Lighting the Way

The Walter Center for Career Achievement is connecting students with alumni mentors.

Anna Powell Teeter

The job market may be ever-changing, but most new graduates face at least one age-old constant: In order to get a job, they need experience. And, in order to get experience? They need to land a job. Worse yet, long before they can fully tackle that chicken-egg conundrum, students must settle on their majors and, somehow, suss out the right career trajectory, too.

“One of our guiding philosophies is that we want to make career planning and preparation an unavoidable part of the College of Arts and Sciences experience,” says Joe Lovejoy (B.A. ’07, English, Political Science), director of the College’s Walter Center for Career Achievement.

But how can the Walter Center best engage 10,000 undergraduates across multiple liberal arts disciplines?

“We are fortunate to have the size of the staff that we have, but even with 12 fully trained, full-time career coaches, the number of appointments that they would have to do every week during the academic year to meet with all of those students — the math just doesn't work out,” admits Tanner N. Terrell, who serves as the center’s senior associate director of operations and assessment. “We had to be creative with how we accomplish career services.”

A survey of students in the College of Arts and Sciences revealed many wanted to receive advice directly from alumni who were already working in their career fields of interest. As a result, Walter Center staff began building novel programs and services to connect students with College alumni working in a myriad of industries.

Building an online network

“Our students crave customized, relevant information that is directly related to their interests,” Lovejoy explains. “So, the work that we're doing is aligned heavily on alumni to provide career-related support for students.”

One of the newest initiatives includes the Walter Center Success Network, an online, searchable tool that enables students to seek out potential alumni mentors.

“If, at two o'clock in the morning, a student decides, 'I need to start thinking about my career, and I'd like to speak to alumni in New York City who work in public relations,' they can log onto this platform and find a link to 10 alumni who are doing just that,” Lovejoy says. “And these alumni have volunteered to speak with students. This online program facilitates that connection.”

Terrell, along with staff from the College’s Office of Advancement, initially worked to get a small sample of students and alumni engaged with a pilot of the concept.

“It really has been a team effort,” he says. “And, moving forward, this will be Amy Cornell's baby.” Cornell recently accepted a position as senior associate director of strategic alumni engagement at the Walter Center.

Nearly overnight, the team netted 60 alumni volunteers from a single academic department.

“And we have 80 departments in the College,” Lovejoy notes.

The Walter Center Success Network is an online, searchable tool that enables students to seek out potential alumni mentors. You can visit the Success Network's homepage here.

To date, more than 800 alumni have signed up to be available mentors within the Success Network, which officially launches this fall during Welcome Week. One such is alumnus Thom Patterson (B.A. '87, Journalism), who currently mentors multiple IU students. Based in Atlanta, Patterson currently works as a senior producer at CNN Digital.

“As I got older, I realized what a powerful part of my career my education was and how much I relied on my Indiana University experience for so much of what I do even at this late stage,” he says. “I want to repay the university for the experience that it gave me.” 

Patterson even recommended one of his recent mentees for an internship at CNN.

“He knew how to edit video, he also could write pretty well, and he knew how to take photographs,” Patterson recalls. “And then he was able to combine all three of those platforms into storytelling. He knew how to do all of those things and he hadn't even graduated yet. It was amazing to see.”

Liberal Arts Impact

In addition to his inclusion in the Success Network, Patterson has also participated in on-campus programming. To pull off original, career-focused events, the Walter Center collaborates with different academic departments.

“We bring in alumni from that discipline and do a discipline-specific alumni networking program,” Lovejoy says.

Among the Walter Center's most popular offerings? A series of panel discussions called Liberal Arts Impact, during which students meet eight to 10 successful alumni who forged disparate career paths — despite their shared academic majors. For instance, Terrell explains, “We had an event called Liberal Arts Impact: Philosophy which focused specifically on philosophy degrees. [The alumni] were using their philosophy degrees in all sorts of different ways.”

Additional Liberal Arts Impact events are planned for majors in English, religious studies, and sociology, among others.

Lovejoy describes the makeup of the two-hour-long panels: “Faculty have the opportunity to talk to students about the marketable nature of their discipline and about why they are personally passionate about it. Then, our alumni speak about how you can find career paths using their discipline and how they use the skills that they learned from their classes in their jobs every single day.”

Students listen to an alumni panel discussion during a recent You Majored in What? event.

Afterwards, students can ask specific questions such as, “How do I find an internship in this industry?” and “How do I build marketable experience?”

Currently a senior asylum officer for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Kathleen Tonkovich (B.A. ’08, Political Science, History) recently returned to IU to participate in a Liberal Arts Impact: History panel discussion.

“When I was in college, nothing like this was done for me,” she says. “I had professors who took an interest in me and helped me figure out a career path, but I know a lot of people who weren't that lucky.” Now, Tonkovich pays it forward. “I became very passionate about helping younger people,” she says.

Positive outcomes

Such generosity is paying off for the students IU alumni choose to mentor. Anna McCoy, a junior in the Media School, attended an alumni panel discussion and developed a key relationship as a result.

“There were four alumni there that are now successful in different media industries,” McCoy remembers. “One works at The New York Times. It was a very personalized experience. We had a really good discussion.”

One panelist, Colin Carter (B.A. ’81, Telecommunications), particularly stood out for McCoy.

“He started his own creative agency in Chicago,” she says. “I knew his information was on the Success Network, so I connected with him through that. We had a 30-minute phone call. He walked me through his experience and answered all of the questions I had about the industry and what I should be doing to prepare for internships.”

Carter also recommended industry-related websites, forums, and books for McCoy to read.

“That was all really helpful, and now I have a graphic design internship this summer at ColorJar, a branding agency in Chicago, because of conversations like that,” she says.

Since 2017, the Walter Center has also organized a day-long, conference-style event every spring.

“The Connect event was really created out of this idea that we need to do a better job of helping our students to connect the dots between a liberal arts discipline and having a meaningful, fulfilling career,” Lovejoy says. “We think the best messengers for that story are our alumni.”

A student browses alumni profiles during the College's Connect '19 event.

As such, 20 to 30 College alumni are invited back to campus to participate in topical sessions and interact with students during an informal networking lunch.

“We have really creative conversation topics that are related to current issues,” Lovejoy adds. “We did a couple of sessions on the 'Me, Too' movement. We did sessions on being a woman in business, sessions related to the environment and global warming, and we had a session on failure called 'Failing Up,' which included alumni who were willing to talk to students about times they screwed up, what they learned from it, and how they grew from those moments.”

Between launching the Success Network, facilitating one-on-one mentorships, and organizing live events like the Connect conference, the Walter Center’s efforts are being felt far and wide throughout the College and Indiana University.

“This practice of engaging our alumni and our entire College of Arts and Sciences community is really working,” Lovejoy says. “We now have a 94 percent outcome success rate.”

In other words? More than nine out of 10 College students are reaching their desired career outcomes within six months of graduating.

“We're really excited about the traction we're getting,” Lovejoy concludes. “We think our alumni are playing a huge part in that, and we're really excited to see those relationships grow.”

Susan M. Brackney

Susan M. Brackney holds a B.A. in English from Indiana University. A professional writer since 1995, she has written for Boy Scouts, stoners, interventional radiologists, would-be beekeepers, depressives, the one percent, and many other walks of life. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Discover, Organic Gardening, Hobby Farms, and Indianapolis Monthly Magazine, among others. Brackney is also a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and has published four nonfiction books, including Plan Bee: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Hardest-Working Creatures on the Planet. Reach her at writer@susanbrackney.com.