Don’t wait until you need a job to dig into your alumni network. The best time to reach out to a grad in your field of interest is your first- or second-year in college.

Hands-on Learning Success Stories

Why? The successful grads in your network have had their first entry-level jobs, their first promotions, and for the most part, are established on a career path. They can often pinpoint the experience in college that ignited their passion or gave them a leg-up when it came time to enter the job market. Ask alumni in your network what kinds of things they were involved with on campus. Did they volunteer with a local organization? Have an on-campus job? Assist a professor with a research project?

We interviewed 84 alumni while putting together our list of fifty Colleges That Create Futures and asked graduates about ways their campus experiences shaped (or didn’t shape) their career trajectories. Here’s what five alums had to say about how to make the most of your college experience.

Be Bold

University of Dayton graduate Ann Hudock is a senior Vice President of International Programs at Plan International USA, a global organization that works with communities in fifty developing countries to eradicate poverty. But it wasn’t until she got to campus that she discovered through coursework that there was a career path that could combine service and learning. She told us, “My sociology professor brought in a guest speaker Frances Moore Lappé who had written Diet for a Small Planet and had been so influential in a lot of people’s thinking. When I met her, it showed me a role model of someone who was in international development. Until then, I didn’t even have a language for the career track I wanted to have and that sort of crystalized it.”

Hudock, who edited for the school newspaper, describes one formative encounter from her sophomore year. At a breakfast for student leaders on campus, the president of the university, Brother Raymond Fitz S.M., turned to Hudock and asked a fairly routine question: What do you want to do after graduation? Hudock explained:

I told him that I wanted to go to Sierra Leone, and I wanted him to send me. He was pretty floored. But through a couple years of conversations, networking, and lots of arrangements we worked it out. University of Dayton funded me the airfare and gave me a living stipend. Then they connected me to a Dayton Peace Corps volunteer who had just come back from years working in Sierra Leone with the Catholic Relief Services, and he connected me with a local NGO I could volunteer with. That was the life-changing event that happened for me. And I think it happened because I was involved with the student paper and because UD had a President who really took an interest in getting out there and talking to students and then being open to really cultivating students’ potential in all sorts of ways.

Hudock used her experience in Sierra Leone to establish an immersive program at the University of Dayton for students immediately following their senior years. “I wasn’t just having my own experiences and developing my own skills,” she said. “I was connected to something much bigger.”

Be Persistent

Christina Catanese, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, saw herself as equal parts scientist and artist and pursued those two prongs of her identity separately in college. She studied both environmental and political science, researched in the rain forests of Puerto Rico, and traveled to Cameroon to help build a rural water supply system with the campus chapter of Engineers Without Borders all while maintaining a major commitment to Penn Dance Company, a student-run modern dance group. From graduate school to a stint in digital communications for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to her current position, this young alumna explains the effect Penn has had on her overall career trajectory, thus far:

Having a liberal arts education along with science training and the opportunity for leadership and creative pursuits prepared me exactly for what would come in my career. While doing communications work at EPA, I realized that I could combine my love and knowledge of both ecology and art to educate and inspire people to change their perspective and behavior on environmental issues. I now work at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, a 340-acre nature center in Northwest Philadelphia, where I run the environmental art program. I finally found a way to bring my science and creative sides together! Everything I did at Penn informed this trajectory and prepared me for where I am now. I even took an arts management class through Wharton which I draw from regularly in my job.

Uncover New Talents

Strategy Consultant Cara Petonic, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College who now specializes in higher education, says her younger self would never have believed that she would become a math major: “I was never a standout in mathematics prior to college, and did not see it as an academic major option for me.” But Bryn Mawr's liberals arts curriculum led her to the mathetmatics department, where she found herself  impressed by how her professors went out of their way to prevent “the fear of there being only one correct pathway to a solution,” rather, they let students know that "there may be a number of different ways to arrive at an answer." Petonic’s research experiences, including a senior thesis on knot theory, gave her the opportunity “to stand side by side with my professor, face difficult questions, and tackle them together.” She told us:

I still have a photo of the giant partite graph that my thesis advisor and I drew on the chalkboard of his office, complete with a 'DO NOT ERASE' sign. Gaining confidence in a subject where I did not have interest prior was such a shift that I am still amazed by it. . . . I first went into finance right after college without any formal experience. I had taken two economics courses, and I was a pure mathematician by training; however, I leveraged the lifelong skills I gained at Bryn Mawr to overcome the challenge of a steep learning curve.

Petonic added that her entire liberal arts experience, including her thesis project and minor in Dance, helped her develop skills such as analytical and critical thinking, logic, and reasoning that equipped her to succeed later in business school and today in her career.

Find Your People

Robert P. Akins and Richard L. Sandstrom, co-founders of Cymer, a high-tech semi-conductor equipment company, first connected on the University of California, San Diego campus (both received their BAs and PhDs from UC San Diego). Sandstrom told us, “I had always known I’d go into technology and the physical sciences, so my college experiences didn’t so much define my trajectory as fill it out and add color.” Both Sandstrom and Akins worked for professors (in the Engineering and Physics departments, respectively) and spent time at the UC San Diego machine shops, building the experience that would later become invaluable when designing real-world manufacturing equipment. Another invaluable experience? According to Akins, “Meeting professors and fellow students who would play a role in my professional life." Akins explains:

Throughout my long student experience at UC San Diego, I also met many individuals who worked in the school’s infrastructure. When starting Cymer in 1985, the UC San Diego Upper Campus Machine Shop made many of the critical components of our laser prototypes and held back the invoices until we were able to raise venture capital financing. So in many real ways, UC San Diego was our 'angel' investor!

Akins and Sandstrom told us that Cymer has hired over 100 UC San Diego graduates and typically have over twenty UC San Diego students interning at Cymer for any given year. Sandstrom adds, “We maintain many contacts with professors, so that we can get first dibs on the best students!”

Our Advice

We’ve talked to graduates who are entrepreneurs, business owners, politicians, writers and editors, scientists and engineers, consultants, doctors, and lawyers, and one thing is clear: College is what you make of it. If you want to hunker down and concentrate on your subject, you can do it there. If you want to try on internships in different fields—in social work one summer and in business the next—most schools will help you find the right internship programs. The opportunities are there, but you need to take the first step. Leveraging your school’s alumni network is a great way to discover the right on-campus experience for you.