Tamara Vostok can clearly remember the day she sat in the computer lab in the journalism building at Rutgers University when she was considering her application to the Peace Corps. After two promising internships, but alarmed by the lack of any promising job offers, her plan was to join the Corps, return and then attend graduate school. In one of those moments that can change your entire career path, her journalism and media studies professor, Steven Miller, came into the lab to talk through her next steps.
Miller had already recognized a talent for journalism in his student and wanted to encourage it. He told her that the plans made straight from college don’t always result in the career of your dreams, and that patience and the time it takes to realize your interests and strengths were her best allies. It’s not the only advice Vostok, now Manager, Consumer and New Media Marketing for Barnes & Noble College, took with her from her college days. And now, she’s giving a little of it back.
For Vostok, life immediately after Rutgers resulted in sorting mail and scripts at NBC WCAU, channel 10 in Philadelphia. “I remember being very frustrated initially, and wondering why I’d even gone to college,” she recalls. Realizing that she would have to stand out if she wanted to grow in her career, she took the advice of a boss and became involved in the internet, which at the time was in its infancy as a journalistic tool. “It really intrigued me, and I found that I actually liked it more than covering the hard news at the station,” she says. Becoming a digital content producer, Vostok began managing the real estate on the news site, and figuring out what received the most clicks, hits and the most page views and visits. She then put that knowledge to work with iVillage, another NBC property, before moving to Barnes & Noble College just as social media was about to explode.
Today at Rutgers, a big part of Miller’s classes is still about getting students to think about their careers after graduation — and inviting alums back to campus to describe their real-life experiences is an invaluable resource for those who are just starting out. And Miller’s alumni, it turns out, are particularly well qualified to speak to those experiences. It’s a star-studded roll call from celebrities like NBC’s Natalie Morales, to pioneering Editor-in-Chief, Michele Promaulayko at Women’s Health Magazine. “They still remember what it was like to be that kid, sitting in the fourth row at Scott Hall at 9:50 in the morning,” Miller says. “They bring that sensibility and sensitivity back with them, and the students are going to listen to the people who have been down that exact same path,” he adds.
When Miller invited his former Media Systems pupil to return to Rutgers to again be part of his alumni panel, Vostok initially protested, pointing out she no longer works in mainstream journalism, but Miller told her he wanted his students to hear about her path and how sometimes what you plan isn’t always what happens. “It was just such a great opportunity, Vostok says of the experience, “The students are so receptive and, as we manage the university bookstore at Rutgers, it was a great opportunity to talk about the brand, and what we do.” Even more important to Vostok was the opportunity to give back to her own college experience with some hard-earned advice for the students. “They know its competitive out there, and those students are really trying,” she says, “and I tried to reassure them that if you can’t get that internship, if you can’t get the experience you need, start your own YouTube channel if you want to get into television; if you want to write, start a blog; do the marketing, get a following and create really great content because that will help you better develop your own personal brand.”
“I think our students today are probably more prepared than they think they are,” says Miller, now Senior Media Services Coordinator at the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University, “because over the course of a college career, somewhere along the line, you’re going to learn something from each of those courses.” Miller points to newer media disciplines such as SEO, analytics and digital technologies that are now offering his students more choices and wider opportunities as the media world changes. As he points out, “Life itself is an education.”
When it comes to choices, Vostok sometimes wonders what would have happened if she had joined the Peace Corp, and how differently her career may have turned out. “I wanted to tell the students that If you don’t know exactly what you want to do right now, it’s okay, because what you do and who you are changes — and those changes are valuable and will help you decide your eventual career path.” And the best piece of advice she gave her students, perhaps, isn’t that surprising. “If you want to know how to network, to be successful, to get the best possible career for yourself, I told them to connect with their alumni.”