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From Lost to Belonging in 365 Days: A Career Story

365 days have passed since I nervously confronted unemployment, but the journey that led me from Miami to Asheville to Washington, D.C. was by far the greatest, most profound career curve in my previously linear career path.

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Discovering Where I Belong

Last year, I nervously embarked on an adventure that ended Chapter 1 of my career and began Chapter 2 into the unknown. For years, I had felt like a stranger in my hometown and in my workplace, having outgrown who I once was personally and professionally, but too afraid to leave the comforts of familiarity. Then suddenly, 365 days ago, I was freed.

For me, what was meant to end needed to crumble first, before what was destined to be could begin.

Scared and unemployed, this unanticipated adventure that eventually led me to Washington, D.C. was both arduous and exhilarating. It commenced with bidding farewell to my beloved hometown of Miami and taking a much needed career pause within the vast embrace of the Appalachian Mountains. It culminated with an exciting move to the nation’s capital and a miraculous realignment with who I am as a person and purpose-driven professional. Now, 365 days later, I am exactly where I belong.

Breaking Up with My Hometown

Before leaving Miami, I reconnected with one of my career mentors to seek the valuable advice and visionary optimism that he always provided me throughout the years. We met in Coral Gables at Books & Books, a local favorite of mine that dates back to my childhood. As we sipped coffee together, surrounded by the store’s remarkable book collection, I anxiously shared with him my hopes of what the future may hold for my career, while also expressing my sheer panic of not knowing how I’d purposefully fill my days, which for so long, had been largely consumed with a workload meticulously delegated by others.

With decades of fundraising and management experience under his belt, my mentor patiently listened to my ramblings. When I finished, I took a deep breath, and silently met his eyes with a look of uncertainty. He smiled. He then calmly replied by naming the current phase of my professional journey as a much-needed “Career Sabbatical,” sharing with me that he had also experienced an unplanned career pause many years ago. I hadn’t considered viewing my unemployment from that perspective, but it instantly felt right, calming my growing fears of uncertainty and transforming them into a refreshing opportunity to #recharge#reflect, and #refocus

By the end of our meet-up, I warmly welcomed my Career Sabbatical to usher in the unwritten Chapter 2 of my career story.

Within the following weeks, I donated most of my belongings to begin the process of saying goodbye to my Downtown Miami loft. Bit by bit, I let go of most of my tangible attachments; that was the easy part. The more difficult part was letting go of that feeling of “home,” a feeling that was cultivated through the many years of hosting potlucks, sharing hot tea, and facilitating warm conversations with loved ones there.

Home is where the heart is, and so much of my heart was safely cocooned within those four walls.

Once I emptied my loft of most of its contents, I packed up the few personal belongings that still remained in my possession: My clothes, my books, and my art. During the final walk-through, I took a few minutes to stand outside on my tiny Juliet balcony and take in the view of the shimmering turquoise waters of Biscayne Bay one last time. In those moments, my heart ached, because I sensed that this was not simply a temporary departure, but was a true end to my life in Miami.

“Memories of South Beach” by Ik Ryeal Lee (2018 Art Basel Miami Beach)

I then closed the front door of my home, locked away the memories within it, and turned the page to a clean and blank Chapter 2.

Now or Never

The car was packed to the brim. My two dogs, Maya and Sebastian were tightly squeezed together in the passenger seat with their makeshift doggy seat-belts tightly wrapped around their furry little bodies. As their tails audibly thumped next to me to signify their joyful anticipation of a car ride, I paused to mentally prepare for the long drive.

Then, I heard the noon chimes of Gesu Church ring, and the vivid memories of attending so many masses there throughout my life with my mother immediately entered my mind. As I looked beyond the drab concrete walls of my parking lot to gaze upon the church’s majestic coral façade across the street, I reminisced on all the times I sat next to her in those stiff wooden pews, breathing in the heavy scent of incense, and often alternating between the serenity felt by hearing the priest’s voice echoing through the nave and the wondering of why we were attending a Latin mass that neither one of us could fully understand. Somewhere between my nostalgia, a light chuckle, and the bell’s twelfth ring, tears slowly began streaming down my cheeks, and my shaking palms were nervously gripping the steering wheel.

Is leaving Miami the right thing to do? Am I truly ready for this? What’s next? I wasn’t sure, but I knew one thing for certain: It was now or never.

I took a deep breath and turned to my right to see my two dogs excitedly staring at me; unlike me, they were certainly ready for the adventure! The expressed excitement that was so clearly apparent in their glistening brown eyes made me smile from cheek-to-cheek. I dried my tears with my sleeves, took another deep breath, whispered the word, “Bismillah,” and turned on the car’s ignition. Together, the three of us began a 12-hour trek up I-95 to officially begin my Career Sabbatical.

A New Reality

Within the first hour of our drive, the familiar palm-tree bordered, chaotic roads of the Miami Metro Area disappeared behind us, and the vibrant Caribbean pallet of fuchsias and teals that are so quintessentially Miami faded into the distance. Within the time of a single 9-5 workday, we left the familiar behind and entered an entirely different reality, one with expansive green spaces, soaring mountains, fresh air, new faces, and the warmth from the consistent presence of close family.

Asheville, North Carolina (Summer 2019)

My dogs and I arrived at our little oasis in Asheville, North Carolina. Our dedicated space for respite was nothing more than my sister’s furnished basement, but the presence of a soft bed and the absence of an alarm clock was exactly what I needed. 

For the first few weeks, the emptiness of my schedule left me anxious and frazzled. Ever since the very first Monday following my college graduation, I hustled—employed full-time in the public sector. For 12 uninterrupted years, and beginning with entry-level, direct service positions, which eventually led me to mid-level administrative roles, each of my employers dictated how I’d spend the majority of my time and mental energy…

…But now what?

I faced a new reality. For the first time in adulthood, I was utterly uncertain of how I should spend my time. This newfound freedom was scary, but the expansive natural beauty that surrounded me everyday in Asheville slowly soothed my fears. 

Biltmore Estate’s Deer Park Trail (Summer 2019)

Between my cherished moments of solitude, nestled within the vast green space of the Appalachian Mountains, I received consistent coaching from a dear friend, who was also a successful entrepreneur. Throughout the next 30 days, he hammered me with questions and thought-provoking assignments. While the fresh mountain air provided me the natural remedy to detox, the aggressive coaching from a self-determined peer forced me to independently reflect on what I truly sought to accomplish in my career moving forward. 

Where Do I Belong?

In addition to settling into the peace that surrounded me and the daily career coaching that consumed most of my afternoons, I also dove into the book, “Belong” by Radha Agrawal. This book allowed me to actively and deeply reflect upon where I had been, where I needed to go, and what I needed to do to truly “Belong.”

Taken together, these three parts of my new life—coaching from a friend, the solitude of the mountains, and reflecting on belonging—pushed me past my confusion and led me towards the clarity that I needed to proceed. In the end, they collectively led me to conceptualize the below personal mission that I would soon seek to accomplish throughout the next chapter of my career:

“To purposefully channel my skills and knowledge into an institution that is grounded in sound morality, lifelong learning, and human development—cultivating good character, building solid bridges, and transforming communities for the better.”

The above mission served as my compass for the employment search that followed in the coming days and weeks. It also served as a turning point in my career. This was the first time in 12 years that I was firmly determined to seek a clearly defined objective through my work, while refusing to alter myself to accommodate any employer’s expectations that did not parallel my own personal vision and values. 

I went from the mindset: “That’s not quite a good fit for me, but I can squeeze into that and make it work for you” to a new outlook: “I know my value and what I need to optimally serve my purpose, and I will pursue the right fit that complements both.” This was an essential shift in my thinking and my seeking.

Answering the Call

As scared as I was—truly uncertain if I’d find the right fit for me, and if that right fit would want me too—by the following month, a promising match was made. I had just completed Phase 5 of interviews with our country’s largest youth development organization. By the end of every interview phase, upon the conclusion of each encounter with the team, and by the time I received a formal job offer, I was struck by how natural and seamless the entire process transpired.

I soon realized that I had discovered where God intended for me to begin my post-Career Sabbatical Chapter 2. This part of the chapter would officially begin at the National 4-H Council in Chevy Chase, Maryland (a charming Mid-Atlantic town that borders Washington, D.C.). This opportunity was (and still feels like) a miracle, but I know that this miracle was also the result of my willingness to answer the call to seek something better for myself and for those who I aspire to serve.

Looking back and reflecting upon my first nine months at 4-H and the plethora of opportunities that I’ve received from my employer to contribute, collaborate, and grow within a team of diverse professionals who are both passionate and poised, I’ve realized that embarking on the preceding journey into the unknown (and the fear and anxiety that came along with it) was undeniably worth it. 

Georgetown Storefront (Fall 2019)

It is the first time in many, many years that I feel that I am exactly where I “Belong.”

For many of us, fear of the unknown is an unsettling feeling that we often struggle to calm throughout our lives. After so many unanticipated curves in what I had originally hoped would be a linear progression throughout my life, I have finally realized (now more than ever) that the beloved Muslim scholar, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī’s words are so incredibly true: 

“What you seek is seeking you.”

A Grateful Heart

365 days have passed since I nervously faced unemployment (not knowing what tomorrow would bring), but the journey that led me from Miami to Asheville to Washington was by far the greatest, most profound career curve in my previously linear career path.

This year’s journey would not have been possible without the support from my family and friends, the guidance from my mentors and coaches, the inspiration from insightful literary resources, the incredible leadership of the 4-H team, and most importantly, the infinite love and bounty provided by God. 

My Lasting Wish

I conclude this post by sharing a twofold wish that applies to everyone:

I wish for the removal of obstacles that prevent us from serving our true purposes, and for the opening of opportunities that allow us to meaningfully contribute to this world in positive ways.

Dandelion (Asheville, North Carolina)
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