Alumni Program Bridges Gaps: Students network with experienced mentors

By Emily Blackner
Elm Staff Writer

Washington College now has a mentoring program pairing students with alumni in their field of career interest to provide more opportunities for career preparation.

“The Student/Alumni Mentoring program is a collaborative project between the College’s Alumni Relations Office and the Center for Career Development,” said Vicky Sawyer, Assistant Director of the Career Center. “Our goal was simply to make it easier for students to have an ongoing relationship with mentors to learn the expectations of career fields and to support opportunities for them to develop professional skills.”

The program began last year with input from several WC offices. “Charlie Athey, chair of the Alumni Relations Committee and Carolyn Thompson, Assistant Alumni Relations Director, met with the Career Center staff to discuss ways to bring students and alumni together,” Sawyer said. “We in Career Services often get requests from students for names of alumni in different career fields. Carolyn, an alumna herself, and the alumni relations committee were eager to find ways to engage alumni more directly with students. The student/alumni mentoring idea is a good way to do just that. It began as a pilot program last spring semester to see how it would work and how students interacted with the alumni, if they felt confident,” she said.

In addition to alumni engagement, the program offers students the chance to learn about real working environments. Senior Rachel Dittman, a participant in this year’s program, said, “It’s a great way to meet someone who works in your career field of choice and it gives you the opportunity to ask questions about that specific career and get an insider’s honest perspective, something that you may not get anywhere else.”

According to Sawyer, there are many other benefits. “Students benefit because they learn and gain confidence for building professional relationships. Also, it helps them to understand what other occupations are in a general field. Everyone tends to be a bit narrow in their focus but this program helps to broaden the scope,” she said.
The student/alumni mentoring program pairs students with an alumni in their field of interest. “My interest is in marketing and advertising, so I was matched up with J. Andrew Stein who works in digital marketing in Philadelphia,” said Dittman. “I was given his contact information and resume; from there, we correspond through email and Facebook and have talked over the phone a couple of times.”

These correspondences with the alumni mentor are a vital part of the program. “It’s important to have an actual conversation with the mentors,” Sawyer said. “Throughout spring semester the student mentee’s obligation is to have a minimum of four contacts with the alumni mentor. The contacts are primarily via email and telephone. When possible a face-to-face contact is encouraged.”

Scheduling issues can sometimes make this difficult to achieve. “Sometimes finding a time to get in touch and talk with my mentor was a little difficult due to the fact that we both have very hectic schedules,” Dittman said. “But in the end, we always found time to have discussions, even if for a brief period of time, and my questions have always been answered and the conversations lively.”

Sawyer and Thompson have taken steps to make this easier for students.
“Students get very busy in spring semester, especially in April,” Sawyer said. “We learned we need to give the students more time within the academic year to fit the meetings into their schedule. This year we started in October, giving students winter break to make their initial contacts.”

This year’s program is different from the pilot in other ways as well.
“We started off thinking we’d limit this year’s program eight students, but with enthusiastic alumni response now have 11 student participants, double the pilot program. We are pleased with the response but have to be aware of the numbers we can manage,” said Sawyer.

The longer time frame provided also gives students more opportunity to build a strong relationship with their mentor. The process begins in late October when the Career Center makes applications available to interested students. Then, those who are accepted attend an information session.

“Students submit their applications and are asked a variety of questions, including ‘what is your career interest or goal?’” Sawyer said. “Carolyn tries to match them with alumni in their fields of interest. Then, students attend an orientation session, because it’s a learning process. At the orientation program Carolyn and I meet with students to give them information about their mentor match and to discuss how to contact them, first via email to set up a time for a phone call.”

The mentoring program has helped Pittman gain confidence about her career prospects.

“Andrew has also been a really great networking tool for me. Getting into the advertising business can be a little tricky sometimes, but with him saying he will send my resume to people he knows in the industry really boosts my chances of being hired for a job, as well as boosts my confidence,” she said.

He has also been good at recommending tips for “building a resume and further investigating the opportunities for the career of choice.”

“Students learn from their mentors what they need to know for the work world, and it’s more than just the specific skills for that one job, it is about communicating and making connections,” Sawyer said. “One’s professional success depends on the ability to build and maintain relationships. It is essential for success in the workplace.”

The alumni benefit from the mentoring program as well.

“We have a lot of alumni who are eager to help students, and for the most part they are very eager to participate and are so happy to have been asked. This is all on a volunteer basis for the alumni. They’re not paid,” said Sawyer.

This mentoring program has been successful so far, but there is still room for improvement.

“The next step is to see the program growing to include more academic departments,” said Sawyer. “Lots of professors do this, just not in as formal a way. So we are looking to explore those opportunities.”

Dittman appreciates the opportunity to participate in this program.

“My favorite part is being able to talk to someone who was educated within the same institution and has a career in a field of the same interest,” she said. “I highly recommend this program to other students. It is very beneficial, and the little bit of patience that may be needed is definitely worth it.”

March 11, 2011
Volume LXXXI Issue 18

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