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Jennie Noakes, who received her doctorate in ethnomusicology from Penn in 2008, stocks fruit at Fair Food Farmstand in Reading Terminal Market. Catering to her passion for agriculture and sustainable farming, Noakes took an unconventional turn from her academic background and now works as a full-time manager of the produce stand.

Credit: Eillie Anzilotti , Eillie Anzilotti

While he was a student at Penn, Larry Maltz spent his free time in the library. But unlike other students, he wasn’t poring over statistics or chemistry — he was reading. For fun.

Despite his passion for books, Maltz studied biology. He was determined to go into research after graduating from the College of Arts and Sciences more than 20 years ago, and so he did — for a while. But in the end, the books won out.

“I got a job in a bookstore,” Maltz recalled, “and within a week or two I was pretty sure that’s what I was going to pursue.” He left research behind and opened The Last Word Bookshop, now located at 40th and Locust streets, in 2002.

“What could be better than owning a bookstore?” he asked.

For the majority of Penn graduates, the answer would probably be a mainstream job that pays.

According to the Career Plans Survey for the Class of 2010, 60 percent of the class graduated with a full-time job offer. Thirty-four percent of those offers were in financial services, 17 percent in consulting and 10 percent in education. Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and Google ranked in the top 10 post-graduate employers of Penn students.

“Every year, we see a large number of students who have a concrete plan after graduation,” Director of Career Services Patricia Rose said. In general, she added, people at Penn are “very career-focused.”

INTERACTIVE: Recent graduates’ career plans

Off the Beaten Path

As always, though, there are exceptions to the rule, such as Nechemya Kagedan, a 2010 Engineering and Wharton graduate. After going through the process of On-Campus Recruitment, he deferred a job offer from a consulting company in favor of a year of travel.

He clearly remembers the conversation that “freed me from the tunnel vision” that the OCR mindset had limited him to.

Four months after graduating, Kagedan was backpacking through South America and had stopped in Bolivia for a month of Spanish classes. When he sat down for a drink with Ryan, a 30-year-old Brit teaching English at Kagedan’s language school, he learned something extraordinary. Ryan had been traveling for 10 years and had no regrets.

“I was dumbstruck,” Kagedan recalled. “Here I was, thinking I was a hotshot rebel braveheart by taking a year off before starting my career … and this guy is standing in front of me still unsure if he wants to settle down after 10 years.”

“What about your career?” Kagedan had asked him, to which Ryan responded, “I can have a career later. First, I wanted to live life.”

2010 College and Wharton graduate Danny Cohen agrees. “I just don’t think it’s particularly wise or healthy for people to jump on the fast train to Wall Street without first making a tour around the whole Monopoly board and seeing something of life.”

After his time at Penn, Cohen was ready for something different. He spent half a year in India “on a spiritual expedition, deliberately going far away from everything that was familiar and comfortable.”

Cohen remembers encountering people in college who seemed “so put-together and ‘successful’ on the outside, but were often broken, lost, confused and struggling in any manner of ways on the inside.” He now devotes himself to educating teenagers in Israel about the importance of spiritual exploration.

Kagedan and Cohen both expressed hope for future Penn graduates to consider more unusual post-grad options.

“There’s no doubt that Penn students aren’t given enough exposure to unconventional paths,” Kagedan said. “There should be a hobo at every career fair extolling the benefits of the zero-hour workday.”

COLUMN: Alexey Komissarouk: The Lords of Wallnut Street

On the Fast Track

Still, the appeal of finding employment straight out of college is hard to ignore.

Alyssa Birnbaum, who graduated from the College in 2011 with a degree in English with a creative writing concentration, “was always afraid I’d have to move back home” without a job.

Despite her major, Birnbaum “was interested in going into business. I couldn’t just write for a career.”

Like many students, she was drawn to OCR when it came time to search for a job.

“There’s a tremendous pressure to participate in a very efficient process like OCR,” Rose said. Employers are predisposed to hiring Penn students, and for those who aim to enter the workforce right away, “the kind of opportunities from OCR are heaven-sent,” she added.

Birnbaum eventually secured a job as an associate strategist at The Seiden Group in New York through PennLink, not OCR, but nonetheless credits recruitment with educating her on the job-search process.

“I didn’t even know what consulting was going into OCR,” she said. “As an English major, you don’t know these things.”

It was Birnbaum’s friends in Wharton who first piqued her interest in the process.

“I don’t know if I would’ve gone into it if I were only friends with English majors,” she said. “Who’s going to be the one to make you put on your suit?”

Meeting in the Middle

For 2008 College graduate Alexis Tryon, that person was herself — at first. While studying communication studies and art history, she “thought a lot about trying to get a job in the arts as a curator, but that was not an easy thing to do.”

Instead, she went through OCR and took a job in marketing at American Express after graduation. But Tryon couldn’t ignore her passion for art.

A few years into her work at AmEx, Tryon left in 2010 to found Artsicle, an online art rental forum that helps support emerging artists and promote appreciation for the arts.

Though she’s left the business world for good, Tryon appreciates the time she spent at a large corporation.

“I found out a lot about budget and cash flow and how companies are run that I wouldn’t have thought about otherwise,” she said. “It forced me to see the bigger picture for my own company.”

Using her business background, she’s expanding Artsicle and taking it nationwide. Even with her growing success, Tryon continues to remind herself that she’s doing what she loves.

“The biggest thing for me was going from working for someone else to working for myself,” Tryon said. “It’s very rewarding.”

For the Love of the Job

Sometimes, doing what you love can be as simple as working at a produce stand at Reading Terminal Market.

So discovered Jennie Noakes, who received her doctorate in ethnomusicology from Penn in 2008 and afterward taught music and writing at the University for two years.

Her own career path was “convoluted,” as she called it. After studying to become an opera singer at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., only to become disillusioned by the music world of New York, she decided to return to academia at Penn. In her anthropological studies of bluegrass culture in Appalachia for her dissertation, though, she discovered a love of agriculture and sustainable farming.

After growing frustrated that she couldn’t follow that passion while holding a teaching job at Penn, she left the University to work at the Fair Food Farmstand at Reading Terminal.

Though an unconventional choice for someone with an academic background, “I’m definitely doing what I love,” Noakes said. And she’s been able to bring her anthropological interest in people and culture to her new line of work.

On an average day, amid stocking vegetables and dealing with shipments, she enjoys listening to customers’ memories of food. “It’s such a nostalgic thing for people,” she said. “I love talking to people about what gives their lives meaning.”

Now that she’s found work that gives her own life meaning, she has no plans to stop. “I’d rather get to age 60 and have lots of stories to tell than have a lot of money.”

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