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Fulfilling a promise to students
Before most students even apply to U of M, they’ve likely already heard about its far-reaching alum network. The College of LSA alone boasts over 225,000 living alums, and the experience and knowledge held by these individuals is invaluable to undergraduate students. However, actually connecting with people you’ve never met or talked to —like ‘cold calling’ — hasn’t been conducive to building relationships with potential mentors..
Jamie Monville, a Mentorship Program Manager for student engagement at the LSA Opportunity Hub, knows this first hand from her time as an LSA student, as well through her conversations with students who reach out to the Hub.
So Jamie, along with other members of the Hub’s mentorship team, have been working to develop a platform that makes networking more “tangible” for students. Their solution? LSA Connect, an online community for meaningful career conversations, exclusively for LSA students and LSA alums.
“One of the key benefits that we’ve promised students before they even step foot on campus is this amazing alum network that [they’ll] be a part of,” said DeMario Bell, another Mentorship Program Manager at the Hub who’s focused on alum engagement. “But LSA never really had a means of providing students with a way of tapping into that network. This platform gives us an opportunity to fulfill our word.”
There are several reasons-to-believe in LSA Connect. It gives students: unlimited and barrier-free access to alums; expanded vision of their future by illustrating the myriad of career possibilities out there; a place to refine their professional goals and career planning; and a chance to build enduring relationships with potential alum mentors. But for Jamie, another critical component is that it’s a space for students to learn.
“Part of an overarching goal at the Hub is for LSA Connect to truly be a training ground to understand and build skills with regard to networking and relationship building,” she shares. “We want it to feel like a safe space. A space to make mistakes and learn and grow and develop, so that [students] don’t feel like they have to make these [mistakes] when they’ve graduated and are scrambling to build these skills that everyone tells them are important.”
Jamie understands from personal experience that networking seems a bit nebulous, and she’s striving to make sure other students don’t have to feel lost in the same way that she once did.“
It is my personal crusade to break down this idea of networking, make it a bit more tangible and provide a pathway and a clear way for students to learn, practice, develop, and grow these skills,” she says. “That was the only thing missing in my beautiful LSA education when I graduated: I didn’t know how to [network]. I knew it was important but I didn’t know how. So I hope that through LSA Connect we can solve that.”
With the liberal arts, the possibilities are endless
Liberal arts students are no strangers to the prioritization of STEM subjects and professional programs, whose proponents may not realize the lifetime of opportunity a liberal arts education can unlock.
A core mission of the LSA Opportunity Hub is to make visible the career possibilities and strengths of a liberal arts education and to partner with students on one of the most important projects of their lives: forming a professional identity.
Now the mentorship team within the Hub wants to take that support for liberal arts students a step further, connecting LSA students with alums who have been incredibly successful with their liberal arts education.
“It’s a really good opportunity for students to reach out to alums they normally wouldn’t,” said Antonio Gaeta (Sociology and Social Work, ‘21) an intern for the Hub’s mentorship team. “This gives them the opportunity to have proximity [to alums] and get insights into their career, their major, and how their LSA degree has helped them in their industry...in a way that is really beneficial in this time where everything is online, everything is virtual.”
And it seems nothing can stop the momentum of LSA Connect. The current pandemic has made the platform more relevant than ever.
“[COVID-19] has made this idea of making career connections all the more important,” said Elizabeth Pariano, the Hub’s Director of Alumni and Employer Engagement. “We know this because it’s on everyone’s mind; students have reached out to the Hub for tips on how to find LSA alums, and even more alums reached out to ask what they can do to help LSA students navigate these new realities. With the help of LSA alums on LSA Connect, LSA students can continue to develop professionally this summer and pivot their career goals and planning accordingly.”
Antonio has been working with Jamie on a wide variety of mentorship projects for over a year, but he still sees LSA Connect as a truly unique project.
“It’s not just LSA Connect, the website, with nothing behind it,” Antonio says. “We have the support of the entire Hub. As a student, you take control of your own professional development but it's not like you have to do it on your own because the Hub has all of these other amazing things behind it to help students.”
Jamie agrees with Antonio, emphasizing that the specificity of this platform to LSA students and alums also sets it apart.
“We know many students come in with the idea that ‘I know liberal arts can help me do whatever I want, but I don’t know what that is,’” Jamie adds. “By seeing a bunch of different alums with an English major, with an Econ major, with a Classics major doing a variety of things this idea of ‘anything is possible’ becomes real, tangible, and specific…students then have more agency and understanding of how to craft a variety of things that they truly can do with this liberal arts education.”
Breathing life into an LSA Community
When asked about the platform’s roadmap, Elizabeth doesn’t miss an opportunity to re-establish what LSA Connect truly is and what it could become.
“Our vision for LSA Connect is expansive — it could grow to include industry interest groups or facilitate the search for career opportunities. But for right now, we anticipate that LSA Connect will not only be a means for students to make connections but a resource for deep exploration of industries, career paths, organizations and companies, and specific job roles,” she states.
The platform’s powerful algorithms and key features is what facilitates this ever-crucial career exploration. The tool will first pre-populate recommended alums based on what students filled out during the sign-up process. Then, students in the platform are given free reigns to “explore the community” through robust search filters such as level of industry expertise, academic major, group identity, affiliated company/organization, and many more.
When students zero in on alums to connect with, they have the options of sending a message or requesting a video meeting, and are equipped with pre-drafted messages to help them get started. The best feature? Hands down, the discussion board. There, students can post general questions to the entire LSA Connect community, generating such a broad range of answers from alums with varying perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences. What’s more, students can retroactively search the discussion board to find answers in real-time.
Elizabeth concludes: “At its foundation, LSA Connect is a networking platform. We know the term ‘networking’ can put fear in any student’s heart but the truth can’t be understated — networking is the catalyst for building relationships. Thankfully, LSA Connect takes networking to a whole new level. It’s a place or students to engage with alums in a way that’s easy, comfortable, and supportive.”
LSA Connect launches in July 2020 to current LSA students and alums. Look out for an invite to join the platform.