Sophomores are not usually the population one thinks of as needing career mentoring, but Stacy Bingham, director of the Career Development Office, says they ought to be. And so it was at Sophomore Career Connections: Linking Liberal Arts to the World of Work, held January 23-25. More than 150 sophomores came back early from Winter Break and about 50 alumnae/i and parents from 15 different industries took the time to provide information, mentoring, and advice.
Sophomores have a lot of decisions to make and will benefit from the guidance of others who have had the similar experience, Bingham says. “Sophomores are on the cusp of so many decisions: what to major in, whether they want to study abroad next year, and how all of these pieces—sometimes seemingly disparate—fit together,” she says.
Attorney Brian Farkas ’10, who served on a young alumnae/i panel and in a cluster on law, agrees. Engaging sophomores and encouraging them to think about their professional future is ideal, Farkas says, because they still have two years to plan internships and field work and test-run possible careers. “It’s crucial that all of the career-related programs begin way before senior year,” he contends. “Students need to start figuring out what industries they might want to be in in order to figure out what internships they should get. Not just to figure out what they love but to figure out what they dislike.”
Career Connections attendees listened to keynote speaker Tara Pyle ’06, marketing director at L’Oréal USA, who talked about effective networking, self-promotion, and creating themselves as a unique brand. The weekend continued with panels, workshops, gatherings, one-on-one discussions, and a workshop on jumpstarting the internship search. Industry-specific panels took place, each with alumnae/i experts providing information and answering students’ questions. Sophomores could sign up to attend up to three panels. In addition to fun offerings such as raffles for industry-related books, internship search survival kits, and a year's supply of peanut butter (courtesy of Lee Zalben '95, founder and president of Peanut Butter and Co.), the event also offered free professioonal photos for students to begin creating LinkedIn profiles.
“The students enjoyed not only the opportunity to hear from the mentors during the industry cluster sections but also the opportunity to have meals with them and talk less formally about themselves,” Bingham says. “Many of the student participants have taken our advice and are following up with the alumnae/i mentors with email correspondence and LinkedIn requests.”
A pilot program, Career Connections was born out of a collaboration between the Office of Alumnae/i Affairs and Development and the Career Development Office.
Karen Smythe ’82, an AAVC trustee, recalls the difficulty in navigating the connection between college and the working world. “I remember my own experience of figuring out what I wanted to do and being in a little bit of a fog,” Smythe says.
Farkas, who is president of the Vassar Club of New York, says the students were as remarkable as the program. “I was really impressed. The students had read everyone’s bios and came prepared to take advantage of the people who were there to help them,” he says.
A professor of microbiology and immunobiology at Harvard Medical School, Michael Starnbach ’87 says he always enjoys speaking with Vassar students, whether as a mentor or during one of his guest speaker events on campus. “It’s great to be able to talk with them about their future and what they want to do later in their careers, and to propose options for them that they may not have even thought of,” he says.
An extraordinary aspect of Career Connections was the breadth and depth of expertise possessed by Vassar alumnae/i and parents, says Aletheia Higgins ’08, a special education teacher in New York. “It’s the first time I’ve ever been in a space like that,” she says. “It was such a wide range of people from different fields. There seemed to be a commonality that was special.”
Farkas met a sophomore who is interested in international law and they’re still in touch. “We had a lot of conversations over the course of the weekend and we’ve been emailing since then. I’m hoping to connect her with some friends I have who may be potentially helpful,” he says.
There are three students with whom Higgins has stayed in contact—one for a referral to another Vassar alumna who works in special education and two who would like to stay in touch with her socially.
Sophomore Claudia Carcamo says at first, she was a little intimidated by the alumnae/i at Career Connections—and even by the Career Development Office. That changed after she saw how down-to-earth the alumnae/i were and how all of them—including those outside her areas of interest—were friendly and welcoming.
“I thought it was great. There wasn’t much pressure when I was talking to the alumnae/i. It made me feel a lot more relaxed about networking,” she says.
Her new networking skills have already been put to good use. Carcamo recently applied for an internship at a pharmaceutical company, but the company gets so many applications, she says, that applicants need to know someone to get the attention of decision-makers.
“I thought maybe I should try reaching out through the Alumnae/i Directory and contacted someone who is actually in recruiting at this company,” Carcamo says. “He was able to take down my references and he was really excited about maybe helping my application get pushed through.”
That was certainly the spirit of the event.