Inspiring Career Choices

Writer: 
June 1, 2008

The Duke student body contains future CEOs, consultants, doctors, and lawyers-and perhaps the next famous stuntman or gourmet baker. The Fannie Mitchell Career Conference, held in late January, exposed students to a wide spectrum of options, from preprofessional vocations to those less commonly known.

The conference, first held in 2004, is sponsored by the Duke Career Center and the Duke Alumni Association to bring alumni back to campus to share their postgraduate experiences in the job market. This year, ninety-four alumni representing eighteen career fields and 925 students met in sessions ranging from finance and entrepreneurship to "Writing for a Living" and "Nonprofit/Social Responsibility."

"The whole idea is to inspire Duke students to think about what the possibilities are, so when it comes to senior year, they're not following the path to investment banking unless they really, really want to do that," says Sheila Curran, Fannie Mitchell Executive Director of the Duke Career Center. "What we're really hoping will happen here is that passions are going to bloom."

In previous years, the daylong conference was part of an entire week of events that included a career fair and several other programs leading up to a Saturday networking lunch. This year, the career center decided that separating the career fair and the career conference would prevent confusion between their respective aims.

"The conference is almost the antithesis of the career fair," Curran says. "We don't expect you to dress up, we don't expect you to have a résumé, and we don't expect you to know what you're doing. It's meant to be a beginning."

Students say they appreciated the casual atmosphere of the conference, which made it easier to have relaxed, frank conversations. "I thought the best part of the career conference was getting to know the alumni informally," says freshman Peiying Li. "The conference gave underclassmen like me a chance to talk with alumni about careers without being intimidated."

Senior Pearce Godwin, one of two student co-directors along with sophomore Rachel Seidman, says he has attended the career conference every year since he was a freshman; even as a senior, he says he still finds the conference valuable.

"It's about realizing through every person's story that there are a lot of options out there," Godwin says. "There's both great value in learning about the fields and in learning about what it's like to get out in the real world, [the alumni] having been in our shoes."

Ray Eddy '92, M.A.T. '94, a stuntman for Disney World and a panelist in the "Off the Beaten Path: Unusual Careers" session, says he tries to inspire and motivate Duke undergraduates who may be too timid to stray from a preprofessional track. A former economics and mathematics double-major, Eddy worked as a consultant, high-school math teacher, residential adviser, student-affairs director, and drumline coach before fulfilling his dream of becoming a stuntman.

"Duke students have amazing potential," Eddy says. "You've already proven through your Duke career that you can do anything, and it's all about understanding your potential and realizing your promise."

Curran stresses the importance of exploring various career fields and says the conference will likely occur again next year, thanks to "extraordinarily positive feedback" from both alumni and students.

"Seeing such a high energy level was so appealing, and it made me realize how much students could gain from something that they might not even know they need," Curran says. "There are so few schools that do something like this that it is a true advantage of coming to a place like Duke."