Learning by doing: how AEGEE brings you forward in your career (Part I)

Never underestimate what you do in AEGEE: what you learn here can help you discover new strengths in your personality, hone your skills and boost your career! Let us inspire you. In cooperation with the Youth Development Working Group, the AEGEEan launches a series of career stories which all started thanks to the invaluable experience gained by being active in AEGEE. This week, Marije Arentze presents herself.

Marije Arentze, AEGEE-Leiden

After my active years in AEGEE and during my graduation phase, I started working at a young Dutch start-up called DROG, a platform that aims to build resistance against fake news and disinformation through research, consultancy, campaigning and education. I was asked to join because of my experience with giving workshops (which I gained in AEGEE), my network among European civil society (which I have because of my work in AEGEE) and my experience with project management (which I gained in AEGEE). When I joined, DROG was very small. There was no team structure, no thought-out business model. There was a loose group of people trying to work together, but neither had substantial experience with (virtual) teamwork. But there was a lot of potential: we were working together with the University of Cambridge on a research project, we were regularly invited to EU institutions in Brussels to give our view on disinformation, and the workshop we developed was very popular in high schools. That is how I started out: as a side-job next to writing my thesis, I travelled the country to deliver workshops in schools on how to build resistance in fake news

After a few months, the opportunity came along to scale up our education program by co-writing an Erasmus+ project proposal. I took almost a month off of writing my thesis and devoted a lot of time to this: we wrote a 90+ page proposal, plus a detailed budget. I asked help from some AEGEE friends, got two partners on board through my AEGEE network (one of which is  AEGEE-Europe itself), and drew upon my vast experience of the EU institutions and the youth lobby to write up a convincing proposal to develop a new education method to counter disinformation. In September, we learned that we got the grant, which meant I had secured a job for myself for two years to come. You can only imagine how awesome that felt.

In the meantime, I had proven my value for the team and the company in several ways:
– I could standardise and professionalise our workshop, turning a nice idea into a saleable product;
– My experience in project management and dealing with partners made projects run smoothly and efficiently;
– I could help my colleague navigate the “Brussels Bubble”, or take his place speaking in panels because I knew it from inside out;

… and there are probably numerous other examples that I won’t even be able to point out.

Apart from that, AEGEE helped me on a personal level:

  • My experience with building projects, like I did in AEGEE’s Election Observation Project, helped me overcome the disappointments, miscommunications and loss of motivation that come with the first months of building a company. Because obviously, starting a company will be a huge, frustrating mess sometimes, just like AEGEE-projects can be.
  • AEGEE taught me to be flexible in working with teams, which helped me find the joy in chaos.
  • Most importantly, AEGEE taught me the importance of working for a cause I believe in. I have always been a fierce idealist, but this wasn’t always socially accepted when I was growing up. AEGEE helped solidify it, and now it is my biggest source of motivation.

It has been six months since I graduated, and I can truly say that I love my job. I get to travel a lot, mostly to Brussels, which is always lovely, because I still have a parallel AEGEE social life there. Or to Eastern Europe, which is my favourite part of the world. I get to make a difference in topics that are important to me and to society, and which are very relevant to my education (I studied East-European studies). I get to practice my teaching and public speaking skills on conferences all over the continent and get to be an expert in a newly developing field, all the while feeding my urge to make a difference in the world we live in. And I can say with 100% certainty that if it weren’t for AEGEE, I would not have stood here right now.

As you can see from my story, I did not “enter the job market” as such, since I never applied for a job after graduation, so I won’t be able to give you any tips on how to handle your first job interview. I created my own job, and I managed to this because I found a way to capitalise on everything I learned and gained during my active AEGEE years. That might sound privileged, but I promise it is not that far out of reach for you. In that regard, there is one important piece of advice I would like to give to AEGEE-members.

Above I wrote that I managed to capitalise on everything I learned and gained in AEGEE. It took me a while before I was able to do that, and this had a lot to do with how I valued myself as a volunteer. My turning point came when I changed from a “volunteer” mindset to a professional mindset: at some point, I had the epiphany that all these things I did in my active AEGEE years, just because I enjoyed them or because they were important to me, were actually valuable for a new company. As in: they were worth money. It took a change of mindset, and a lot of awkwardness in the beginning, before I was able to work with that: at first I felt embarrassed to ask for money for delivering a workshop, because I had always done that for free, until a friend told me, and very rightly so, that this is simply how the world works.

The one tip that I want to give to AEGEE-members: learn to value your work as a volunteer. The outer world, or the “job market” as you will, is still very much focused on traditional, intra-curricular education, valuing grades over volunteering positions. Your parents might not understand a thing of what you are doing in your local or on a European level. You might not have the slightest clue right now of how your AEGEE work might ever help you get a job. Your teachers, your non-AEGEE friends, your family… none of them might ever give you the validation you deserve for your volunteering. So, create your own validation. Write down what you have learned every time you come back from an AEGEE event or when you worked on a project. Define what makes you stand out from your peers who don’t have the same experience. Create a narrative. In a few years, when the time comes to apply for jobs, you will be able to explain and justify why your experience makes you valuable and unique. Dare to take some risks, to start something from scratch, to take a plunge in the deep. Remember to keep doing things that give you joy, because that will make you all the more convincing.