New pilot program trains seniors to leverage their liberal arts education to launch a career

Martina Rudolf ’14 (far left) is congratulated by Diane Y. Williams ’59 and Jim Berrien ’74 at a reception following the weeklong workshop.
Martina Rudolf ’14 (far left) is congratulated by Diane Y. Williams ’59 and Jim Berrien ’74 at a reception following the weeklong workshop.

It may only be a simulation, but Dan Reardon ’14 is putting on an impressive performance as a Connecticut College student eager to network.

At the front of a computer lab in Shain Library, the senior introduces himself to a professional from the College’s career-prep program. The staff member is playing the role of an executive of a company that promotes water purification projects in developing countries. Confidently, Reardon, an economics and international relations double major, launches into his “elevator speech” summary of his background and interests, so named because it’s supposed to be short enough to be given during an elevator ride. He tells the executive about the international experience he gained studying abroad in Spain and his experience interning with a local Connecticut organization involved in business development.

When he finishes, students and the other professional staff in the audience offer plenty of compliments. His pacing, his posture, the volume of his voice, how he made eye contact — all great. The only criticism is of his parting remark: “I’m hoping we can get in touch soon and talk a bit more.” The statement isn’t definite enough about what he hopes to happen from this point on. It would be more proactive to get the person’s business card and ask if it would be OK to get in touch in a week or so about the possibility of further conversation, he’s told. Even better would be to schedule an “informational interview,” which can be extremely helpful in plotting a career path or focusing aspirations. Sometimes the informational interview can even lead to a job offer.

The elevator speech exercise was part of an intensive, weeklong career-prep workshop for seniors held for the first time on campus last week. Called Now Hiring! the innovative pilot program, offered at no cost, was organized by the College’s Academic Resource Center and sponsored by Diane Y. Williams ’59, a retired executive of Merrill Lynch. Twelve seniors, selected through a competitive application process, returned early from winter break to learn new skills in how to market themselves and their liberal arts education.

The program’s timing, during break, was intentional. Seniors are far too busy with classes and extracurriculars during the semester to participate in a week of training. But this was no vacation. Sessions met all day every day, and students had assignments to work on every night.

Now Hiring! focused on three areas: communication (creating one’s “self-brand,” elevator speeches, public speaking), technology (including intensive instruction in Microsoft Excel using real-life examples and required workplace-style presentations using current software) and financial literacy (both personal and business). The workshop ended with an introduction to accounting and finance followed by an MBA-style case competition. Working in teams of four, the seniors presented strategic recommendations to a local business, Preston Ridge Vineyard of Preston, Conn.

Academic Resource Center Director Noel Garrett, who developed the curriculum for the week, said the combination of material covered during the week, especially that on personal financial analysis, small business entrepreneurship and corporate finance, “sets our students up to compete on a different level with students from peer institutions.”

Williams, a pioneer as the first female vice president of Merrill Lynch, said the goal for Now Hiring! was to develop an immersive experience that would help seniors acquire the skillset that today’s workplace demands. “From what I’ve seen, it really hit the mark,” said the alumna.

Williams attended the end-of-week presentations and a reception. Also at the reception and sharing congratulations and advice were new President Katherine Bergeron and former Board Chair Jim Berrien ’74, a partner with the executive search firm of Bentley, Farrell, Ahl and Berrien.

Students gave the workshop high marks.

“I gained so much useful knowledge and hands-on experience from this program, making me feel much more comfortable in my current job search,” said senior Hilary Nigrosh, a philosophy major.

Conor McCormick-Cavanagh said the workshop was “one of the most useful weeks in my college experience.” Especially helpful, he said, were the exercises in public speaking, which required students to give and refine an elevator speech multiple times.

“I have a fair amount of experience with public speaking, but I had never been critiqued before. These critiques really helped, and we all noticed major differences in our presentations day-to-day,” said McCormick-Cavanagh, who is majoring in international relations and Arabic language and literature.

Students selected for the pilot program came from a wide variety of majors. In addition to McCormick-Cavanagh’s and Nigrosh’s they included literature, economics, psychology, religious studies, art history, computer science and biochemistry. Career interests included journalism, teaching, government service, marketing and management consulting. Two plan to attend medical school.

Connecticut College has long been an innovator among liberal arts colleges in preparing students for success after college. The College’s highly regarded Career Enhancing Life Skills or CELS program offers four years of workshops and counseling built around self-assessment and the development of career-related skills. CELS participants who complete the program are eligible to receive an award that funds an internship experience after their junior year.

The College also periodically sponsors panels and events at which alumni from a variety of industries come to campus to give advice on the transition from college to the workplace.

Julia Browne, director of career and professional development programs for the College, said the CELS office is in the process of developing a more robust fourth-year program in part by partnering with other departments. The Now Hiring! collaboration “takes our current efforts to a whole new level and supports our seniors’ ability to put the liberal arts into action, which is a definite advantage in the marketplace,” she said. 

January 24, 2014