From the time I was a kid, I knew that a career in art would be in my future. It wasn't until college that I had a concrete idea of how exactly that would translate into actually making money! My first computer art class was like a revelation - I finally felt at home, marrying my intuitive grasp of technology with my love for all things creative. While in college, I learned a lot about the concepts of good design, and the basics of software packages. I wouldn't trade that foundation for anything, but to be honest, I think I learned more about actually making design work in the real world in my first two weeks on the job.
I was blessed to have an amazing mentor at my first job. She was committed to teaching me all the wealth of knowledge she acquired over the years she'd been in the business (from the days where they did things by hand and computers were just a glimmer in the distance!). I learned from her many of the things that, in my opinion, are what takes a project from a good concept to polished and professional.
My first job in graphics was in pre-press, which basically means I was the person at the printing company who got files from designers who needed things printed. I output their files to film for platemaking and had the VITAL experience in seeing how things translate from file to printed product first-hand. I also had the challenge of troubleshooting things that didn't output correctly, but in hindsight, that was a key part of my growth, in learning how to avoid those issues in my own work. Also, as it was a small company, I did more than just my job, so I gained experience in mailing, bindery & even helped the pressmen by stripping negatives and burning plates. Times have changed since then and so has technology, but that foundation is still a source of great insight.
Also of much benefit is my experience in a corporate marketing department, working my way up to Art Director. I learned a lot about what it's like being on the other side of the fence - being both the customer AND the designer. I did much of the design work, but with the scale and amount of work being done, we outsourced as well. I also broadened my experience in areas I'd never worked in, such as trade shows, events and conventions, Website content management systems (DNN), Powerpoint presentations and Word & Excel templates for forms & letters, Outlook signature templates, you name it...
I consider myself blessed to have the professional foundation that I have, and the freedom to freelance, to form lasting partnerships with many businesses to offer them in-house design experience with as-you-need-it freelance convenience.