How to Turn Your Passion into Success in College

Whenever I ask people about their favorite part of college, the answer is almost always the same: "Awesome people!" Well, I agree -- college is a time when you are surrounded by so many brilliant and passionate people; your professors, your classmates, your resident assistants, and pretty much everyone is a genius. There is so much energy and joy on campus!

So, everyone around you seems to be passionate about something, yet few people actually turn their passion into sustainable professional success. How do you build a career in a field that you are passionate about? How do you turn your interests into clear success down the line? In the next few posts, I will talk about the link between passion and action in a few fields, starting with my personal favorite field of public health today.

To figure out how to move from passion to success, I talked to Dr. Victoria Munro, The Coordinator of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) at the University of Minnesota, and Isra Hussain, a star student of mental health at Boston College.


Isra Hussain, junior at Boston College

"It's our responsibility to go above and beyond."

Isra is a junior student at Boston College, and one of the most energetic people I've ever met. Isra actually had a revelation, an epiphany about her calling. She is not particularly proud of this moment; in her words, it was not spectacular, or even happy. Quite the reverse. In 2013, Isra took a casual trip to see her relatives in Pakistan. She was especially excited to see her cousin that was a close friend and round-the-clock playmate in childhood. This time, however, the cousin did not even recognize her. He suffers from autism, and therefore was deprived of any form of normal social life of a teenager. He was expelled from school, received almost no medical assistance, and fell into a deep depression.

Isra felt shock, anger, helplessness... as well as a determination to use her own privileged college education and the American life to improve the dialogue, at least, and the system, at best. Upon her return to the US, Isra looked for opportunities to get involved with public health programs. She did not have any experience at that time, and started by seeking a summer internship at Rosie's Place - a homeless shelter for women in Boston. She worked with women seeking help, focusing on those facing stigma in their cultures, due to their minority or religious status.

Let us debrief and think about Isra's journey for a little bit. Notice how Isra did not necessarily have any research experience! I spoke with Victoria Munro, undergraduate research coordinator at the University of Minnesota, who has been advising students in her office since 1985 (by the way - congratulations on the amazing longevity of the program - it's been around before most of my readers were born!!) What is Dr. Munro's advice to students looking to start research?

"Always start with what the student is interested in".

"Always start with what the student is interested in," Dr. Munro says. "Then, we can think about how it connects to faculty members, to select 5-7 faculty members that you can reach out to." It is much easier with internet; now all we have to do is browse departmental websites to make a list of some options (secret tip from Svetlana: if you browse the Project Lever website, it's even easier).

So how did Isra actually email faculty members? Once she had some mental health work under her belt, she continued to email organizations and faculty members around the greater Boston area. She landed a position with the Disparities Research Unit at Harvard Medical School, where she now does mental health research with Latino immigrants and other minority populations, investigating the relationship with policy and poverty. She is continuing to develop partnerships with other healthcare organization in Boston and beyond, and repeatedly (and bravely!) emails faculty members and researchers around the country, inviting them to collaborate with her research project.

Dr. Munro notices that the biggest challenge for all her students is actually finding faculty members once they have some ideas. The best approach here is to be brave like Isra and build a list of options, optimally between five and seven, for the initial emails. Dr. Munro also notices that it is not necessary to actually have research experience, or have a superstar resume; she especially encourages freshmen to try out research, as they might just shine in their new role. "Even if you have doubts, just turn it in! There is a good chance you will have a really meaningful experience."

Building upon her background in mental health in America, Isra is also taking steps to connect to her Pakistani heritage and contribute to the mental health situation there. Last summer, she was awarded the prestigious US State Department Critical Language Scholarship to study Urdu in India over the summer. She decided to major in Psychology and minor in Arabic Studies, to translate her passion for mental health into real research. Next, Isra is dreaming of connecting her experience with mental health research with the population that matters most to her: South Asian and Muslim immigrants. She's hoping to use her language skills and insight with working with minority communities to increase dialogue and solutions to the increasing problem of mental health treatment disparities.

"Don't be like me! Be your own person."

When I asked Isra for advice to young people that want to be like her, she laughed and said, "Don't be like me! Be your own person". Isra mentors a number of young students on campus, and she sees her main role as inspiration, to help other people find what matters to them.

Watch Isra's talk about her work at Boston College here.

What is YOUR passion project? Let me know in the comments! I'll select the top commenters to interview for my next story.