I first walked into the immaculate lobby of a prestigious investment banking firm in Midtown Manhattan three years ago.
The thought of an internship scared me, a 17-year-old girl from the South Bronx, because I had no idea what to expect — especially from an internship in finance.
Each employee I passed seemed to have his or her life impeccably together, from a groomed appearance to the confident swipe of an ID to enter the elevator. Everything about this environment resembled something out of a movie.
I was lucky enough to understand the importance of building social capital, or professional networks, from a young age. My older sister, Maryam, interned at Mount Sinai Hospital in high school through an organization that pairs high-achieving New York City students from underserved and underrepresented communities with competitive internships in a variety of industries, including finance, business, law, architecture and medicine.
Seeing how much the experience affected her, I was eager to apply to the program the following year. My sister gave me a glimpse into what the “professional” world was like, and the internship organisation First Workings provided training on business acumen, networking and professionalism. But nothing could have prepared me for what it felt like to walk in the door my first day and not see a single person who looked like me.
I had always wanted to be a trailblazer, but in reality it was an intimidating experience.
During my internship, I was invited with the other 30 summer analysts to sit in on a meeting of the board of directors. The other summer analysts — mostly college juniors from top schools — were visibly anxious about the opportunity to meet one of the partners. This was their “big break,” so to speak: a chance to make a good impression and a career-transforming connection.
It was initially unnerving for me — a black, Muslim woman in high school — to be completely surrounded by non-black faces. It wasn’t until some time after my internship that I realized this experience wasn’t just their big break.
It was mine, too.
It exposed me to an entirely new, exciting career path and gave me the tools to pursue it.
My internship gave me the confidence I needed when I started at Brown University the following August and expanded my idea of what my future could hold. I had always assumed I would go into medicine because that’s what my parents wanted for me. I met fantastic people, including my mentor, whom I know I can go to for advice and support for the rest of my career, regardless of what path I choose.
Learning this lesson in high school allowed me to enter college with a clearer vision of what I want and how I can get there. I would encourage all high school students, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds, to expose themselves to professional environments as soon as they can and to expand their notions of what’s possible.
For students who might not have an older sister to encourage them to pursue experiences outside their comfort zone, let me be that person for you. While the process was at times uncomfortable and challenging, the confidence and social capital that I developed have surely moved me in the right direction.