Getting an Alumni Assist

June 1, 2004

Hi, great to see you. Hello. Nice to see you. Is that the Red Sox on your hat there? Great. Tell me, what is it you'd really like to get out of this, like to learn?"

Work watch: a week of experts, advice, and networking for career seekers

Work watch: a week of experts, advice, and networking for career seekers. Photos: Jim Wallace

 
Work watch: a week of experts, advice, and networking for career seekers

It's Saturday, January 31. The final day of Duke's Career week, chock full of panel discussions with Duke alumni on banking, law, and almost any other field soon-to-be-Duke-graduates could imagine. The week's activities have been co-sponsored by the Office of Alumni Affairs and the Duke Career Center, and, on this day, "networking" is a big theme--"an opportunity to expand your contacts" is one of the Career Center website's multiple definitions of the word. Perhaps no one speaking here is a more effective "networker" than Chris Lauzen '74, a state senator from Illinois.

Before the "Politics, Government, and Public Policy" panel session, Lauzen greets each student who walks through the door. When it becomes time for him to introduce himself, he quickly asks for a student volunteer, who is promptly dispatched to hand out "Chris Lauzen, Republican" campaign cards, complete with a photo of Lauzen's face superimposed on an American flag. "When people say [politics] is just about money, they're not working hard enough," he tells the crowd of forty. Lauzen, though, clearly is working hard to engage the students, and his efforts seem to be working--after the panel, students crowd around him and the other panelists to ask questions, to seek career advice, to network.

There are lots of business suits here. Suits on many of the more than 200 alumni participating, who are offering tips on everything from working in publishing to being a stand-up comedian or stunt man. In addition, some alumni, in varying degrees of business wear, are speaking on theme-based panels in the afternoon, including "Whose Career Is It Anyway?"--a discussion that delves into parent influences on career thinking, among other issues--and "Off the Beaten Path"--which features graduates whose career trajectories have led them in unexpected directions (a Hollywood stuntman is among the speakers). Many of the students also wear suits, eager to make a good first impression and get that contact that could lead to a job for next year.

Another big theme for the day is following your passion. That's what Andrea Martin '81, former policy director for the Congressional Black Caucus, speaks of when she talks about "finding a major that doesn't have you reaching for the Tums." Television and music producer Kenan Harris-Holley '98 echoes Martin's sentiments and says that, for performing artists, "overcoming embarrassment" is often the biggest initial setback. His advice: "There is never another chance like Duke to be around so many talented people, so start now." Later in the day, General Motors chair and CEO Richard Wagoner '75 offers advice of his own during a Q&A session with Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta. "Don't necessarily take the job that you think will be promoted the fastest or make the most money," he tells a packed Reynolds Theater audience. "You spend most of your time getting to where you're going, so you really want to enjoy that."

Will Pearson '01, founding editor of the magazine Mental Floss and president of Mental Floss LLC, says that when he went to Duke, there was "nothing even close to this week's experience.... I believe Duke is beginning to realize that in order to be a truly great institution, there must be a commitment to students far beyond their four years on campus. Duke is of course one of the best universities in the country, and this appears to be the next step in its evolution--building a lifelong connection among Duke students and alumni."

The students, in turn, seemed appreciative. Senior Andrew Lakis was particularly happy because, unlike some of the past Career Center events he's attended, this one offered students advice in careers outside the financial-services realm. He attended panels on higher education and nonprofit work.

Given the sheer number of panels, and their timing--early on a Saturday morning--turnout for a few was modest. Mike Sacks, a senior, attended the performing-arts panel, and though he says he wasn't surprised that fewer students were there as for the business panels, "this wasn't as much a disappointment for me as it was an expectation. But those many sitting disinterested and glassed-over in the banking and law panels surely could have gained some perspective from the variable financial status yet unanimous happiness" of those committed to the performing arts.

Pearson says he believes Career Week benefited the alumni, too. "In a strange way, I think the alumni got just as much out of the event as the students. It helped each of us feel a greater connection to the university, and, as this grows, I think it will strengthen the alumni networks within various fields."