I first heard about Southwestern Advantage from a classmate as we walked out of the first English Literature seminar of the year. We hadn’t met before but I had noticed Mel in class because she was almost as opinionated as I was, and she was the only other person in the room who wasn’t British (though she spoke with a perfect English accent). She came to join me as we left and asked where I had gone to school, and it turned out that we had attended different branches of the same international school: the European School – she in Munich, Germany, and I in Brussels, Belgium. Within about five minutes of opening the conversation she was trying to tell me about the job she’d had the previous summer selling books door-to-door in America. I had spent the previous summer on an amazing road trip across the states and couldn’t work out a) why she was telling me about this in such detail when we had only just met, and b) why on earth she was talking with such enthusiasm about a job selling books door-to-door. I brushed off her suggestion to come and find out more about it, and the summer job didn’t cross my mind again.
Then at the beginning of December I got a phone call as I was revising madly for an exam the following day – this guy named Ali said he was recruiting for summer work in America and he had got my number from Mel. It took me a while to remember who Mel was, but I didn’t remember anything about the job at all. In the end I agreed to meet him the next day just to get him off the phone so that I could go back to my last-minute revision. In the end I went to a presentation the next day right after the exam. I walked in late to a packed room in our student union and immediately felt like I had to impress these people. I have an innate goody-two-shoes side that my lateness had offended, so I spent the rest of the presentation paying great attention and volunteering when we were asked why we might be interested in taking part. The answer I gave was unfortunately true. While on my way to graduating at the top of my class I had had next to no work experience and, with a degree in English Literature, was feeling the pressure of not knowing what exactly I was going to do post-graduation. Plus, at a recent Career Services interview I had been told that the class of 2008 was likely to be the least employable graduating year of the past 2 decades. The prospect of improving my CV/resume seemed too good to pass up, especially as these people seemed to be a whole lot more proactive than my Career Services representative, who had advised me to go travelling or remain in education until the job market improved. Had I taken her advice I think I’d still be on the road 4 years later.
I still wasn’t ready to commit though, and I made Mel go through every possible financial outcome of the summer for me – the very minimum I would need to sell in order to cover the cost of my flight ticket and visa. Eventually I was convinced that I really would not need that many customers in order to make that happen, and that if she could have a successful summer, so could I. The real reason I finally agreed to sell books, though, was simply because I didn’t have anything else lined up and, after a recent break-up, the prospect of getting to know an entirely new group of people felt necessary.
The summer came and went really quickly. I went to California just as the sub-prime crisis began and every other house seemed to be going into foreclosure, but all the moms I met were furious about how much money was being removed from the state education budget. I felt like I had the opportunity to make a difference and put control over their children’s education back into parents’ hands. I made about $11,000 in 7 weeks, cried almost every day because I was tired and felt I wasn’t doing well enough (my up and down emotions still bewilder Mel), and met some absolutely incredible people amongst my customers (some of whom I am still in touch with), my teammates, my host mom, and the rest of the people I was lucky to get to know through Southwestern Advantage. I have some very vivid memories of cycling home after 12 and a half hours of work through a Californian sunset, feeling how surreal it was that I ended up as a door-to-door salesperson, and also immensely grateful that all my premonitions of being like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman had not come to be! I came back with some hilarious memories and, although I must have met about 1500 families that summer I could still tell you detailed stories about many of them!
Over the following 3 summers with Southwestern Advantage, these friendships have multiplied. I have now made good friends with customers in Folsom, California; Denver, Colorado (including a family who sent their teenage daughter to stay with me in Europe for 2 weeks); all over North Dakota (including one wonderfully special family who I now consider part of my own); and finally western Colorado, where I met some of the most open-hearted people I have ever had the pleasure to know. I have also been exposed to some tough life lessons and been taught and looked after by some incredible mentors who have helped me not only with my Southwestern Advantage experiences, communication skills and business and management know-how, but who are also helping me get into graduate school. Oh and in 2011 I made about $43,000 during the summer.