrow their focus through trial and error, changing jobs not once, but sometimes two or three times to figure out what they liked or where they could be an asset.

For those who think they know the next 10 steps in their career path, or for those who have genuinely no clue: one position is not better or worse than the other. It is okay not to know what your next step is. Now is the time to take a chance and try something new. And with each new experience or opportunity, you will learn valuable skills and build your foundation that will set the stage for you to accomplish your goals.

Utilize your Emory network by searching for alumni on LinkedIn or Emory Connects, then reaching out to talk to them for an informational interview (aka “career chat”). Talk to professors as well. Apply for a job that isn’t 100% aligned with your goals. Or, take a course in your free time to expand your knowledge base. There are many online platforms and resources to choose from, and some universities offer free summer courses in particular subject areas. There are also grants you can apply for to ease the financial burden.

I’ve stopped planning too far ahead and mapping out my life or my expectations for myself, which can change at each stage of life. And I continue to appreciate what I’ve discovered while diverging from my original narrow path to this ever-unfolding and windier one.