STORY BY HOLLY HARRISON + ART BY MARIE KETRING
When you talk to Irene Fernando, it’s impossible not to get pulled into her orbit. She has this big personality teeming with wit and sass, and just sharing a room with her is addicting—so it’s no wonder that people turn to Irene for wisdom and mentorship. (That, and she gives really great advice.)
Irene is most well-known for her work as co-founder and co-executive director of Students Today Leaders Forever (STLF), a nonprofit that places college students in volunteer opportunities across the country during spring break. Their first-ever Pay It Forward tour was in 2004, and forty-three college students participated. Since then, they’ve expanded to include hundreds of high schools and middle schools, bringing tens of thousands of students on tours every year and contributing hundreds of thousands of service hours all across the United States.
Irene and her co-founders intentionally planned themselves out of jobs, and after Irene stepped down in 2014 she went on a four-month sabbatical to center herself and find her way to what she wanted to do next. Here are some of the mantras that guided her along her way.
“The way our society speaks about career transitions tends to be in a void mentality, in a scarcity mentality. It creates shame, and not only is it not productive, it’s just not decent.”
At STLF, Irene and her co-founders instituted some of the toughest concepts from their textbook courses into their business model, including a predictable succession plan. She knew that she’d be out of a job in 2014, and she knew that she wanted to take a break afterward. Even though there was preparation and choice in the matter, Irene was met with everything from confusion to discomfort to judgment when discussing her career transition with others.
“Transition is all around us in nature. Seasons change; birds rotate leaders. There’s a system for it. It’s expected. Sometimes it’s not always welcome, sometimes it’s not always exciting, but it’s a part of life,” Irene explains. “Thinking about career transition as a deficit is so fricking American. If we were to reverse that mentality and think about unemployment and career transition as a positive, as a given, then I believe everybody would win.”
“Our society has forgotten what is required for change. That longevity is required. People can only be in it in the long haul if they allow themselves breaks.”
Work stress shaves years off our lives. It’s been proven. And for every self-care article that tells you to sleep more and exercise more and live more, there’s another last-minute email from a co-worker that prevents you from doing just that. “A lot of what we’ve accomplished as a society in the last several decades has been in efficiency and productivity…at a very significant trade-off,” Irene says.
Instead of treating gaps in resumes as black marks, Irene wants to see them as intentional and celebrated. “If I’m doing a job for you and looking for a new job, my ability to do your job well is just not high. Let’s build transition, sabbaticals, reflection into the model. And as a society, we need to stop acting like taking a break cancels out previous success. Accomplishments don’t expire.”
“Oftentimes, people aren’t making decisions in their personal place of strength. We make decisions that won’t limit our careers instead of making decisions that might expand our careers.”
Think about some of the choices you’ve made about your work life. Did you make them while you were stressed, while you were backed against a wall? Being in the position to make a career decision based on anything but financial necessity is a fortunate one. But regardless of your circumstances, try to make these choices when you are centered and whole.
“Playing to win means physically getting yourself to your personal space of strength before making decisions. Even if you can’t get to 100% strength prior to making decisions, a little zooming out goes a long way,” Irene says. “If you haven’t identified your personal place of strength, then step one: identify it. And it doesn’t have to be anything that’s also productive.”
Where is Irene centered? “When I’m in a hammock looking at a blue sky and clouds, I just feel differently. Literally, five minutes of lying in a hammock continuously and I feel differently. So I prioritize lying down and looking at the sky. That is a priority for me.” She’s doubled-down on this, actually: she has a hammock inside her house and five hammocks that go outside the house. “Oh yeah,” she adds, “it’s very excessive.”
“I feel a responsibility and I feel compelled to succeed because I’ve been afforded incredible opportunities. My story is the story of thousands of heard and unheard voices.”
Career-wise, Irene started out with a bang. She co-founded a nonprofit while she was still in college, grew it, and was able to hire herself when she graduated. When asked if she feels pressured to keep achieving bigger, better, more astounding things, her answer is not quite.
“I want to do right by my opportunities,” Irene says. “The successes that I have achieved so far are incredible, but they’re minuscule compared to the successes that immigrants, like my parents, and people from many backgrounds achieve on a daily basis. First and foremost, I want to do right by the risk my parents took in order to provide me the opportunities that I have.”
Irene knows where she lacks privilege and where she has it, and she keeps that in focus as she navigates her life and career. “Privilege tends to be attached to white privilege. And while white privilege is definitely a thing, I believe all of us have privileges, including myself. Especially compared to the life that my first cousins have in the Philippines. I get the opportunity to dream about things in a way that is so monumentally different that I must—in order to have any alignment or integrity with my values—I must proceed with care and responsibility. The care that these opportunities deserve.”
“Take any concept—even big ones that might seem out of reach, like a sabbatical—and practice small. These concepts, just like muscles, need to be practiced. Start small. Listen to yourself.”
Taking a sabbatical was a life-changer for Irene, and she plans to take another. But going weeks or months without work isn’t viable—financially, emotionally, or otherwise—for a lot of people. So, what’s the compromise? Practice smaller.
Irene started exercising her sabbatical muscles long before her time at STLF was up. “In 2010, my lifestyle and work choices were putting my personal health and the health of my close relationships at great risk. Something needed to change. So I started doing tech-free time: TFT. Nothing major—I just started with airplane mode. Turn my phone on airplane mode during meetings, because why the hell is it on anyways, and during meals. That’s where it started. Then it became one night a week, during one weekday, I challenged myself to not have my phone in my pocket. Then it was over the weekend, I was to leave the house without my phone. Then it was a week vacation, then a two week vacation, then it was a three week vacation. After two years of practicing TFT, I took a month off.”
Buzzing cell phones are a familiar villain, but tech-free time might not be where you need to practice smaller. Find the area you need to correct for, then give yourself a little break (with room to grow).
Irene was just seventeen when she dreamed up Students Today Leaders Forever, and she’s been spitting smart advice and subversive ideas ever since. Today, Irene is the senior new business development specialist at Thrivent Financial, leading a team that is starting up a brand new division in the 113-year-old company. “What it took me five years to do at STLF, I have to do in like three months with about four times the impact at Thrivent,” Irene says. “NBD.”
Just a year into her job at Thrivent, it’s hard to say what’s next in her career. But Irene knows this much:
“I need to be relentless in my pursuit. I need to be passionate. I need to make sure my heart stays above my ambition. Or is at least equal to it.”