History Career Panel

BC History students learn about different career paths

On April 23rd, Berkeley Connect History invited Berkeley alums Lauren Benichou, Jimena Smith, and Leah Flanagan to talk about what they did with their history degrees from Cal.

Lauren Benichou graduated from Cal in 2012 with a double major in history and political science and is now working as a freelance multimedia journalist and a full-stack web developer. She has interned at a variety of media and news sources, including NPR’s All Things Considered, the Criminal Justice Conversations Podcast at UC Berkeley, and KQED. Lauren also recently developed SoundFrame, an app that allows you to tell stories through maps and sounds. It was as a history major at Cal that she discovered her passion for telling stories. When writing her thesis, Lauren  chose to write about the work of Chicano activists. “I really wanted to tell these people’s stories, not just write a research paper,” Lauren said. But it was while she was working at KQED she realized her passion for multimedia journalism and app development. When they gave one of her stories to someone else, her frustration led her to a realization. “I realized that I was working really hard for something I didn’t really like. I liked storytelling. So I sat down and told myself I had to do something different.” She joined a coding boot camp and also discovered the work of Mike Bostock, who combined all sorts of media to tell stories in an interactive way. Now she combines both interests in her work. “Out of failure, I decided to do something else. I stopped surviving and started living.”

Jimena Smith is now a lawyer, although her path to law school and her current position took many detours and interesting turns. After finishing her senior thesis in Minnesota, Jimena worked for the US State department by day and as a cocktail waitress at a cigar bar by night. “It was a crazy lifestyle. I would work at the State Department until six and start work at the bar at seven twice a week until two in the morning,” Jimena admitted. “It was crazy, but it was amazing.” Jimena then took a job as a constituent representative at Senator Barbara Boxer’s office. As constituent representative, she sifted through boxes of appeals from people who needed help. “It was like doing a thesis every day. But it wasn’t just research. It was people’s lives,” Jimena said, adding that it was an incredibly intense job. “I got yelled at by some and given cute thank you cards by others.” During this time, she found herself incredibly frustrated with immigration law, which led her to law school. “I loved law school. It helped me make sense of the world.” Jimena actually turned down a job with the CIA, decided instead to go to Berkeley Law. Now, Jimena works in investment management.

Leah Flanagan’s favorite career advice? “Plan happenstance,” she said. “You do everything to prepare yourself for what you do next and then things just happen. And they will happen if you are ready.” That’s exactly how Leah found her way to her current career. After attending theater school, Leah worked as a paralegal and later, as an administrative assistant on the UC Berkeley campus. “You should be a Berkeley student,” her boss told her one day. Leah decided to take this advice to heart and transferred to Berkeley as a re-entry student after a year and a half in community college. When she graduated with a degree in History, she was considering going on to law school until someone from the History department called her, asking whether she’d be interested in coming back to campus to work part-time advising undergraduate students. Although she initially declined, she ended up calling right back and accepting the offer. “One of the reasons I love my job is I made so many mistakes as a student, and I want to help save students from making the same ones,” said Leah, who now works as a full-time student advisor in the department.

Every History major is required to complete a senior thesis. Many of the panelists mentioned that their thesis was a touchstone in their life. “Every important job has asked about my thesis,” Jimena said. The speakers had some advice regarding theses. “Don’t choose something just because your professors want you to,” Lauren said. “Having an expertise is so valuable nowadays, and you can be an expert in something and be able to talk about it to others even after you graduate,” Jimena added. She emphasized finding the right topic. “Find what attracts you to history, and don’t be afraid to get specific.”

Most of all, the panelists stressed the importance of never giving up. “There will be moments you won’t know what to do. I cried so many nights, feeling like I didn’t know what I was doing,’” Lauren said. “But all your failures are learning experiences.” Jimena chimed in, “With everything you do, there is a period of time when you won’t be having a lot of fun. You go back to ground zero every time you think you made it, but just know there is a reward at the end of it.”

“You hear about straight paths. But there’s so much more. And there will be good moments and bad moments,” Lauren said as the panel concluded. The careers of these three women are proof of the challenges and rewards that lie on twisting, turning paths!

posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant