Social scientists predict most people today will have at least three or four careers in a lifetime. That trend is almost the exact opposite of just 40 years ago. A singular career has morphed into the plural category.
What has changed so radically? The career path of today's youth. What has changed it? An ever-expanding range of opportunities, a lifestyle of almost constant mobility, and a world of disappearing economic borders.
A microcosm of that scenario came to Carl Sandburg Middle School last Thursday in the form of its annual Career Day. And, the seventh- and eight-grade population absorbed the myriad possibilities like an undulating, hungry sponge.
But they were also encouraged to give of their time and talents to volunteerism and community service. That entreaty came from Jennifer Pitts, 2002 Miss Virginia.
"I began volunteering when I was in seventh grade," she told an eighth-grade social science class. "I would go out and speak to community and school groups. You are never too young to start."
PITTS IS NOW WORKING with the Make a Wish Foundation and is a national spokesperson for Volunteers of America. She also serves as a representative of the Virginia Commission on National and Community Service with Gov. Mark Warner (D) and was a delegate to the Governor's Summit on Volunteerism. "Doing volunteer work helps us all to interact with one another," she stressed to the students.
Now 24, Pitts — a native of Wake Forest, N.C., where she was an honors graduate at Rolesville High School — admitted that it took her five tries to become Miss Virginia. "I knew I had to make it this year because the age bracket is 18 to 24. My birthday is in May."
Miss Virginia said she has taken a year off from her studies at George Mason Law School to devote full time to fulfilling the role of Miss Virginia. "I want to visit every county in Virginia. I'm touring schools to promote my platform of volunteerism and community service. It's important students make the right decisions, right now," she insisted.
That process took on a kaleidoscope perspective in the school's gymnasium. There to present and represent career possibilities were firefighters and police, U.S. Air Force and Navy representatives, Washington Metropolitan Airport Authority personnel, a chef, electrician, human factors engineer, a sales and marketing specialist, speech pathologist, bankers, nurses, journalists, and even a spokesperson for the ministry.
"Career Day is a natural part of our career education program in middle school," said principal Donna G. Pasteur. "It is and has been a long tradition at this school. Well before I got here. And, it's even more important today since career possibilities have increased so significantly."
ONE PROFESSION that was drawing a lot of interest, or perhaps it was the end product, was that of cooking. Chef Robo from the Country Club of Fairfax had them lined up waiting to sample the omelettes he was preparing on site.
But there appeared to more munching than interrogating. Students were definitely adhering to that old rule, "Don't talk with your mouth full."
Two career paths that were enjoying no lack of questions from both male and female students were firefighting and police. "They are asking good searching questions," said Joseph Ruffolo, Washington Metropolitan Airport Authority (WMAA) firefighter, as he adjusted an oxygen tank and mask on an interested student.
"It's fun to talk to them," he emphasized. To show that their organization has a variety of career opportunities, Ruffolo was joined at the WMAA station by Rudy Westray, an accountant.
Outside the gymnasium, Fairfax County Police and the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department had a specialty police cruiser and fire engine on display. Students Shannon Jackson and Alexandra Napoli tried out the flashy marked Camaro police car, while Officer J.M. Pollack explained how it serves a necessary role in traffic enforcement.
"How many tickets do you give out?" Napoli asked. "About 100 per month," Pollack answered.
EVEN WITH A potential Iraqi war on the horizon, there was no lack of interest in pursuing a military career. Air Force Lt. Col. R. Kent Kershenstern said, "Our implicit message is to serve the community. One of the reasons I'm here is to change the impression that everyone in the Air Force is a pilot. I'm not. There are many jobs other than flying, even for those that fear flying."
Navy Cmdr. James Shannon, who joined Kershenstern at the military booth, noted, "Some ask if we have ever been in a war zone. And some tell me they think they might get seasick in the Navy."
Personifying Pitts’ message of community service were representatives of the nursing profession and the ministry. Gina Howell, a nurse practitioner, Inova Alexandria Hospital, cardiac surgery, and Patrick Mahan, a registered nurse with his own private practice, represented the medical field.
They both agreed that most of the questions were coming from the female side of the audience. "The interest is about 80 percent girls to 20 percent boys," they calculated.
Jerry Frazier, associate pastor at Groveton Baptist Church, noted, "I regularly work with middle-school-age kids. I have talked to several kids who were pretty informed about the church. There was one girl, of Muslim background, that wanted me to explain the Holy Trinity. I admitted to her it's a little confusing, even for me."
THERE WAS NO LACK of enthusiasm, from either girls or boys, in posing questions to Pitts. When asked about her wardrobe for the Miss America pageant, she explained the pageant supplies everything, including the evening gowns.
Displaying her crown, Pitts pointed out that "every state crown is exactly alike. When the crown is placed on Miss America's head and she walks down the runway, that is the real thing. But immediately after the formal ceremonies, it is replaced with a replica, and the original goes back to the pageant museum." The replicas become the property of the individual state winners and Miss America.
Pitts revealed the reason she pursued her quest for Miss Virginia was the scholarship money that goes with the three top picks each year. In 2001, she was the first runner-up for the state title. Her sponsor to the national pageant was the Miss Apple Blossom Festival in Winchester, Va., she acknowledged.
"When I was 17, my parents told me that they could not afford college, let alone law school. I had always wanted to be either a doctor or a lawyer. In the last two years I have won $30,000 in scholarship money. That's why I kept pursuing it," she said.
A cum laude graduate of Campbell University with a bachelor of arts degree in pre-law/government, Pitts hopes to complete her final year of law school upon passing her crown to Miss Virginia 2003. After that she intends to practice public interest law, focusing on child advocacy, and "eventually serve in the U.S. Senate."
Sounds like a plan. Just ask another state beauty pageant winner, a former Miss North Carolina. She will be a freshman U.S. senator in the 108th Congress. Her name is Elizabeth Dole.