Melanie Buford at the University of Cincinnati on Coaching Students and Alumni to Career Success

Melanie Buford, Career Counselor & Instructor at UC.

Melanie Buford, Career Counselor & Instructor at UC.

Life after graduation is full of opportunity, but many students have trouble seeing past their fears about starting a career. It's the job of career services offices to help students see possibility in the unknown and find the courage to embrace it.

University of Cincinnati Career Counselor & Instructor Melanie Buford empowers students to take risks rather than fear them.

We asked her to share her thoughts on coaching students and young alumni through career uncertainty, teaching them to network, and getting them in the door in the first place.

Taking risks early in your career can be, well, risky. Many students feel limited by student loan debt and basic financial needs. How do you help students build confidence and learn to tolerate uncertainty, even in the face of financial obstacles?

Financial limitations are very real. Inability to cover basic expenses is a stressful and demoralizing experience, and it affects your ability to prioritize wellness and think positively about the future. 

Having said that, living a life that doesn't fit you and harboring regrets about the risks you wish you'd taken can be just as toxic. Most young professionals I know don't regret the risks they've taken, even the ones that ended in setbacks and disappointments. Sometimes experiencing perceived failures can take the power out of them, and actually free you to focus on the things that really matter. I often show J.K. Rowling's Harvard graduation speech to give my students a different perspective on failure.

Uncertainty can be a different monster. Many people have an inherent aversion to feeling like the future is blank or out of their control. If you have this feeling for the first time in college, it can be very distracting. My advice is simply to find ways to manage it. Recognize how it manifests for you specifically. Maybe it sneaks up on you as you're falling asleep. Maybe it hits you first thing in the morning. Maybe it's triggered by people you know—when a parent asks you what your post-graduate plans are, for example. Watch for how the fear manifests, and find ways to engage with it. You might write down all the worries you have, or call a supportive friend or go for a swim. Whatever works for you. Fear of uncertainty, in my experience, is just another form of fear. Fear will always have a place in our lives, but we have the power to negotiate with it. As long as we acknowledge that not knowing where you'll be next year is a scary thing, and that we have every right to not love that feeling, it shouldn't be debilitating. Also remember that everyone has moments, sometimes even years, of doubt, and they can still have amazing lives and careers.

On a practical level, it is critical to be honest with yourself about your financial picture. If you want to take risks in your career, you'll need to learn to live minimally (on a limited budget) to get through the early years of building the skills and credibility you'll need to be successful. Pay off your loans as aggressively as possible (I recommend the snowball method), meet with a financial advisor just to get up to speed on the basics of investment, and open a ROTH IRA. You want to feel that your money is a tool that can serve your goals, rather than something that will hold you back.

The most important thing is to continually remind yourself of how you want to feel in the future. What do you want your life to look like? Human beings are unique in their ability to envision the future and this can sustain us through all kinds of fears and difficulties. Have the courage to design your own life, rather than taking the first suggestion someone gives you. There are lots of factors out of our control, but we often have more power over our circumstances than we realize. 

many students and alumni don’t take advantage of the career services resources available to them at their alma mater. How best can we reach and engage these students and alumni?

Engaging students, particularly early on in their college careers, is a challenge for career centers everywhere. In my experience, it’s a service that most people don’t use until they feel that something’s gone wrong or anticipate that something is about to go wrong (i.e. graduating without a job). Similarly, looking for a job is a process that many people avoid for as long as they can. It can be awkward, disappointing, and unpredictable, so it's easy to understand why most students and alumni don't engage with us until they feel it's necessary.

I've also found that a lot of students don't know all of what a career center can help them with. We're often thought of as a resume checking/job search/career fair service but we do so much more than that. Career centers can work with students to identify their strengths, coach them on how to manage tough situations at work, help them understand why they enjoy or don't enjoy internships and jobs, share career possibilities they may never have thought of, connect them to like-minded alumni, among other services. Most coaches have a wide variety of skills and experiences to share, and it's rare that a student comes in and feels that they got nothing out of the experience.

The value and breadth of these conversations travels best by word of mouth, but targeted marketing and branding efforts can help spread the word about the variety of services career centers provide. Parents are also a great way to engage students since they tend to be concerned early on with students' long-term professional success and the return on their educational investment. When a student is worried about their career, they're more likely to go to a parent or friend—someone they know and trust—rather than head directly to their career center. Parents have been great at referring students who are feeling "lost" to us.

Networking is an essential part of most everyone’s career development, but early on it can feel phony and unnatural. How can we help students and alumni learn to network in a way that feels natural? 

The best way I've found to help students (particularly more introverted students) feel comfortable with networking is to challenge the way they think about it. When you define networking as "contacting strangers in the hopes that they will give you a job," it's no wonder students find that intimidating. Networking need not be phony or unnatural at all. I like to point out that students already have a network—of friends, family, professors and teachers, coworkers, managers, administrators, community members and a host of others. They also have pre-existing knowledge and skills that could be valuable in a professional way. Their task is to find points of connection—ways that they can engage with like-minded people in their field of interest to exchange knowledge and skills. Networking, when done right, is a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Conducting an informational interview, for example, is a great way to expand your network. You reach out to someone with whom you have some connection (they're a graduate of your university, a family friend, a fellow-science enthusiast—whatever it might be) and you ask to connect with them to share stories. You get to hear about their background and any advice they might have for someone just starting out in the field. They have a chance to articulate their story and see themselves through the eyes of someone else. They may have a need for new talent at their organization, you may have a need for more experience. Either way, it's a win-win scenario. The key is reaching out to people who are willing and available and who are legitimately interesting to you. This way you don't waste anyone's time. Great collaborations can grow out of these types of exchanges, and many a wonderful career has been launched in this fashion.

Technology is another great way to engage alumni and provide easy ways for students to reach out to people who are willing to be contacted. Our go-to resource is LinkedIn's Find Alumni tool, but there are many other avenues. As we speak, apps are in development to make this process easier for students. We know that as job postings become more accessible, networking becomes even more critical. Technology will continue to reflect this trend.


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