This piece for The Quest’s Meet the Alumni series features Colette, an M’19 from California, who is currently in San Francisco. Hear about how her identity was shaped at Minerva and how that identity is changing again as she is moving into the world.

Elianna DeSota: What have you been doing since Minerva ended for you?

Colette: After I graduated I went on a bike trip and then I went to Spain for the summer to work on Black to Grey [Colette’s sustainable fashion start-up]. We worked from there and went to visit clients in the US and then came back and worked with Black to Grey on a bunch of stuff. In December I decided I was ready for a new challenge so decided to step back from my role at Black to Grey and start working elsewhere to get experience from more experienced professionals and try different roles.

I’ve been working at this company called Strive [a leadership development edtech startup] and also some Black to Grey stuff. 

ED: How did you choose to step back from Black to Grey? And where is that project right now? 

C: I’m still working with them on all Minerva stuff. I love my civic project [Colette runs a civic project with Black to Grey in SF] and I love still working with students. I’m really close with my co-founders and they live in San Francisco still so we do work together and I still help them with a few other clients that we have that I was closer to. But I realized I don’t think fashion is where I can have the biggest impact on climate. That was one component and the other component was I felt like I was learning a lot through doing, which was really awesome and that is particularly cool in school, but in the real world consequences from mistakes are higher. I felt less confident in my ability to trust my business and decision making and so wanted to learn from other people. 

That’s why it has been pretty cool at Strive because they are a couple of years ahead of Black to Grey or where I would have wanted to be in one year from now. I feel like I’m learning a lot of things and definitely getting that knowledge and experience so that if I want to start another project at some point, I will be better equipped to do so. 

ED: So what are some of those things that you feel you aren’t quite equipped to do coming out of Minerva and where you would like to see that growth?

C: Kind of everything. I am definitely not a master at anything but I am particularly interested in how to operationalize things and be a founder of a company or a leader of a team or something where you have to make decisions but don’t see the implementation of them. How do you do that? Do you have weekly one-on-ones with everyone or only managers and managees? What are the more operational things that happen? 

We had a really clear business strategy but I didn’t know how to run an organization and I had never worked somewhere normal before. I had worked at research institutes or for the government and never for a company. 

I just didn’t know what companies were like and how to build culture. It feels like it doesn’t really matter when you are so small but then the minute you expand a little bit you start giving that culture to other people. I think I didn’t know how to be super intentional about that. 

ED: What do you think Minerva did to prepare you? And what do you think it didn’t prepare you for? 

C: I think one thing that was particularly evident was work ethic. I think the standards for working hard at Minerva are much higher than any other organization I have seen, and obviously that wasn’t healthy, but that is something I learned from Minerva: Just how to work through all of it no matter what and grit and resilience in the work you’re doing because doing something consistently even if it’s not optimal is better than not doing something consistently.

And just generally being a professional. I know how to write incredible emails and schedule and use things that other people don’t. Or networking and going to events and creating a life. A lot of really hard, intangible skills that I think I learned through the process. 

I think the standards for working hard at Minerva are much higher than any other organization I have seen.

ED: You mentioned you felt that Minerva wasn’t necessarily incredibly healthy, what do you mean by that? Have you established healthy habits as you go forward? 

C: I think there is a sentiment in college that whoever is working the hardest is idealized. Like “I got less sleep than you and it’s a competition that I’m more tired,” or “Oh yeah, well, I submitted my assignment one minute before the deadline!” 

I think it is really easy to get wrapped up in those self-deprecating circles so people almost push themselves to the limit just to prove that they can. Now that I’m out I see the moments that I was working hard when it was needed versus when it wasn’t and I should have just done my shit earlier and gotten a good night’s sleep. 

I think now the way I am dealing with that is just having a normal person’s job. I still meet with my four-person professional development group, which they trialed with my class. We all wanted to be part of mission-driven organizations when we graduated so we meet once a month to talk about it. 

Today we met and one person said most people in the world don’t have outside professional projects they are working on outside of work. It was the first time I had ever heard that and it reminded me that I am still in the mindset of constantly doing more and buffering myself a little bit.

I feel like I’m rebounding. 

ED: What have been the worst parts of graduating?

C: I think the worst is not being in an intellectual community and working towards a common ideology. I think one of the most unique things about Minerva was that everyone had a strong belief that they could make education better. 

And we took it for granted. I don’t think anyone verbalized that until after graduation and we realized that when you go to an organization some people care about the meaning and some people don’t. Some people think this is the best solution and some people don’t. Whereas at Minerva you could be interested in a million things but the common piece of it was we were all working towards a common goaI. I don’t think you get that on the scale that we had it ever again and with people of such high caliber. 

I miss the community; I miss my friends. But most of all I miss being with my friends and having conversations and a common understanding of the world so that if I wanted to talk about the meaning of my work in the world they would know where I am coming from and they could give useful advice and feedback and we could have a conversation about it. 

I miss being with my friends and having conversations and a common understanding of the world.

I think people have a genuine curiosity for everything. I have people now that I try to have conversations with about things and it’s so hard when it’s like, “Oh, you’ve never lived in Seoul, South Korea and I cannot convey to you what that’s like.” And I can’t talk to other classes because we lived in one building in one part of town that defined our experience that is so different from where students live now. 

So it feels like an isolating experience. But I think that that goes away the more your identity is shaped in ways that are not Minerva. I think the longer I’m in the work world and the more friends that I make outside of Minerva and the projects that I do. The more I can talk about stuff that isn’t Minerva related I think the less isolating it will feel, but as of now, my whole identity is on this incubator experience that no one else can relate to or cares to understand. 

ED: How have you been working to get out of the isolating experience? 

C: Just time. That’s the biggest piece. Part of it is I want time to move more quickly so I can get over it, but it is a special feeling to feel so connected to a community.

I have been spending time with more people outside of Minerva, but I’ve just realized that I don’t like it that much yet and I don’t want to force it. I think I will feel ready when I’ve worked somewhere longer, like staying at Strive and making memories and experience here. Or going on trips by myself so that it is a more relatable experience. The friends that I have now are good but it just makes me feel worse. I just miss my Minerva friends every time I see them. 

ED: Are there any really positive aspects of getting out of Minerva?

C: Oh, one million. I don’t think those positive things are going to be the same things that upcoming graduates will feel . 

I feel like I’m not constantly fighting for my needs and being gaslit about what is right and wrong in the world and in university. I am happy I don’t spend 40 hours every week thinking about how to make Minerva better. 

I don’t feel a weight on my shoulders to improve this experience for myself and for others. I feel like I can be my authentic self and I’m not tied down to the reputation that I created for myself in the first year. 

I think one of the hardest parts in Minerva is that in small communities people solidify an idea of you at the very beginning and it is impossible to break free of that. It is really nice to not feel that pressure. 

I don’t have to move that much; I have a sense of home. I don’t have to fight with anyone about classes. I feel healthy. I feel like I have time to do things I want to do. 

ED: You mentioned how you felt like you had a fixed identity within Minerva, how has your identity changed or shaped as you leave Minerva? 

C: It is a funny thing that at Minerva we all sort of jokingly resist the Minerva identity but we revel in what it gives us. It is a shiny cool thing that we get to talk about. 

I think I moved from that into Black to Grey where people would ask ‘How did you do this?” and I think anyone could possibly do it and anyone could build a company if they wanted to, given a certain amount of privilege. I know I am one of the most privileged people in the world but probably anyone from Minerva that has limited financial burden can do it. Leaving Black to Gray and transitioning into other things, while I still have that and Minerva attached to me, this is the first time I haven’t done something that feels like my identity. That people are like “Oh you’re that girl.” 

Where it used to be “Oh, you’re the Minerva girl,” or “you’re the Black to Grey girl,” now I’m just Colette. Which is cool, but it is identity shaking and world shifting. 

It’s scary and it takes time to get used to but I think inevitably is a good thing probably. 

The first thing I say is no longer “Oh, I’m Colette, I go to this school called Minerva.” It’s still a common question to ask “Where did you go to school?” but maybe 20% of people ask where I went to school and of that 20%, maybe 20% ask one further question of “what’s Minerva?”

ED: Coming to the end here, is there anything specific you want to get out there? 

C: The world is a lot more. 

Sometimes it is worth it to move to a city to be with your good friends. The people that you love and care about at Minerva are unlike most other people you will meet in your life and there is nothing you can do in the moment to recognize that or to fully appreciate it. It’s the same thing that moms always say: “You’ll understand this when you’re a mother” and you’re like, “I don’t want kids,” or “I don’t want your say in this.”

I wish that I had better documented my experience and been more consistent with that documentation and been more creative about how to stay in touch with people immediately after graduation. Communication and archives of things would be cool and I wish I had done more of that. 

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