Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

May 12, 2015

A multi-faceted approach to helping students build networks before graduation

Faculty in the Department of Communication are connecting students with alumni and opportunity to experience real-life work spaces

“It’s not just deciding what your career’s going to be, it’s who do you want to be? What are the attributes you want to develop in yourself? What, then, in your professional toolbox do you develop to contribute to that?”

Nancy Rivenburgh
Professor, Communication


When the Communication faculty asked themselves if they were meeting the new needs of students, they realized they often saw students failing to connect their education with professional development.

“Students who are graduating now are entering such a different work place than we grew up in,” says Professor Nancy Rivenburgh. “There are whole new ways of thinking about career opportunities, and it’s important to stay up to date with that.”

Many students weren’t understanding how the creative and critical thinking skills developed in the classroom would actually apply in a work environment. Many also seemed unaware of the incredible variety of careers beyond traditional paths for which a communication degree prepares graduates.

“We were seeing a gap,” says Chair David Domke. “So we asked, ‘What is a 21st century approach to student development?’”

Based upon this self-assessment, the department inaugurated programming changes in 2013 and 2014 that seek to integrate academic learning with career strategy and leadership development. The new approach included remodeling a new collaboration space and adding a new director of student leadership to launch a Career Kickstart program and revamp their internship program.

Communication faculty also saw this as an opportunity to improve student engagement inside the classroom. “I have pure academic goals, of course, but students are motivated if they also see the relevance of what they do to post-University life,” says Rivenburgh. The faculty found that student motivation benefits most when programming is guided by two themes: connecting students with professionals and providing opportunities to experience real work environments.

Linking alumni to students facilitates meaningful, often lasting, connections

“Students a lot of times will only think there’s a small range of jobs they can have, but then they go on our trips and see there are so many different roles at these companies.”

Arianna Aldebot
Director of Student Leadership, Communication


Interactions with department alumni offer current students an approachable, accessible introduction to the job market in their field. The department involves alumni in several ways, including:

Communication Alumni Board: Members offer real-world feedback and programming suggestions based on the latest market needs in their fields. “They’re constantly thinking about what kinds of opportunities we can give to students. They know what’s trending,” says Arianna Aldebot, the new director of student leadership who serves as staff liaison to the Board.

Professional Development WorkshopsAlumni volunteers focus on specific skills, such as pitching a story or tailoring a résumé for a specific job. “The workshops are so beneficial,” says junior Thomas Nguyen. “I think it’s something a lot more students should take advantage of.”

Alumni Database: When students have a career goal in a specific city, they can turn to Victoria Sprang, the alumni outreach manager, who recommends appropriate contacts for informational interviews and possible professional mentors.

Mentor ChatsSmall group sessions offered nearly every week host alumni discussing how their studies and activities at UW helped launched their careers. “I want the students to feel like it’s more intimate, so they get comfortable asking questions,” says Aldebot. “The mentors like it as well because they feel like they get to really connect with the students.”

Beyond inspiration, alumni can also offer the kind of one-on-one mentoring that is invaluable to nervous or curious students. “We’re meeting people who had experiences we can relate to — they took the same classes, worked at The Daily. Hearing their stories fueled me to want to do better, knowing these people did it, and so can I,” says Nguyen. “I know I can go to them for advice.”

Career Exploration trips are high-impact experiences

Career Exploration trips started in 2013 with visits to Los Angeles and New York City, and day trips to businesses and media outlets around Seattle. Aldebot and Sprang pack the agendas with a variety of meetings, from a general alumni mixer to structured roundtables with professionals who speak about their companies and the range of communication jobs. From the senior editor of a fashion magazine to chief digital officer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the exposure to active professionals and settings helps students make informed choices about their futures.

“It’s so valuable getting experience while still in college because you really get to put into practice what you learn in the classroom.”

Ashley Walls
Junior, Journalism major


“Initially, I was hoping to be a features writer for a large newspaper outlet,” says Ashley Walls, a junior who went on the first trip to New York in 2013. After touring ESPN and meeting a range of people in communications there, she shifted her focus. “Now, I want to be a community relations director for a professional sports franchise, helping to establish partnerships between teams and nonprofit organizations, and encourage community engagement,” she says.

Experiencing the environment of a job market first-hand also helps students narrow the field for their job search. Nguyen explains, “I know students who started the trip thinking they would like to work in New York City. It saved them so much time when they realized how that market, and such a drastic change, wasn’t right for them.”

Career planning through a course offers more structure to students who need it

The department has also been updating COM 494: Careers in Communication. “We wanted something in the curriculum that gives students a chance to think concretely about applying their University learning to a career environment,” says Domke. “Sometimes students want to dive deep over several weeks in a group setting to process what it means to even think about a career.”
Today’s robust programming now delivers several explicit options to students. Many students make the most of a few workshops or mentor connections, while others find that visiting work spaces or having the guidance of an entire course has the most impact for planning their future.

Thomas Nguyen
Junior, Communication

Thomas Nguyen’s Career Exploration trip: “It kickstarted my momentum”

“Going to Deutsch Advertising, in New York City, was my aha moment where I connected everything I was learning in the classroom with my interests. Hearing from their planning director, I realized it was all the things I really wanted to do in one position. Before the trip, I was everywhere — interested in marketing, event coordinating, television. After the trip I found out I was really interested in advertising.

“Learning about different industries and work cultures and thinking about what kind of life we want helped me make a mental action plan. I know what internships to look into now, and I’m tailoring my class schedule to really build myself up for the career I know I want.”

Learn More

Read the full Provost report on how to link academic passion to life and careers.