Don’t wait until you need a job to dig into your alumni network. Leveraging your school’s alumni network early on is a great way to discover the right on-campus experience for you. Successful alumni have already had their first entry-level jobs, their first promotions, and, for the most part, are established on a career path. Often, they can pinpoint the experience in college that ignited their interest for a particular field or gave them a leg-up when it came time to enter the job market. 

Hands-on Learning Success Stories

We interviewed 97 alumni while putting together the new edition of Colleges That Create Futures and asked graduates about ways their campus experiences shaped their career trajectories. Check out these excerpts from the book to find out what alumni had to say about making the most out of college.

1. Be Bold

Taylor Mobley, a 2016 communications graduate from Trinity University, highlighted specific experiences with TigerTV, Trinity's completely student-run campus television station and an internship with the Admissions Office. She explained how these opportunities in tandem helped to shape her career and land her a job:

I received my internship (and eventually my job) at WOAI/KABB due to my internship in the Admissions Office. Trinity had secured a 4-minute segment for one of the admissions counselors to promote the upcoming college fair [on the local station]. The counselor who was selected to do the segment was horribly shy and asked me to join her. The segment went well and afterwards, I emailed the station expressing my thanks and asked for details on any internship or shadowing opportunities that were available. I received a response almost immediately from a lady on the web team who was a Trinity grad herself! I was offered the lifestyle internship that ultimately made me a perfect fit for the Associate Producer position that I started three days after graduation.”

A three-day weekend between college and career is certainly something to brag about, but, according to Taylor, her new position wasn’t just because of one big break. “I feel the professional and ‘learn by doing’ atmosphere that Trinity promotes has shaped my career trajectory as well. Our TigerTV station was entirely student run and truly allowed us to be creative and proactive in our show’s weekly success."

2. Try Something New

Duke University alumna Allison Donnelly credits a series of Stanback Internships, funded by Duke alumni Fred and Alice Stanback, at three non-profits organizations with inspiring the deep sense of purpose she puts into her career as an Energy Consultant. She told us:

I learned and matured so much from the experience of working in an office and having interact with people in the real world. I planned events, met members of Congress on Capitol Hill, provided original research, and wrote reports, briefs, and memos. Perhaps more importantly, I got experience with the intangibles that really affect your ability to be successful in managing all of the work you want to do: scheduling and planning out projects, figuring out how to prioritize and say ‘No’ if I really didn’t have time, public speaking, writing to be understood (rather than filling a page count), working within a team, communication with partners/clients….The list goes on.

She also acknowledged what many graduates have to come to terms with about their areas of study. “I came to Duke knowing exactly what major I wanted to study and that’s what’s on my diploma. It may not seem like it changed much, but environmental science is a huge field.” According to Allison, these internships helped her “hone in on what issues I cared most about (and which ones brought out my inner nerd), which ones I thought my strengths and weaknesses were best suited to, and which ones were moving, i.e. where I thought I could have an impact. She explained, "I went from wanting to be a climate scientist to being a researcher at a nonprofit to a lobbyist to knowing that if I wanted to write policy, I needed to know how policy impacted business. This is how I ended up wanting to help remake the electricity sector and design the utility of the future in my current role."

3. Reflect on What You've Accomplished

Stevens Institute of Technology graduate Alison Montufar reminded us, "You’re working on your soft skills every year, but you don’t necessarily know you are! You may not take a class called 'Presenting,' but presentation skills are integrated into all of your courses. You may not even notice it’s a skill you’re learning!" Alison pointed to the Senior Capstone Projects at Stevens, in which students complete a major design project, as an example of the value of reflection.

My senior design course—the solar decathlon—was a two year project. We ran into a lot of issues and problems, and I really learned how to work through that. Anyone can learn math calculations and science information, but being able to get that information across within a group and have it be successful and optimized is another skill.    

Alison added that communication is a skill she leans on heavily in her current role as a Senior Engineer at ExxonMobil. "It’s something I was able to learn from school," she says "not only the technical work, but also to interface with different types of people of different experiences: mechanics, electricians, bosses, technical experts, and still be able to get my point across."

4. Find Your People

Computer science alumnus Tad Hunt, who nows works as a Technical Lead and Manager for Google, raved about the special-interest house system at his alma mater, Rochester Institute of Technology. Seven self-governing houses at RIT offer a specific academic focus to residence-hall life and run the gamut from art to engineering. In fact, Tad told us, “I believe that I learned an equal amount in the classroom as I did at Computer Science House.” Tad, who graduated in 1997, described the CSH as a place where all of his experience at RIT and beyond came together to through collaborative work he did at CSH.

Putting together everything I learned in my computer science classes and with hands-on programming experience from classwork, co-op, and CSH projects, together with a group of like minded CSHers, we created a distributed virtual reality system called VR/LSD which we demonstrated at SIGGRAPH 1995. 

Experiences like these, Tad explains, helped shape his career trajectory. “It prepared me to land my first job out of college working at Bell Labs, for the folks that invented Unix, C, and a plethora of other influential underpinnings of the modern technology era, where I continued (and continue to this day) to hone my skills with the help of some amazing mentors.”

5. Investigate Your Options

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.

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