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The push is on at college career centers: They work with students earlier and alumni decades later

Colleges have always been a direct pipeline to the world of work. But now, with more pressure to show the worth of a degree, college career centers are working with students from the time they enter and some continue to provide services for life to alumni in job transition.

Freshmen nursing majors Susan Younghyeon Kim (center) and Nadjulia Constant (right) get advice from Mary Agnes Ostick, assistant director of Villanova's health center, at a professional networking program at Villanova University.
Freshmen nursing majors Susan Younghyeon Kim (center) and Nadjulia Constant (right) get advice from Mary Agnes Ostick, assistant director of Villanova's health center, at a professional networking program at Villanova University.Read moreSusan Snyder

Two freshman nursing majors at Villanova neared Table 16, where Mary Agnes Ostick, a university health center administrator, waited.

“I’m Susan, and I’m from ...” one student began.

Ostick stopped her: "Wait, wait. ... When you’re interviewing, don’t just say, ‘I’m Susan.’ You want to give me your whole name.”

You’ve heard of speed dating. This was speed networking.

The nearly 100 nursing majors spent the next hour, moving from table to table in 10-minute increments, learning to network with Villanova staff and alumni. It’s part of the nursing college’s professional development program to prepare students for careers — from freshman year.

“This program puts the polish on the professional,” explained Ann Barrow McKenzie, director of college relations.

That’s something colleges are focusing on more as competition for jobs increases and schools are under pressure to show the worth of a degree.

Colleges are working with students earlier and even decades after graduation. They’re employing technologies to connect alumni with alumni and students with alumni. Their career centers are fostering relationships with employers, leading to internships and jobs.

“Colleges and universities are starting to understand how the nature of recruiting and career development is shifting,” said Kevin Grubb, executive director of Villanova’s center. “Competition is higher and fiercer. The way organizations think about hiring students is different. It is in its own right a skill to be developed.”

Alumni focus

Allison Iacullo, a 2006 Villanova graduate, tired of working in finance in New York City. She moved to the Jersey Shore and wanted to find something else. She worked in retail, graphic design, and finally on a golf course, where she coincidentally met the president of the board of directors of Villanova’s alumni association.

He suggested she call Villanova’s career center. Iacullo, 34, of Ocean Grove, hadn’t considered the school would help an alumna more than a decade later.

A career coach talked her through options and helped her figure out she’d be suited to a smaller company that liked her creativity and design skills and could utilize her finance knowledge. Through the center’s career management system, she found options. She’s now happily working for a retirement planning firm in Red Bank, N.J. — and telling fellow alumni about the career center.

“It’s free, and they can help you,” she says.

Some colleges, such as the University of Pennsylvania, provide career services for free to alumni for life. At Penn, which has nearly 300,000 alumni worldwide, 15 percent of the career center’s appointments last year involved alumni, said Barbara Hewitt, its executive director. About 90 percent of students use career services while at Penn, she said.

Muhlenberg College in Allentown in 2017 began sending career center employees to New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington (they’ve added Baltimore and Chicago) to meet with alumni. They offer advice on using LinkedIn, interview preparation, and career changes.

“We thought it was a nice way to showcase that this is a service we offer, and we’re going to come to you,” said Tom Dowd, executive director of career services.


More schools are creating closed networks linking alumni, staff, and students and spawning job opportunities, internships, and conversation. Villanova recently launched “Nova Network,” via the platform PeopleGrove. More than 14,000 have signed up, and a winter-break job-shadow program spontaneously grew out of it, with dozens of students paired with alumni in a cross section of industries.

Temple University is launching the same service this semester, calling it “The Owl Network.”

Some schools, including Villanova, are using “Handshake,” a national network of employers that post jobs and internships. Temple’s growing network features more than 4,000 employers, and over 16,000 jobs in about 60 industries. Penn’s featured more than 75,000 posted jobs in the last year.

Technology also has changed interviewing, and students are asking career centers for advice. Companies increasingly are sending questions via video and students must record answers and return them, Penn’s Hewitt said.

Greater campus presence

Temple University’s recently redesigned career center in Mitten Hall is an open, naturally lit space, with a professional development corner where students can print resumés or business cards or get a head shot for LinkedIn. In a computer lab, they can research employers. In interview rooms, they can meet with prospective employers. If they want guidance, career coaches offer 15-minute appointments for walk-ins and 30 minutes for scheduled visits.

“That’s actually one role that has grown in the past two years in response to the interest,” said Shannon Conklin, interim center director.

Colleges also have expanded programs to connect students with jobs. Villanova offers “Villanova on the Hill,” an immersive, weeklong job shadow pairing students with alumni working in Washington. “Villanova on Set” focuses on the entertainment industry in Los Angeles and “Villanova in the Valley” is based in Silicon Valley.

But perhaps no college has been as focused on career as Drexel University. Drexel is known for its nearly 100-year old co-op program that places most students in three six-month job experiences during the time they attend. The university recently expanded its international co-ops and now places more than 200 students annually in work experiences abroad.

“Career preparation and the co-op program are really the cornerstone of a Drexel education,” said Ian Sladen, vice president of cooperative education and career development at Steinbright Career Development Center.

Freshmen first

As the stakes increase, colleges are working on career preparation from the start. Temple has “ramped up” its presence at freshman orientation. Drexel created a freshman career adviser position.

At Villlanova’s networking session last month, nursing students learned to avoid the limp-fish handshake and how to introduce one colleague to another.

“The person of higher rank gets introduced first,” explained Anne Fink, assistant dean.

Susan Younghyeon Kim, the freshman from Bergen County, N.J., who learned to give her full name when meeting someone new, found the event useful.

“This is helping me to get into that level where I can interact with other VIPs and open up my career path,” she said.