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Having recently been laid off, my world is a different place. Gone are the days of consistently imposed structure, office camaraderie and, most notably, a steady paycheck. My coworkers and I got the bad news right before the holidays; the small graphic design and branding studio we worked for was having trouble bringing in new business and could no longer afford our salaries. After 5 years I cleaned out my desk and said goodbye to people who were like family.

While visiting my actual family in Seattle for the holidays, I got the ball rolling: I applied for unemployment, got a bit of freelance graphic design work, and I volunteered to help a friend with a great startup with which she had begun working as CEO. A good start to staying afloat, making new connections and keeping my skills sharp, but the idea of looking for full time work was sincerely intimidating. For over a year I watched my incredibly qualified, ivy-league educated boyfriend (as well as other friends) struggle to find steady work; how could I possibly expect to find a job?

Even though I had been productive in Seattle, upon returning to NYC I felt disillusioned and disheartened. Usually coming back from visiting my family is a chance to dive back into my life and routine, but this time it felt as though I had neither of those things. The blank slate of my life was staring me in the face, and it was terrifying. I know enough people who have been laid off that everyone understands what I’ve been going through, and with empathy they encourage me to see this time as an opportunity to explore my career and myself. Yes, of course, an opportunity – I was just having a hard time seeing it.

Who do you turn to at a time like this? Luckily my alma mater, CUNY School of Professional Studies, has an excellent Career Services office. Shannon Gallo, the Career Services Director, and I recently met to go over my career objectives and she had some very helpful suggestions. First we explored what type of company I want to work for, what type of work I really want to be doing, and how to approach my job search with those parameters in mind.

It turns out that I want to do more meaningful work. As a marketing and design professional I want to promote a company or product that’s doing some good in the world, or at the very least not actively harming it (see my previous post about fast food marketing). Some people think marketing in and of itself is not a meaningful pursuit, but I always say that even institutions such as non-profits, hospitals and schools need to be marketed. So we decided I would stay in my field but target companies whose values and mission statements align with my own.

Shannon told me about some great job search websites specifically for the non-profit sector such as Idealist.org, NYNP.biz and JustMeans.com. I was concerned that I haven’t worked at non-profit before and that I might lack important experience. Shannon pointed out how in my cover letters I could discuss relevant coursework from my BA in Communications & Culture, to show my interest in and knowledge of issues often dealt with by non-profits such as social and civic reform, the diverse cultures in New York City, and socioeconomic issues in general.

Shannon also gave me some very helpful job search tips, like keeping track of all the jobs I apply for in a spreadsheet and making PDFs of job postings so I can revisit them later if necessary. We discussed improving my LinkedIn profile, becoming more active on the website in groups, and requesting recommendations from people with whom I’m already connected (Shawn Abraham recently wrote a great post about using LinkedIn). We talked about creating a schedule for my days and weeks, making sure I get in enough time to look for paid work to balance out the volunteer work I’m doing, to get out of the house on a regular basis, and even to try and have fun occasionally.

After speaking with Shannon, I feel like the terrifyingly blank slate of my life could in fact be seen as an opportunity to re-imagine a more meaningful and fulfilling career path for myself. Knowing how to better describe myself as a qualified candidate, I now feel more confident applying for jobs that I might actually want. I’m also very thankful that I can send Shannon drafts of cover letters and resumes and she’ll give me honest, informed feedback.

It’s wonderful that as students and alumni of CUNY SPS we have such a great Career Services office. You don’t need to be laid off or out of work to take advantage of this resource. If you’re unhappy in your career path, wondering how to put your SPS degree to use or just curious about your options don’t hesitate to contact Shannon Gallo at: shannon.gallo@mail.cuny.edu, 212.817.7166. My only regret is that I wish I had done it sooner.

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Rachel Smith is a marketing and design professional in New York City. She graduated from the SPS BA in Communications and Culture in 2009. Currently she is a founding member of the Alumni Relations Council and By Laws Task Force. Rachel loved the BA program which inspired her to work towards fostering community and collaboration among Alumni at SPS.

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As you may have noticed, recently there’s been some controversy over McDonald’s Happy Meal toys: in November 2010 San Francisco passed legislation banning toys in kids meals that do not meet certain nutritional standards and in December a woman is suing McDonald’s outright in an attempt to force them to stop including toys in the meals altogether.

Even if, like me, you’re not a big fan of McDonald’s or fast food, on the surface it all seems somewhat harmless. Kids love McDonalds, the food is tasty, they get a fun toy, and it’s an easy win for parents in the long, arduous battle of child-rearing. However, given the powerful allure of toys, McDonald’s perhaps has more responsibility to feed children healthy meals. The counter argument is that 1. it’s a free market and government has no right to intervene, and 2. that McDonald’s can’t be blamed because the caretaking of children is ultimately the parents’ responsibility. However, after reading two revelatory books that deconstruct fast food culture and the obesity crisis (Fast Food Nation and The End of Overeating) the problem is a lot more insidious than most people realize.

Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation looks at the history of fast food, dissecting each element of the industry including horrendous slaughterhouse conditions and the abuse of illegal immigrants; but what concerns this discussion is his overview of fast food marketing tactics, especially those towards children. According to Schlosser’s research, children’s marketing in general operates on the principal that “a person’s ‘brand loyalty’ may begin as early as the age of two,” and the goal is to reach children as early as possible through “cradle-to-grave advertising strategies.” This is done through creating a relationship with children built on trust and positive emotion through language and visualizations that speak to them. Certainly McDonald’s, with it’s bold colors, silly characters, toys and fun Play Lands, targets children in such a manner.

As previously noted, toys are a fantastic strategy to reach children, and in doing so the parents are reached, whether they like it or not. A toy not only encourages children to whine to their parents, it gives them “a specific reason to ask for the product,” according to the magazine Selling to Kids, such as “but I’ll be the only one who doesn’t have it and I’ll get made fun of.” Getting children to pester their parents is inherent to the marketing strategy, effectively turning children into brand advocates. McDonald’s claims on their kids’ website that “we’re committed to offering your family wholesome choices and an experience you can share,” but rather than using a unifying marketing tool they use a divisive one that creates friction between children and their parents who want to feed their children healthy food.

Because fast food isn’t healthy. Period. If McDonald’s were selling Happy Meals filled with vegetables and whole grains there wouldn’t be much of a debate as to whether it is ethical to lure them with toys. Supposedly “Happy Meals are a fun treat, with quality, right-sized food choices for their children that can fit into a balanced diet,” says McDonald’s spokeswoman Bridget Coffing in a recent CNN article regarding the lawsuit. However, the book The End of Overeating by Dr. David A. Kessler, former FDA Commissioner, offers extensive and compelling research proving that fast food companies have something quite opposite in mind.

The book answers the questions we all have about overeating, namely why do we do it and how do we stop, and in doing so he analyzes fast food product creation strategies. It would seem that the aforementioned “cradle-to-grave” marketing strategy extends far beyond TV ads and silly characters; the food itself is literally engineered to be as addictive as possible. Fast food companies have created food products that are, what Kessler terms, “highly palatable,” and stimulate our pleasure receptors much like drugs. These products are created by layering the three main taste components – sugar, fat and salt – in ingenious ways (such as adding high fructose corn syrup to burger buns) to ensure the highest level of taste satisfaction, which after repeated exposure results, much like drugs, in addiction.

Part of the problem is that while we were all thoroughly engaged in devouring our Big Macs ­– layered with meat (fat and salt), cheese (fat and salt), special sauce (sugar, fat and salt), and white bread (sugar in the form of simple carbohydrates and high fructose corn syrup) – we missed the fact that most fast food can really only be referred to as “processed food products,” having been conceived in a lab, created in a factory and then reconstituted from powers or thawed and reheated. Even more disturbing, “along with sugar, fat and salt, much of the processed food we eat today relies heavily on chemical flavor,” meaning that those delicious Big Macs aren’t even genuinely delicious, just a conglomeration of enticing chemicals masquerading as food.

It turns out that the entire fast food experience is a totally fake: empty calories engineered to be as delicious and addictive as possible, then marketed in the most alluring way possible. This process has been likened to marketing tobacco, alcohol or even drugs to children. What’s worse is that also like drugs and alcohol, eating these food products literally rewires your brain, reinforcing addictive behavior. And we’re feeding it to our children.

People might say that it’s a matter of personal choice to indulge in fast food, but the problem I have with all this is that children, in general, do not possess the ability to make informed decisions at the level necessary to recognize the fast food ruse. If adults make poor choices about their health there’s only so much we can do to prevent it. However, I would question whether or not their current behavior is not somehow influenced by literally a lifetime of conditioning to trust fast food companies and associate the food with fond childhood memories.

The fact that there is a serious childhood obesity crisis demands that children be further protected from food-related harms, and there needs to be a recognition that fast food is harmful to if not everyone, at least children. I personally believe that it is unethical to market fast food to children, just as it is unethical to market other substances that can do serious bodily harm such as alcohol and tobacco. However, I also believe that it is extremely unlikely that it will stop completely. The least we can do is stop giving children the ultimate incentive to eat at these establishments: free toys.

Rachel Smith is a marketing and design professional in New York City. She graduated from the SPS BA in Communications and Culture in 2009. Currently she is a founding member of the Alumni Relations Council and By Laws Task Force. Rachel loved the BA program which inspired her to work towards fostering community and collaboration among Alumni at SPS.

The CUNY School of Professional Studies Alumni Association’s inaugural event was held on Wednesday December 15, 2010. It was an intimate gathering of alumni, the Alumni Relations Council members, the deans and SPS staff and faculty. We celebrated the holiday season together with a festive potluck and took the opportunity to get to know bit more about one another and the programs from which we graduated.

There were alumni from all corners of the SPS community: graduates from the Online Communication & Culture and Business BA’s, the Applied Theater MA, various Certificate programs, and the Off Campus College. Some people were surprised that there were alumni from other academic programs at the event, having previously assumed it was an alumni event for their program. This is what is so great about the new SPS Alumni Association: we’re building community from the diverse people coming from disparate parts of SPS.

The dessert table! Assorted cookies, an amazing Flan made by Online BA alum Marco Castro (who is also a professional photographer and photographed the event for the Alumni Association), a beautiful heart cake brought by Off-Campus College alum Lillian Flecha, sugar cookies baked by Online BA alum Sara Morgano (pictured above with Dean Mogulescu), and a spectacular gluten-free rum cake made by me! Rachel Smith, Online BA alum. Recipes are being cooked up to make a book, which will be available soon!

Dean John Mogulescu (pictured standing, left) and Associate Dean Brian Peterson (pictured standing, center) spoke briefly about the Alumni Association, noting that it’s quite exciting that SPS has enough graduates now to actually build an Alumni Association and an ever growing student population to keep it going for years to come. Then Brian Peterson gave us the great news that we’re well on our way to meeting the goal for the Alumni Association’s first fundraiser!

Maggie Keenan-Bolger and Garret Scally (pictured right), alumni of the MA in Applied Theater Program, led our group in a series of “icebreaker” games. When we were planning the event and they volunteered to do the icebreakers I had no idea that they would be so much fun, so engaging and ultimately so wildly successful! As we moved around the room telling our stories, laughing, and discovering that some of us have fallen in love with the same parts of the globe or live down the street from one another, I realized that hours of mingling would never have resulted in the kind of camaraderie Maggie and Garret helped to foster (thanks so much to the both of you and your MA in Applied Theater!).

Bringing everyone together on a chilly December evening was not an easy task but it was well worth the effort. What started out as a tentative group of strangers ended up as a jovial gathering of new friends who discovered they had more in common than they thought.

I’m so looking forward to our next event and I sincerely hope to see you all there!

Rachel Smith is a marketing and design professional in New York City. She graduated from the SPS BA in Communications and Culture in 2009. Currently she is a founding member of the Alumni Relations Council and By Laws Task Force. Rachel loved the BA program which inspired her to work towards fostering community and collaboration among Alumni at SPS.