The payoff: recent grads offer advice on getting that first job in a tough economy.
"GET OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE."
Akpala's friends questioned her decision to attend community college after she graduated from high school with a 3.8 GPA. "They said, 'Why are you going to community college when you could go to a top-notch school?' But I didn't have those hang-ups."
Akpala, now 25, didn't let her friends' comments about her choice of schools affect her postsecondary plans, which she carefully plotted to fit her financial needs and career goals. After performing at an exceptional level in two Northern California community colleges, she transferred to California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo with a major in industrial engineering. At Cal Poly she began her career preparation in earnest.
"I was very diligent about starting early, especially when signs of the recession started showing up. I didn't want to be caught out there without a job."
So she applied for--and got--internships with Thompson and Lockheed Martin, methodically building her resume during her college years. She also worked with her university's career center, and "kept the lines of communication open" with recruiters she met at job fairs and networking events.
By the time she interviewed with the Raytheon Company, she had an impressive resume that contained evidence of her academic and professional achievements. She also was comfortable and confident in her interviews because of her numerous previous interactions with recruiters. She is now a Quality Engineer I with Raytheon in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, one of the fortunate 600-800 interns and co-op workers the company hires every year.
The main piece of advice she offers career-seeking college students is to "be flexible and don't be afraid to get out of your comfort zone." She says often students are afraid of change--new locations, new people. "But you have to get your foot in the door somewhere. So you have to be willing to move. Your first job may not be your dream job." Akpala also recommends that students keep their resumes up to date, and stay in touch with professors and recruiters.
TERRANCE HUTCHINS, NORTHWESTERN MUTUAL:
"SET YOURSELF APART."
Hutchins survived four intense interviews with Northwestern Mutual before getting an internship and later being hired as a financial representative in Dallas. The pool of prospective hires was reduced from 1,500 to the 40 who were ultimately employed. With each interview, Hutchins says he was more determined to be among the 40.
The first two interviews actually included assignments. The students were asked to contact former interns and interview them about their experiences. At the second interview they were assigned to conduct market surveys. "I think it was the company's way of weeding out people who were not really serious. I got more determined every time," Hutchins recalls. "I didn't mind doing whatever they assigned me to do."
He says that kind of zeal and perseverance is required to get hired in career-track positions these days. The 21-year-old North Texas business administration graduate also believes a strong academic background is important when employers are deciding whom to hire. He "always made the dean's list" and graduated with a 3.7 GPA overall. But more important was his participation in community service projects. "In my interviews, the recruiters were always interested in my service activities. I'm involved in my church and I teach in youth programs. That seemed to make a difference."
Hutchins stresses the importance of internships, community involvement and networking. He also says if students really haven't prepared for the workforce, they should consider grad school.
His main advice to job-seeking students: "There are people out there looking for jobs who have been laid off and have a lot of experience. You have to set yourself apart."
DREW LUCAS, MORRIS COMMUNICATIONS:
"BE OPEN AND READY FOR ANYTHING."
Lucas had to pay a few dues before he landed his current job with Morris Visitor Publications, a subsidiary of Morris Communications. Like many others, he spent a few months after his December 2008 graduation from Florida A&M University working in a call center, an honorable enough job but certainly not what he considered career-track employment.
But Lucas doesn't criticize call-center work. For one thing, it provided him with a paycheck, and for another, he actually honed some skills that would serve him well in his current position. "When I was interviewing for jobs, a lot of recruiters told me I seemed very comfortable talking to people and making presentations," Lucas said. A major opportunity came along when he received an e-mail announcement about the Media Sales Institute coming to his alma mater-and recent grads were invited to apply.
The Media Sales Institute is a ten-day training program developed by Personal Selling Principles (PSP) for graduating college seniors who are interested in a career in media sales. The Institute is held on various campuses including FAMU, where Drew participated last May.
Lucas received the announcement because he had been astute about working with career counselors at his university and staying in touch with his professors after graduation. "MSI was an outlet that allowed me to still be in media but to learn a different facet" Lucas says. "I always had an interest in business, an underlying interest coupled with my interest in media and public relations."
At the Institute, Lucas and the other 20 participants learned sales skills and the intricacies of the various media organizations that participated. The students made presentations to recruiters, and received critiques and career advice. After the Institute ended, the recruiters contacted the trainees who impressed them, and Lucas was contacted by Morris.
He had planned to attend graduate school but those plans didn't work out immediately, so, undaunted, Lucas said he figured out a Plan B. That's a piece of advice he offers to other students. "Be flexible and don't count things out because you haven't thought of them," he advises. "The job market is tight, so be open and ready for anything." And from his own experience, he says, "You have to work, so there's nothing wrong with taking something to get by." Who knows? That "get by" job may actually be helpful in your career.
WENDELL HASSAN MARSH, FULBRIGHT SCHOLAR:
"DO NOT FOLLOW THE CROWD."
By the time this article appears, Marsh will be in Egypt as a Fulbright Scholar at the American University in Cairo. Marsh was awarded the prestigious fellowship to study Arabic after years of pursuing his interests in global affairs and journalism with the goal of becoming an international correspondent.
During his last summer stateside before embarking on his yearlong adventure in Cairo, Marsh was an intern for the international news giant, Thomson Reuters, in its Washington, D.C. bureau.
"I feel comfortable chasing after opportunities wherever they may be found, whether in Zurich or Zimbabwe," says Marsh, 22, a 2009 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Morehouse College. As an undergraduate, Marsh participated in several programs that took him abroad. He spent part of a newspaper internship in Nigeria; he also had an internship at AllAfrica Global Media in Dakar, Senegal and studied French Critical Theory in Paris through Morehouse's international studies program. When he wasn't traveling, he worked as an editor on the Morehouse student newspaper and wrote for Black College Wire.
"I didn't take a linear route toward my career," he says. "It was more important that I acquire skills and experiences that would be valuable, than it was to get on any particular career path. For me, that meant intellectual development, technical training and language learning--things that will be useful in any type of employment." Marsh said he thought literature, philosophy, history, sociology and languages were critical to these goals.
He is more philosophical and less practical about career planning than some students. That may be because of his view of the importance of globalization and his belief that students should look beyond their immediate borders. "Globalization means that the local has become global," he says, adding, "International borders are now very porous. [You] cannot expect to be competitive if you ... are not globally competent."
Although he believes in gaining a broad range of knowledge, Marsh advises students to try to find "relevant" internships and summer jobs during college, "If you can't find something in your field, don't immediately settle for Stop-and-Shop just yet. Look for something that is complementary to your desired career or that rounds out your experiences and development."
Marsh stresses patience and persistence. "Be indefatigable. Stay optimistic. Remember that every 'no' brings you a step closer to a 'yes.' And whatever you do, do not follow the crowd."