In Due Time
One young sista’s fast rise and hard fall — and her road back

For the newly christened young professional, graduating from college can be both exhilarating and stressful — you might be excited about entering the working world, but you might be just as anxious about getting and keeping that first job.

For the newly christened young black female professional, the experience can be even more complicated.

Chaz Kyser found out how difficult it could be when she graduated from Texas State University-San Marcos in 2000. After leaving campus with bachelor’s degrees in both print journalism and sociology, she did what every other grad was doing — she got her first job. But her situation was a little bit different.

Chaz Kyser
Photo: De'Shawn Saffold
See, La Vida News/The Ebony Voice — a black-owned weekly newspaper in Houston focusing on the city’s African American and Hispanic communities — hired Kyser to be the paper’s managing editor, making her one of the youngest African Americans ever to ascend to that position at any publication. But while some might think taking the elevator to the top of the masthead sounds far sweeter than the customary ladder-climb, as Kyser explains, a shorter trip isn’t always a better one.

While most recent graduates start out in entry-level jobs that give them an opportunity to learn the ropes — and their companies’ individual players and internal politics — at their own pace, Kyser’s gig called for her, at the tender age of 21, to jump right in with both feet. She was charged with overseeing the paper’s reporting staff and dealing with the business of running a newspaper, a bracing dose of reality that requires a lot more than just reporting chops and a bachelor’s degree.

In a February 2007 interview with the student newspaper of Oklahoma’s historically black Langston University, where Kyser is now a journalism instructor, she said she experienced countless problems on the job — conflicts with co-workers, run-ins with her boss, struggles with managing her time and difficulty with budgeting.

It was a level of responsibility, she admits now, for which she wasn’t really ready.

“I liked working for the newspaper, but it was hard,” said Kyser, now 29, in a recent interview. “When I left college, I was book-smart, but not professional-smart.”

The difference may seem subtle, but it’s critical: If you don’t know how to skillfully navigate your way through the unique culture of an organization, it’s likely you won’t last there. Which is what happened to Kyser.

“Because I didn’t get the traditional entry-level position most grads get out of school, I didn’t really have the experience necessary to succeed at that job,” she said.

While Kyser was at La Vida, she had the idea to write a career guide for black female college graduates, but she knew she’d have to accrue some more life experiences before she could write it. When she left the publication after a year on the job, she began wishing she had received better advice on pursuing her career aspirations when planning her first post-grad move, and the self-reflection brought her back to the idea. A few more years, and a few more experiences, gave her the arsenal she needed. So she put it to use.

Published last year by Seshet Press and sold through Kyser’s www.embracingtherealworld.com Web site, the resultant book — “Embracing the Real World: The Black Woman’s Guide to Life After College” — is intended to help other young black women succeed in both their chosen career paths and their personal lives.

Not all of the experiences that gave Kyser her arsenal were positive. Since her graduation, she says she has had 12 jobs, and lost four of them; she has gone through a broken engagement; and she has suffered a severe bout of depression resulting from deep-seated career uncertainty.

But most importantly, she has weathered those storms, and the journey has led her to where she is today — enjoying a bustling career as a teacher, a public speaker, a freelance editor and a career columnist whose pieces appear in a variety of print publications and Web sites.

One reason why is that she has not been afraid to take risks, a piece of advice she offers in the book, and one she acknowledges can sometimes be difficult for black women to accept, in part because it can mean moving away from loved ones.

While Kyser was still working at La Vida in Houston, she decided to move to New York City to pursue a career in publishing. She says undertaking a cross-country move wasn’t a hard decision for her at the time because she felt ready to pursue a new opportunity, but she notes that she meets many young black women who fear taking the bold steps necessary to make their career aspirations come true. As she sees it, if women are not tied to a specific location by responsibilities such as marriage or children, there is no reason that they shouldn’t take the risk of pulling up stakes and heading to a new destination, provided the opportunity is right.

Kyser also advises black women to work at building up professional relationships, a suggestion drawn from her own experiences in New York, where she got an internship with publishing house Tracy Sherrod Literary Services simply because she made the effort to network with a literary agent she admired.

“I used to be afraid to network,” she said, “but now when I go anywhere, I make every effort to learn about anybody I meet, because you never know how that person is going help you out in the future.”

Much of Kyser’s advice transcends barriers of ethnicity and can be relatable to all young women looking to carve their own career niches, but there are certain issues she discusses that specifically affect women of color in the workplace, such as racial discrimination. Kyser says that she has not been directly discriminated against, but she has felt stereotyped — she recalled a past co-worker who was surprised to learn that she “acted nice” for a black person, and was shocked to find out that Kyser didn’t like hip-hop music.

To some, those may sound like fighting words. But Kyser advises taking a more measured tack.

“It is important to not go on the offensive when people say things like this,” she said. “Instead, try to understand why they think this way. This is usually the better way to defuse a potential bigger problem in the future.”

Professional dress in the workplace is a concern for many workers, but the decision of some black employees to wear dreadlocks and other natural hairstyles tends to be a controversial for some employers. Kyser recalled a story about a friend of hers, a television anchor, who was asked by bosses at her TV station to straighten her hair if she wanted to stay on-air.

“Natural hair is still an issue, but it depends on where you work,” she said. “Many people still see natural hair with disdain, especially in corporate settings. But thankfully, the world is changing in some areas, and people are becoming more open-minded.”

Despite the challenges, Kyser says she’s glad to see that there are many young black women taking charge of their careers as well as their lives.

“There are more successes today among black women,” she said. “There are a lot of role models, and they are not just Oprah and Tyra Banks. Black women are really making strides in the world today.”

Embracing the Real World
Courtesy Seshet Press