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Grinnellians you should know (or know about): Megan Goering ’08

Part of an occasional series of profiles of people affiliated with the College.

I didn’t know Megan Goering ’08 when she was a student, or at least I don’t think I did. It’s strange that I didn’t know her, since there were many potential points of contact. She was president of SGA. She was active in the TC corps. I’m pretty sure that she was close friends with Ian Atha. Nonetheless, I did not know her.

So why I am I writing about Megan? Well, I’ve come to know her a bit since she graduated Grinnell, and she’s awesome. She’s clearly one of the kinds of people that current students (and likely other alums) will benefit from knowing. She’s brilliant, thoughtful, caring, and able to make a difference.

I’ve had about three significant interactions with Megan since she graduated. One: A few years ago, she visited my Learning from CS Alumni (LFA) class. Although she took only one CS course at Grinnell [1], she ended up with a fairly upper-level position at Google. Since she was going to be on campus anyway, and I knew about her through other alums, I invited her to visit that class. Two: About three years ago, when we were revisiting the design and purpose of the Wilson Program, and Megan was one of the alums that were invited back for the retreat to discuss it. Three: A few weeks ago, she visited LFA again. We’ve also had more casual interactions, or at least I think we have, but those three encounters really leave a huge impression on me.

For the first visit to LFA, Megan did a lot of planning. She asked students to do a bit of homework (although I don’t remember what it was) and to bring their résumés to class. In class, she had planned to talk about her career path and then do a résumé review. But she had so many interesting side notes and tips on her life story, and so many questions from the students, that we went over the two-hour mark without ever getting to the résumés. What advice did she give? Some of it was the normal advice: Network. Network some more. Know your strengths. Promote yourself. But even when she was giving the normal advice, she phrased it in such a way that it seemed that much more important, and that much more useful. As importantly, she talked about how one manages their career. She talked about what she wanted to be doing in six months to a year, and how she was building pathways to make sure that she reached that point [2]. She was both inspirational and easy to interact with.

Megan also seemed to do a lot of planning for the visit of a few weeks ago, a visit that we did via Skype rather than in person. Again, she asked the students to do some homework, and send her some notes. Not all did, and we also had some guests, so she asked each student to say a bit about themselves. And then she challenged each student to say more. Is there anything you don’t get sick of? What are you nerding around with? Is there a moment from (the thing you love) that stands out? After hearing from each student, she’d then come up with a great, pithy, one-sentence description of something that student might pursue. I loved seeing how she mixed challenge, praise, and advice as she interacted with each student.

Once again, Megan spent most of the time talking about her life story (one that is much more complex now) and answering questions. This time, one of the most important lessons she shared (in addition to the normal lessons, which were shared even better than before) is that it’s important to find ways to overcome your fears, which means that you have to take risks and be willing to make mistakes. (Yeah, it doesn’t sound nearly as good when I write it like that.) And she did a great job of talking about the risks she took.

I very much appreciate one of the greatest risks that Megan took, and that risk was coming to Grinnell. Why was that a risk? Not because she wasn’t smart enough for Grinnell. Not because she wasn’t hard working enough for Grinnell. But because Grinnell was a huge financial stretch for her family. I believe she graduated Grinnell with about three times the current average debt at graduation, and she graduated almost a decade ago. That’s a lot of debt. Having that much debt dictated many of her choices for the first years after Grinnell, and she was very open about how it dictated her choices.

What other risks did she talk about?

Well, she said that her favorite class at Grinnell was Calculus, which she thought she could avoid because of Grinnell’s legendary open curriculum, but which her advisor, the legendary Sarah Pucell, strongly encouraged her to take. Why was Calculus a worthwhile risk? In part, it turns out she needed to demonstrate math skills in applying for many jobs. More importantly, because she learned that math at the college level is very different from math in high school, and that she actually liked math. I take that experience as a reminder that I should continue to push my advisees to take courses in areas that they are not (yet) comfortable with.

She also applied for jobs that, at first glance, she was not qualified for. And she found ways to make herself appear qualified. I hope the students listened carefully to her lesson about how you think through your skills and how you best present them to others. (I hope that students also realized that if you ask nicely, she’ll probably do the same.)

She quit a lucrative job without knowing what she’d do next.

And those are just a few of the risks that she talked about.

In addition to her willingness to share, Megan impressed me with how thoughtful she was about everything she talked about. For each experience, and even each failure, she could identify something she’d gained and, as importantly, could suggest how she might use what she learned to either help others or to promote herself (or both).

I also took a few notes as I listened to Megan. Here’s my attempt to capture some important things she shared.

The first year is a good time to make mistakes. People assume that you will make mistakes, and you’ll learn a lot from them.

Self-gov is the opportunity to make things for yourself.

Never let money hold you back.

Not knowing how to do something should not be an obstacle to trying to do that things.

While the tech industry is sometimes hostile to women, entrepreneurship is increasingly available for women. And female entrepreneurship is different; I regularly see female entrepreneurs collaborating and supporting each other. [3]

Learn how to get support.

Be comfortable being uncomfortable.

Do things that sound fun, but you’ll be bad at.

Form a support group.

Develop a growth mindset.

As I review this essay, I realize I’ve failed to capture just how awesome and inspiring Megan is. As I said above, I am so impressed by how she interacts with others: Drawing out interests, knowledge, and skills; remembering key points; prodding in new directions; synthesizing what she’s heard; and more. Take the time to get to know Megan, and you’ll see what I mean [4].

[1] Or at least I think she took only one CS course at Grinnell.

[2] Sorry, I won’t give details.

[3] Okay, this one was much longer. I couldn’t find a way to boil it down any more.

[4] There’s even a chance we’ll convince her to teach a Wilson Short Course next year. Cross your fingers!

Version 1.0 posted on 2016-11-03.

Version 1.0.1 of 2017-08-22.