Joel Montes de Oca Pen

The 50 List

Some of the best advice I ever received in college came from a senior during my freshman year at University of Illinois.

“You probably have no idea what you want to do with all of this education do you?” he asked.

I shrugged my shoulders.

“That’s alright. I think that you should use your education to explore,” he said with a smile. As we sat in the cafeteria, he imparted the wisdom that he had learned over his four years in college. I leaned in.

He told me to create something he called, “The 50-list,” a list of 50 people that I would like to meet over the course of my undergraduate career. I was to start off with faculty and later include working professionals in a variety of capacities, transcending academic disciplines.

“Why do I want to do that, and why would they want to meet with me?” I asked.

He told me that most of these people were there because their passion for teaching, for research, and for discovery. “They just love to share their worlds with students who have a genuine curiosity to learn, and to develop themselves,” he said.

Before you meet with them, read some of their articles and books. He told me to ask them genuine questions about their work, about the future of the field, to inquire about their path and to share my interests.

I started by looking at the university’s website and the faculty directory. One-by-one, I would contact people of interest and setup appointments.

As I pieced together the first few people to build my 50-List, I discovered a fascinating professor in Leisure Studies who had quite a non-linear path in her professional life. She talked to me about her course entitled, Racial and Gender Diversity in Leisure Behavior,” which I took and relished. I had no idea that you could study such things!

Next, I found a nuclear engineering professor studying energy consumption in the United States and the world. I took his course, Nuclear Engineering 101, and found a mentor. Most importantly, I discovered a professor who was helping cities across the globe deal with unprecedented urbanization, drawing me face-to-face with questions that I had about my home town – Chicago – and its policy related to growth, and the poor. I took his course Urban Planning 101 and ultimately declared myself as an Urban Planning major.

Because of my 50-list, I had developed a series of people professors who knew me, informed me of the latest opportunities, who shared the wisdom that they cultivated over the course of their lifetimes.

I hope that you too will develop a 50-List and use it to explore what is possible. Take advantage of one of the greatest assets of your institution of higher learning, the faculty. You might meet an excellent mentor or discover an area of interest that you never considered.

Start today, and continue the practice once you graduate. They can’t wait to hear from you.

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