Students begin to see fruits of three-year career services overhaul

Media Credit: Dan Rich | Hatchet Photographer

Career Coach Toy Draine, left, helps junior Alexis Chandler review her resume and plan out a job search strategy at GW's Center for Career Services. More specialized career advisers and better communication with students has led to a rise in the number of students using the office.

When senior Danielle Noel received an email from GW’s career center offering her the chance to travel to Manhattan in a professional networking blitz, she said she knew she had to apply.

Noel, a senior majoring in political communication, said working in New York City is her “life goal.” Now, she is one of 43 students who will travel to New York with GW for the first-ever Career Quest, made possible by the largest donation that the Center for Career Services has seen in its history. But officials say the program is just one of many that have rolled out across campus since the University began overhauling career services in 2012.

That three-year transition is now mostly complete. And students and officials say the shake up has paid off.

“We started to invest in resources, and you start to see the return,” Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski said.

Konwerski said increased specialization in career advisers and more communication between career services and undergraduates has drawn students to use the office more frequently. More students attended last month’s career fair than ever before, he said.

He added that the overhaul came from the top-down: It started from a push by Board of Trustees members and Provost Steven Lerman.

“It’s a combination of more people doing that and more specialization is definitely helping students realize they can see their career coach then go and see the employer relations person and figure out what is it they want to do and see what kinds of jobs are out there,” Konwerski said.

Money flows in
Through trustee Mark Shenkman’s $5 million gift – announced last May – juniors, seniors and graduate students had the chance to apply to participate in Career Quest, a networking trek to New York City with GW alumni, faculty and career coaches. Forty-three students were selected to go on the two-day trip over spring break. They will meet with employers like CBS Interactive, American Red Cross and Harper Collins.

While GW has offered a similar program for students in the business school before, this trip marks the first time the networking opportunity has expanded to non-business majors.

The Shenkman gift will also go toward Operation GW VALOR, a program that looks to assist student veterans in translating military skills to the workforce. The donation will bring a digital mock interview and virtual career-coaching space to Colonial Crossroads, as well as go toward resources for international students.

Students on Career Quest will focus on learning about businesses without the pressure of being considered for a job, said assistant professor of media and public affairs Imani Cheers, who is a faculty guide on the trip’s media track.

“The trip is an opportunity for students to see the inner-workings of businesses, not to get jobs,” Cheers said. “They aren’t walking away with job offers, but it’s a great way to go somewhere like CBS Interactive and see if that’s the kind of work environment that would be appealing.”

Josephine Hill, a senior majoring in communication, found out about Career Quest through GWork, an online portal that lists job and internship opportunities. She will visit media-related businesses as part of a group focused on print and broadcast media. Other tracks will connect with advertising, service and sustainability companies.

Hill now interns in digital crisis communications at Edelman, a public relations firm in D.C., but said she knows she wants to work in New York after graduation. As a senior about to graduate, she said she is “constantly” in search of a job, and that she hopes this “informational experience” will help her land a full-time position.

“This provides us with contacts in New York through GW, and GW has such a strong community in New York, so it’s super ideal,” Hill said.

Before the trip, students are paired with alumni who work in the city through the Alumni Association.

Hannah Dannenfeldt, a senior majoring in international affairs, said her adviser has given her tips on how to strengthen her resume and told her about potential career and internship opportunities. They have met once in person and spoke once over the phone in the past month.

“She stressed branching out from what I’m familiar with, unique paths that might not be typical international affairs careers,” Dannenfeldt said, adding that she will visit companies with a focus on public service.

The New York area has the second-largest concentration of alumni, after the District. Alumni in both New York and D.C. have volunteered as advisers for the trip.

The Career Quest and Operation GW VALOR program aren’t the only areas recently lifted by an influx in donations. In 2013, GW began fundraising specifically for its unpaid internship scholarship program, the Knowledge in Action Career Internship Fund, which helps students afford taking unpaid internships.

Part of Shenkman’s gift also went toward that program, though it has also received donations from parents and students, Assistant Provost for University Career Services Rachel Brown said.

Brown added that the University has recently publicized the Knowledge in Action Career Internship Fund to donors through videos highlighting the grant’s recipients. GW has given 140 grants to students interning so far.

“Students share their internship stories and the impact these internships have had on their personal and professional development. This demonstrates the value of the program in an invaluable way,” Brown said.

And while the University’s budget has seen crunches across departments — and just three GW departments not including career services were granted budget increases this year — officials point to the commitment to enhancing career services as a pillar of its decade-long strategic plan.

The blueprint, approved in 2012, laid out increasing career services’ budget to $2 million each year to finance the overhaul, which means it would see a decade-long investment of an additional $20 million.

A focus on employer development
The center’s restructuring included hiring career coaches who have experience in specific professional areas, the launch of a University-wide career services council in 2011 – consisting of faculty, staff and students – employer relations development, and a heavier focus on international and veteran students, Brown said.

The Center for Career Services has teamed up faculty and students across campus to join the Career Services Council, which is especially focused on international students, Brown said. The council has connected students this year with employers including MGM International, Amazon, Facebook, Gilbane and Sojitz Corporation, she added.

Brown said the Center for Career Service’s primary goal for the year is to “enhance student engagement with career services, starting at freshman year.” Career Services sent postcards to every incoming freshman’s home last August before classes began and increased outreach efforts within first-year residence halls.

This year, the employer development program has brought employers into classrooms. Professors invited the Children’s National Medical Hospital to the School of Nursing’s capstone class on the Virginia Science and Technology campus, and representatives from e-commerce giant Amazon visited a few GW School of Business career management strategy classes, career services’ managing director for employer services Staci Fowler said.

The center’s employer development program, led by Fowler, identifies new and existing employers in public, private and nonprofit sectors, and develops and maintains relationships with them.

Career services officials had previously said they wanted to complete the hiring aspects of the overhaul by 2015.

While the job market is better for recent college graduates compared to when the career services overhaul began, a healthy market should not change the emphasis on career building at universities, said Mike Cahill, the director of career services at Syracuse University.

“When jobs are easier to attain, people invest less in getting a job and they end up in a job they aren’t well suited for and find themselves looking for another job a year later,” Cahill said. “It’s counterintuitive, but when it’s easy to get a job, they don’t work as hard on it.”

Syracuse has general career advisers, but officials are considering the switch to specialized advisers like GW’s, Cahill said. At Syracuse, a central career counseling office works alongside career specialists within each school.

“You have to have a big enough staff to be able to do what GW did,” he said. “Good career services will start before students come through, to completion and beyond.”

Ryan Lasker contributed reporting.

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