How To Make The Most Of College with Julie Zeilinger

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When we hear of people getting ahead in their careers while still in the classroom, it can feel like we missed some big memo or forgot to read that book everyone else finished months ago. We get it, it's confusing. But we don't want you to waste time worrying that you're not taking the right steps forward, so we are proud to introduce our latest series: The College Career. This brand new column will feature voices of current and former college women who have jumpstarted their careers while still in school, starting with Julie Zeilinger. She is the founder of The FBomb, a website for teen girls to discuss and learn about feminism, and author of College 101and A Little F'd Upwhich she wrote while she was a student at Barnard College in New York City. Now just two years post-grad, Julie has been named to Forbes' prestigious30 Under 30 list for her work in feminism in the media space, and she has written and spoken about feminism and related issues on MSNBC, NBC, Fox News, MTV, and Mic, among others.

While she has earned a great deal of accolades in the past two years, she has been working in this space for her entire college career as well. So we wanted to know: how did she kickstart her career while she was hitting the books? What did she learn the hard way about the college experience? If she could do it again, what would she do differently?

You'll have to read her book College 101to get all the answers, but keep reading for some gems that are sure to help you conquer college and the start of your career:

You started the FBomb when you were in high school. How did you originally become interested in feminism?

My interest was sparked in eighth grade. My school required all graduating middle schoolers to give a speech to the entire school on a topic of their choice. While I was still deciding what to discuss in mine, my mom found an article about female feticide and infanticide (a practice in which female fetuses are aborted solely based on their sex) and passed it on to me.

Learning about that stunned and horrified me. I was so privileged and led such a culturally insulated life in suburban Ohio that I was astonished to learn such a blatantly misogynistic form of violence persisted in that day and age — and even more upset that I had never been taught about it in school. I began to wonder what other kinds of misogyny still persisted, and through reading feminist books and doing my own research I quickly discovered that there is (obviously) misogyny happening all over the world, and in my own backyard, in myriad forms.

What motivated you to create the FBomb?

One of my high school teachers took me under her wing once she learned about my interest in feminism. She let me take an “elective” with her which basically consisted of us reading feminist books together and discussing them. She eventually introduced me to feminist blogs like Feministing and Jezebel, which I devoured. I was so grateful to be introduced to these witty, intelligent, blatantly feminist young women’s voices. But while I valued the conversations they were having on those sites, I felt there should also be a similar place for teens like myself to discover and define feminism for ourselves. I couldn’t find a platform like that so I decided to create it.

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How did going to Barnard College, an all women’s college in New York City, play a role in the FBomb, your career, and your personal evolution?

Before I went to Barnard, I don’t think I was at all aware of how persistently I downplayed my intelligence and overall capabilities, to myself and others. There was something about being in classrooms full of women that emboldened me to really harness my voice and have faith in my opinions. That has completely changed me personally and has only bolstered the way I think about and approach my career and all work that I do.

Attending college in a city certainly helps when it comes to jumpstarting your career. What did you do in college to take advantage of its location?

I interned quite a bit while I was in college, as did most students at both Barnard and other NYC-based schools. My most informative intern experiences were at HuffPost Women in 2013, which completely informed the career I have now in media. My boss at the time (and current Executive Editor of HuffPost Women) Emma Gray had complete faith in me and gave me real responsibilities and work experience and has remained a mentor of mine since.

But while internships are often sold to undergrads as great networking opportunities and résumé boosters for future careers (which is undeniably true), I also found that interning was a great way to figure out what I didn’t want to do. For instance, while I love reading and writing, I realized that working in the publishing industry wasn’t for me.

That being said, whether you’re in a big city or a small town, there are ways to get ahead career-wise while in college. What advice do you have for college women who have big career goals and want to start now?

It is never too early to start networking. I think I was always intimidated by the idea of “networking” — imposter syndrome always made me feel like I was never qualified enough to approach anyone more successful than me and ask for them to spend time talking to me.

It took me a while to realize that, first, many women have imposter syndrome which is something we need to interrogate and try to overcome. Second, I realized that networking doesn’t have to be some very adult, official performance, but can be as simple as talking to someone you admire over a cup of coffee or asking them for a short informational phone call. I also found that most professional women are eager to help younger women in their fields — especially if you ask them for their time respectfully and humbly.

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You have written two incredible books–A Little F’d Up: Why Feminism Is Not a Dirty Word and College 101: A Girl’s Guide to Freshman Year. Why do you think these subject matters are so necessary for college women to have on their bookshelves?

I wrote A Little F’d Up because I found that many of the feminist conversations I encountered online already assumed that people coming to them had an understanding of basic feminist concepts and terminology. At 14, I definitely did not. Women’s Studies wasn’t exactly taught at my middle or high school. A Little F’d Up is a fun, engaging guide to what feminism is and how it can benefit young people’s lives on a very essential level. I think having that knowledge is useful in life, generally, but especially in college when people are eager to have conversations about social movements and progressive ideas.

I wrote College 101 after I found that my first year of college hardly lived up to the idyllic, “best time of my life" I had been culturally trained to believe I could expect. It turned out that transitioning from high school to college was a huge transition, physically, emotionally, intellectually, and psychologically. I later realized that almost every freshman had been struggling right alongside me — especially women, thanks to persistent sexism on campus. I decided to write a book that is transparent about these difficulties and offer tips about how to handle them so that young women entering college after me might not have to struggle so much.

College 101 is specifically for the college freshman–arguably the most transformative of the four years. What was the most important message you wanted to get across to the reader for this new chapter of her life?

The key takeaway I hope young women get from College 101 is that there is no perfect college experience, and that’s ok. We are so indoctrinated to buy into the myth of college as this incredible, transformative time but we’re rarely prepared for how it’s also frequently a really challenging transition.

Your life completely changes as do your social networks and other networks of support. You have to contend with independence and your identity in a completely new way. It’s a lot to deal with but I believe if young women are more transparent about this experience, instead of trying to appear as if they’re constantly thriving, they could find more support among one another and really leverage the experience to the best of their abilities.

How did your own freshman year experience impact the book?

As I mention in the book, I really struggled my freshman year. I totally bought into the idea that any problems I had in high school would magically disappear once I got to college, where I assumed I’d immediately find like-minded peers and discover my calling and enjoy every second of my independence.

The reality was I did have trouble making friends and often felt really lonely. I began to question what I thought I wanted to study and eventually do with my life. But I thought I was the only one going through that experience.

I decided to write the book after my friends and I eventually admitted to each other that we had all had really challenging freshman years — and we all thought everyone else was unfazed by the transition. We could’ve been there for each other had we known we were going through the same thing, and I hoped this book could be a bridge for young women to form those connections.

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Writing a book is no easy feat, and you did that while you were in college AND running The FBomb. What’s your secret to time management?

I’m a type-A nerd at heart, so I just aggressively scheduled my time. I devoted a certain number of hours every day to writing, studying, classes, etc. I would recommend this approach to anyone but looking back, I wish I had scheduled in time for fun and self-care (as oxymoronic as that sounds). High-achievers especially often focus so much on productivity that they forget it’s just as important to take care of and enjoy themselves.

You graduated from Barnard two years ago. Now that you are into your post-grad career, what would you tell your college freshman self?

I would tell her to challenge any and all preconceived notions about what she thought she could or should do after college while still in undergrad. I don’t regret majoring in sociology or taking any of the other classes I took, but sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had challenged myself to take a computer science class or an engineering class. I also have so many friends who are less than happy with their current jobs who wonder the same thing. I’d tell my freshman self (and any other current or rising freshmen) not to let a fear of failure dissuade her from an incredible opportunity to try something new and learn something about herself.

Follow Julie on Twitter @juliezeilinger.