Jessica Starrett- Purdue University
It’s been two years almost to the day since I first heard about Southwestern Advantage. I was nearing the end of my sophomore year at Purdue and was driving home one night when I got a call from a number I didn’t recognize and on the other line was a guy who invited me to hear about a summer work opportunity. I don’t remember much about what he said but I was curious so I thought, “Why not?” What I do remember was him asking me if I was reliable and if he could definitely count on me to be there. I thought, “Um YEAH. Of course I’m reliable.” So I knew I had to show up. The next day I apprehensively walked into the psychology building and into an info session with about fifteen other students. I was very nervous. I hated being somewhere where I didn’t know anyone especially when I didn’t know exactly what it was for.
After a few minutes a guy named Matt Baumgartner got up in front of the room and started explaining the program. The only thing I remember was thinking 1.) I do NOT like this guy Matt and 2.) This sounds horrible! Who would EVER want to go door to door? At some point Matt said that if anyone knew at that point that this wasn’t for them they were free to leave. I almost left but I was just too curious and the money really intrigued me. I had been completely on my own financially since I was seventeen and the thought of graduating debt free sounded awesome so I thought, “Hey it’ll probably suck but I can work hard and I’m not afraid of a challenge so what the heck.” And thus my journey began. My biggest mistake going into my first summer was that although I had said I was going to do it I wasn’t mentally committed to it. I just kept telling myself that I wasn’t ACTUALLY going to go to Texas and be a door to door salesperson. I’m just keeping my options open. Something else is going to come up. I applied for a job on campus that I didn’t end up getting, which turned out to be the best thing that could have happened.
With the summer less than three weeks away, I started to panic thinking, “Wow. I actually have to do this now. I can’t turn back.” I was absolutely terrified. I had never done anything so out there before. I was scared of not having my parents there to help me. I was scared of doing something that I’d never done before and didn’t think I’d be good at. I was scared of going to a new place with people I didn’t know. The scariest thing I had done up until that point was going to a big ten school (Purdue is only thirty miles from my hometown. Not really that scary). I had always had my parents close by and had basically been socially coddled all through college.
Since the start of my freshman year I’ve been in a singing group at Purdue called the Purduettes which keeps me insanely busy. Challenging schedule but instant social circle. I had never had to put myself out there before or really try to make friends. Everything had basically been handed to me and I’d never done anything that I didn’t know I’d be good at. I was in for the most challenging and life-changing three months of my entire life. The people in my life that really knew me, mostly my mom, couldn’t believe that I was doing this. I was very shy and introverted, didn’t like talking to people, was nervous and awkward and struggled with a lot of social anxiety. I was so under confident that I could barely look my sales manager in the eye when he spoke to me. Sometimes I even cried I was so nervous! I stared at the ground when I walked and rarely spoke to people unless they spoke to me first. But, even though I was terrified, something inside my head kept saying, “If you don’t do this you’re always gonna wonder what if. You have to prove you can do this.” That voice is what kept me from turning around and driving home before I even made it to Sales School.
As soon as I got to Nashville I got separated from my car caravan and couldn’t find the hotel we were supposed to be staying at. I became more and more anxious as I tried to figure out where I was and eventually I had a full blown panic attack and had to pull over to the side of the road to calm down. Finally, Dotty (my blue Oldsmobile) and I found our way to the hotel after a tearful phone call with my student manager and me telling myself over and over again that I couldn’t quit. The whole week of sales school I avoided talking to people as much as I could and just tried to remain as inconspicuous as possible. I knew that I should’ve been practicing every chance I got but the thought of talking to all of these other kids I didn’t know made me so nervous I thought, “I’ll just keep to myself and wait for people to approach me.” I used to be one of those people who, when in a room full of people, wish they could pull an Alex Mack and just melt into a puddle onto the floor. Yeah, I was a THAT girl. I was also one of only two girls in my entire org. I was completely out of my element. Nevertheless I made a promise that I would NOT quit. I knew that if I quit, every time I looked in the mirror I would be looking at a quitter. No matter how hard selling books was going to be, the shame of being a quitter would be far worse. I had to prove that I could hack this.
So I went out day one and basically drove around all day getting lost. I was in this lake town outside of San Antonio and I felt like I was going in circles all day (remember how much I LOVED getting lost). Finally, at about 6:00, I had my first customer! The Meyer family had three little girls ages 7, 5 and 4. They bought the first three handbooks and the My Fun with Words. The dad even drove to the ATM to withdraw cash to give me! I still have NO idea how it happened but it was encouraging and I kept going. At about 8:30 I was faced with another setback. My car died at the top of a big hill (Dotty was very temperamental). I started to cry but then I remembered what they told us in sales school. The answer to every problem lies behind the next door. So I found a nice family that helped me out and ended up giving me a ride home after we couldn’t get my car started.
For the next few weeks I was a walker and even after I finally got my car fixed the summer didn’t get any easier. I was challenged physically, mentally and emotionally every single day. I got frustrated. I took rejection personally. I made an idiot out of myself. I screwed up in every way imaginable but I kept going. I remember hearing the sadness in my parents’ voices when I called them on Sundays after my first few weeks. I tried to hold back my tears as I relayed the problems with my car and how hard the work had been. My mom later admitted that she had desperately wanted to tell me to come home but my dad stopped her. I know how hard it must’ve been for them to hear me struggling and not being able to do anything about it. My dad had always taken care of my car problems for me and my mom had always made me feel better when I was upset and now they were over a thousand miles away. For the first time in my life I had to learn how to solve my own problems. I had already decided that I wasn’t going to quit so when I was faced with a problem I knew I either had to sink or swim.
That summer I talked to over 2,000 families, made new friends, learned how to read a map, failed day in and day out, cried more than I’d ever cried in my life, met cool families, experienced a different part of the country, jumped on trampolines, met a Bouvier (a really cool dog that I want to have someday), and continuously faced all of my insecurities. And oh yeah, remember Matt? Well I finally got to know him better and figured out he wasn’t a total tool and really did have my best interests at heart. He ended up becoming a good friend. When I finally finished the summer, I looked back and just thought, “I can’t believe I did that…No, seriously. I can’t BELIEVE I did that!” I knew that my Southwestern experience wasn’t over yet so I agreed to come back and sell again the following summer. Even though I was just as scared to come back for a second summer I knew that it was the fastest and best way for me to become the kind of person I really wanted to be.
So I went out and doubled my sales from my first summer and ended my second summer with my best day ever my last day on the bookfield! I felt incredible and at that point I decided that I wanted to be around for a long time. In the past two years I have gone from a shy teenager who always looked at the ground and had panic attacks to a confident, self-sufficient adult and along the way I’ve made some of the best friends I’ve ever had. My two summers with Southwestern have without a doubt been the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life. My sales manager, Brandon Devlin, recently told me he couldn’t believe how far I’ve come in the past two years. I take that as a compliment because, truly, success is growth. I used to think that I would be satisfied just getting by in life. I thought that I would just take whatever was handed to me and accept that my life was going to be average. Now I know, as cheesy as it sounds, that I have the power to do whatever I want to do. I can’t control what happens to me but I can control how I handle it. That is probably the single greatest thing that I have ever learned and I am so grateful that I took a risk and decided to do something that scared me. It is absolutely the best decision I ever made.