With this year’s graduating class entering the job market in the middle of a national crisis, college and university career centers are stepping up by transitioning in-person services and events to virtual ones and creating new opportunities for career prep during these unprecedented times. Leaders from multiple departments at Beloit College in Wisconsin worked together to connect students and alumni through a new virtual mentoring program involving regular group meetups and individual conversations.
Called Beloiters Helping Beloiters, the program went from concept to implementation in less than one month, says President Scott Bierman.
“Like so many other things that are really good ideas, this one came from students,” he explains. In a conversation during a career preparedness class for seniors, students asked if there was a way to connect more readily, in the moment, to alumni. The faculty member, also the college’s first Executive in Residence, “spent time to more deeply understand what students might be interested in. It was brought to college leadership and immediately embraced,” he says.
Forming the initiative
The Career and Community Engagement Center partnered with the Executive in Residence, an alum, to develop the program—with support and encouragement from the provost’s office, development and alumni relations, and the alumni board.
President Bierman wrote to seniors to encourage participation, and about one-third of them, around 100 students, signed up initially. The call for help went out to alumni, and there are currently more alumni volunteers than students to pair them with. The 150+ alumni work at high-profile tech firms and major healthcare organizations, as well as in the entertainment industry, among other fields.
“What we’re hearing from students in early stages of their participating is that it’s an amazing resource for them,” Bierman says.
While COVID prompted leaders to initiate the program, he says it’s “exactly the direction we hoped our [existing] Career Channels program would go to. Now we’re six months ahead.”
“This is a moment where you can really benefit your recent graduates and provide a giant step forward in what you want to be providing to continuing students,” he adds.
The networking experience
In the past, connecting with alumni involved a visit to the career center and assistance in finding compatible alumni. “Small colleges can do some things that would be more challenging for larger universities,” Bierman says. “We know our students well and we know our alumni well. We’re able to curate these relationships in an individualized way.”
Beloiters Helping Beloiters goes beyond having an office available to help when students take the initiative. “We consciously sought out alumni across different generations, with some more weight on young alumni or people who came into the job market throughout the 2008 recession,” Bierman says. Such alumni may not have applied to first jobs through a pandemic, but they know what it’s like to be launching a career in a time with few opportunities.
Groups meet weekly, and individual sessions are scheduled at a mutually convenient time for once or twice a week in the early stages.
The career center director provides prompts for group meetups, helping the alumni know where current students are in their thinking. “The director is the primary resource for helping to translate between alumni and students,” Bierman says.
Some conversations require homework. For example, one student was asked to go through the alum’s LinkedIn connections and share which sounded most interesting.
The Executive in Residence, meanwhile, is reaching out to alumni for feedback on their experiences in the program.
Perspective for other higher ed institutions
In Bierman’s view, the alumni networking program lies “smack dab in the middle of what every career center is trying to accomplish and smack dab in the middle of what every alumni relations program is trying to accomplish.”
He challenges other institutional leaders to think about the connection between graduating seniors and alumni in a programmatic way. “You’re going to find out in a heartbeat that the program is not hard to put together—and the alumni can take a ton of pressure off the staffing for your career center,” he says.
Participation is open to current students as well, who are struggling to find internships and summer jobs. The college is also offering them a virtual “field experience” online course this summer to help them get intentional about future plans.
But for seniors, of course, that future is today. “There is no question,” Bierman says, “that the pressures of the moment have focused the attention of the seniors on their job searches right now.”
Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of University Business.