A Lesson in Pivoting 

By Kate Barrett and Stacey Mitchell

Over the past few weeks, we have reflected deeply and fondly on participating in this year’s Washington, DC Career Trek for international studies (IS) majors sponsored by the Life Design Lab and the Program in International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. The bustling capital served as the ideal backdrop for our 11 undergraduate IS majors to explore diverse career pathways in the field and gain insights into the real-world applications of international studies.  

Sounds lovely, right? We thought so too, but little did we know that right from the start, the theme of our trek would be THE PIVOT! (Naturally, one memorable Friends scene became the only possible meme of our trek). 

Friends "Pivot" Meme

Day one started with snow, delayed MARC trains, and a late start to the program. Eventually, everyone made it to the brand-new Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg Center, our home base for the classroom sessions, panels, and site visits ahead. Day two went smoothly until we learned during our Alumni Networking Event that Hopkins (including our DC home base) would close the following day due to a snow emergency. 

Day three was a whirlwind of postponement, improvisation, and PIVOTS, but thanks to our (mostly) cool-under-pressure staff team of three and our incredibly patient and talented students, we did it, and we did it well! 

Our sighs and calls to PIVAAT!! during the trip will surely never fade away, but we also realize that this is not the only theme that stuck. Below, we outline four of the students’ most frequently noted themes from this memorable, valuable, and genuinely unforgettable trek. 


Nearly every speaker we encountered gave multiple examples of being hired to their positions due in large part to their social connections and how highly those connections spoke of them. To be entirely honest, on one hand this constant theme of networking discouraged me a bit because I now understand how decreased one’s chances are of getting a job when they do not have any personal connections to the hiring personnel. However, on the other hand, it showed me that I need to focus on establishing my professional relationships moving forward, which I feel is an extremely valuable lesson.  

– Fourth-year student

They say it’s all about who you know; whoever “they” are, they’re not wrong. It’s a reality and a challenge that surfaced constantly for our students during the trek, from our day-one session on networking techniques to the countless testimonies they heard from our panelists (several of whom, fittingly, happened to be our friends). Networking is not something we do to get a job but to explore career possibilities, build reciprocal relationships, hear others’ stories…and get a foot in the door; let’s be real! 

Students at an on-site visit at the State Department

Students may have rolled their eyes when we tasked them with recording and submitting their own authentic introduction (aka elevator pitch) for homework, but, as one student remarked, we think it hit home: “as funny as it is to make your own authentic introduction, I’ve already used it successfully during an informational interview (aka curiosity conversation). You guys know what you’re doing!” – Third-year student 

Anything but Linear 

I think I realized that there is no “one-size-fits-all” career journey in this field. As you progress and gain more experience, your personal and professional goals can change beyond what you may have initially had in mind. The most important trait is your adaptability and willingness to develop a work ethic.  

– Second-year student 

The journey of life. The road to success. Whatever the metaphor, it is crucial to acknowledge that so much of our way forward is uncharted, the paths we take unpaved, the plans we make undefined.

Learning about work at a think tank at CSIS

Going straight from point A to point B in life is a rarity; far more common is charting a path full of detours and scenic routes, some potholes here and there, and undoubtedly a few roadside attractions we can’t help but make an impromptu stop at. As Life Design Educators, we are thrilled that students sensed this as they listened to our panelists talk about pivoting, failing forward, and learning from the often-unexpected twists and turns their career paths have taken (and likely will continue to take). 

Being Resilient and Taking Initiative 

A common theme that stood out to me during the trek was the importance not just of openness to new opportunities, but of actively seeking out those opportunities. I tend to interpret ‘be open to new things’ as passive acceptance of opportunities that might present themselves, but the trek made clear that opportunities are more likely to come when you seek them out. For example, [one panelist] made an active choice to work on cybersecurity because it was underreported and interesting, and [another] purposefully left government to work in tech when he could have stayed safely in his old job. In general, the panelists demonstrated that calculated risks tend to pay off for those willing to learn on the job (and fail sometimes). 

 – Third-year student 

Being proactive, taking initiative, being resilient: whatever you want to call it, it is paramount in our personal and professional lives. Students heard from several speakers about the importance of self-reflection in figuring out what you want and creative ways to get it. There is no magic potion, no exact combination of activities and experiences that gets you there. This bridge between how one’s personal growth can impact one’s professional growth is an essential message for all at every stage of life. It is a continual process that often requires time, trial and error, and taking risks. Two quotes from speakers during the trek capture this well: “be somewhat fearless” and “be yourself and know yourself.”  

Professional Writing 

Many of the speakers mentioned the frequency of writing in their workday, some of whom did not expect the skill to be so prevalent in their respective jobs. I’m currently exploring different options for my career, and I’m struggling to find my professional interest, but I found it really encouraging to hear that a skill that I practice so often and so thoroughly is one that is valued and utilized across careers. I’m an English major and the Editor in Chief for our student newspaper, and I hope that by continuing to develop my writing skills throughout my undergraduate career, I am making myself well positioned in my future positions, regardless of what they end up being. 

– Third-year student

This is perhaps the theme that took most of the students by surprise. It came up in nearly every session. Panelists from different industries and sectors all emphasized the need to be able to write clearly and concisely and for different audiences. They made it clear that professional writing is quite different from academic writing and may take some getting used to. Forms of writing they will likely encounter run the gamut: different types of reports, press releases, briefs, memos, case studies, speeches, policies, grants, professional emails, website content, and the list goes on. Grab a pen. Or, more likely, a keyboard.  

Lessons Learned

Somewhat poetically, we ended the trek as we started- in the snow, pivoting. On the last day, JHU closed due to winter weather, and we had to cancel our much-anticipated site visit to Capitol Hill. We pivoted to Zooming from our hotel rooms and improvising how to convey the information lost in the sessions we had to cancel. PIVOT! What started as a panic-induced joke at the trek’s onset turned into its anthem. It reminded us that while things may not go as planned, they often work out. Resilience and nonlinear paths are exemplified. The fact that skills like networking and writing repeated themselves throughout highlights that grades and your area of study are not all that matter. Other insights offered up by panelists that do not include academic pursuits include: 

  • “Build relationships with people who disagree with you” 
  • “I never act like I know more than someone else does” 
  • “Don’t take yourself too seriously” 
  • “Recognize your comparative advantage…and your gaps” 
  • “It is ok not be an expert” 
  • “I still have challenges not having as much technical knowledge as I’d like” 

The three days of the trek both intentionally and unintentionally encapsulated all that we do at the Life Design Lab. We support students as they explore possible educational and career paths, identify their values, and determine how they influence their options and make decisions. While we programmed the week with alumni and career professionals who would highlight these topics, Mother Nature also reminded us that things don’t always go as planned, and you may be required to pivot, which is ok.  

View of the Capitol Building from our classroom

*The Life Design Lab would like to thank Dr. Sydney Van Morgan and Ms. Kate Bruffett in the Program in International Studies for their leadership and support in the success of the trek.*

International Studies Intersession Trek Program

Wednesday, January 17, 2024 

Classroom Module 1: Program Overview and Expectations 

Developing Authentic Introductions  

Program in International Studies
Life Design Lab
Classroom Talk: Presidential Management Fellowship Program Presidential Management Fellows, International Trade Administration 
Site Visit: U.S. Department of State Program Analyst, Office of Multilateral Trade Affairs 
Economic Officer, Office of Macroeconomic Affairs   
Office of Bilateral Trade Affairs  

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Classroom Module 2: Multiple Paths, Multiple Careers Domino Data Lab 
Classroom Talk: Journalism Cybersecurity Correspondent, NPR  
National Correspondent for Domestic Policy, New York Times
Site Visit: Center for Strategic & International Studies   Director, Intelligence, National Security, and Technology Program  
Fellow, China Power Project  
Research Associate, Global Health Policy Center   
Research Associate, International Security Program   
Program Coordinator and Research Assistant, Project on Nuclear Issues  
Research Assistant and Program Coordinator for the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy   
Classroom Talk: Consulting Cyber and Strategic Risk Consultant, Deloitte  
Director, Narrative Strategies

Friday, January 19, 2020 

Site visit: Capitol Hill (pivot to Zoom)  Democratic Staff Director, House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia  
Professional Staff Member, House Foreign Affairs Committee, Majority  
Policy Advisor, Senator Laphonza Butler (D-CA)  
United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations  
Classroom Talk: NGOs and Non-Profits (pivot to Zoom) Advisor/Associate Director of Business Development, Save the Children  
Program Manager for Ukraine, EnCompass    
By Life Design Lab
Life Design Lab