Aaron Hill – Athletics to Academics

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I thought for sure I’d arrived at my dream job – I am a huge sports fan and all I ever wanted to do was work in that industry. I was a long shot hire but got a job working in the Athletic Department at my alma mater – a place I remain very passionate about - at a time when the University was growing and the athletic teams wildly popular. I had quite a few job perks - I got to travel around the US to watch sporting events and entertain donors, often over golf at courses I never dreamed I could afford and over meals that rivaled any nice restaurant I’d ever eaten at as I kid. I had access to the hot commodity of tickets to a hot sporting event and had become well known in the community. An informal poll by people I went to high school with suggested I had the best job amongst our group of friends, if not known to man! Only for me, there was a huge catch – it didn’t fit who I am or what I wanted to be at all.

A big part of the job was “schmoozing” – essentially glad handing and entertaining people to eventually ask them for money – and lots of it. I wasn’t raised to ask people for anything and worse, while some of the donors were and are great people who just wanted to help, others had hidden agendas and their “gifts” came with massive strings attached. I always felt like I had to be “on” no matter where I went because I might run into a donor or potential donor. Although I remain passionate about my alma mater, asking people for money to support the University seemed hallow. Sure, I was contributing to the improvement of a place I love, but for what end other an arms race of college athletics? Who was I helping? I felt like I was stuck in a cycle with little opportunity for growth – was my life really going to amount to meeting one goal of fundraising only to have a new higher goal the next year – simply rinse, and repeat? I certainly wasn’t maximizing my strengths and I was becoming miserable. I knew I wanted to accomplish more.

On almost a whim, I took a leap of faith. A former professor said he thought I’d be great in that job and, at about the same time, another said the same thing. It appealed to me on several fronts. Some of the most impactful people in my life were teachers – those who worked with me to help me develop in ways that parents cannot (and, don’t get me wrong, I have awesome parents, but their lessons at times fell on deaf ears and my teachers and professors helped reinforce the lessons my parents tried to instill and fill in the cracks of development). I also thought I’d have the intellectual freedom to work on problems that were interesting – not just trying to get someone to give money to some initiative, which was becoming really boring, really fast. Unfortunately, I had bad timing - I was quite late in the application process but an opportunity opened up and I moved half way across the country to an area where I knew no one, making close to nothing, on the chance that I could pursue something I really enjoyed.

A doctoral program is not for the faint of heart, but it fit me to a “t.” I was constantly challenged and learning new things but also had quite a bit of freedom to jump into research on topics I enjoyed and working with students brought me a real sense of accomplishment that in some small way, I was helping people. Now as a professor, I cannot imagine a better job. I am rarely bored, and if I am, I can start a new project. I still have quite a few perks – my job has taken me around the world teaching and researching and my schedule is infinitely more flexible – when I do not have class or meetings, I am free to work on projects I enjoy on my own time. I don’t have that “punching a clock feeling” very often. Often, I work late in the night or even over weekends when I am so moved but at the same time, when I need a break or want to enjoy the good weather, I can leave the office with few exceptions. Sure, just like donors, there are some great students and some difficult ones – unlike donors, the difficult ones cycle out of my life at the end of the semester and the great ones, I have been able to form lasting relationships with. I really cannot imagine a career path that fits me better – I still love athletics and remain a “fanatic” but working on intellectually challenging projects and helping students along the pathway of life is much more meaningful to me.