Alum to Students: A Winding Path Will Get You There

Photos Kelly Marsh

It’s not unusual for Vassar alums to tell current students that their career trajectories haven’t exactly resembled straight lines. In a recent talk to about 30 students hosted by the Career Education Office, Rachel Simmons ’96 described a career path that has been downright serpentine—with a few extra zigs and zags thrown in.

Five seated people at a table listening to one person, also at the table, speaking.
Vassar alum Rachel Simmons ’96 talked to about 30 students about her multi-faceted career.

Since leaving Vassar, Simmons has earned a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University and dropped out of the program a year later, was admitted to law school but decided not to enroll, authored four books—including the bestseller Odd Girl Outabout the hidden culture of bullying among girls—founded the national nonprofit Girls Leadership, counseled students at Smith College and—most recently—founded a company that coaches corporate and nonprofit clients.

Simmons said one key to navigating a career lies in an ability to operate outside of one’s comfort zone. “In college, you have control of your life,” she told those gathered in Main Building for her talk. “That ends when you get out.”

But rather than fret about an uncertain future, Simmons suggested embracing it. “Don’t judge yourself against people who think they have it all figured out at 18,” she said. “Half of them will fail when you don’t know them anymore. I would not be where I am today if I hadn’t dropped out of the Rhodes Scholar program. Nothing in life is linear. In whatever you do, be prepared for a certain level of discomfort.”

Two seated people with backs to camera watching and listening to a panel discussion of seated people behind a table.
Simmons drew some laughs by urging the students to “honor the Vassar tradition” of playing as hard as you work.

Simmons said her Vassar liberal arts education had given her the emotional and intellectual strength to find her own path. And she praised two former professors who attended her talk, Associate Professor Emeritus of English Peter Antelyes and Professor Emerita of Political Science Molly Shanley, for providing her with wisdom and advice that went far beyond what they had taught her in the classroom.

Book cover of the back of a person's head and ear with text that reads: Odd Girl Out, the Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, Rachel Simmons.
Simmons’ book about bullying among girls gained national acclaim.

Shanley returned the compliment, saying she had learned a lot from Simmons during their time together at Vassar, and Antelyes praised her for having the fortitude to leave the prestigious Rhodes Scholar program. “Many students in Rachel’s situation might have chosen to languish there half-heartedly,” he said. “I admired her for having the courage to make a clean break.”

Simmons said she had come to learn that personal growth is often borne out of such struggles. “If nothing is making you uncomfortable, that’s a problem,” she told the students.

Simmons also left the students with advice they could employ even before they embark on their careers. “I followed the Vassar tradition of working hard and playing hard,” she said. “If you’re not playing as hard as you’re working here, get your priorities realigned.”

One student who attended the talk, Elizabeth Stockton-Perkins ’24, said hearing Simmons’ story and advice was reassuring. “It’s good for us to hear from alums not just about what we may want to do after Vassar but also about the uncertainty many of us are feeling,” Stockton-Perkins said. “Hearing what she had to say was a relief.”

February 23, 2024