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Externships Match Students With Alumni

The Northwestern Externship Program offers undergraduates the opportunity to learn about a career field by shadowing alumni at their workplaces for a day.

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May 12, 2009
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Brenna Clairr O'Tierney is different from the typical journalism student who dreams of a career with a news organization. The Medill journalism sophomore at Northwestern University wants to "channel my journalism skills into writing and speaking for a beneficial purpose at a nonprofit."

A Medill graduate of 2000 showed O'Tierney how it is possible to do just that. O'Tierney spent a day at Open Books Literacy shadowing director Erin Walter, who made the switch to nonprofit work after two years at the Austin American-Statesman because she "wanted to do something about the issues I was writing about."

O'Tierney and Walter were two of the students and alumni participating in the sixth annual Northwestern Externship Program (NEXT) this year. A joint program of the Office of Alumni Relations and Development and University Career Services, NEXT offers undergraduates the opportunity to learn about a career field by shadowing alumni at their workplaces for a day.

"So often there are these abstract ideas of what a job is like or requires of you, and that makes it difficult to really know if you would enjoy that career path or if your skill sets would be right for that job," says Minh Thai, a senior in economics and art history.

Thai and art history and international studies senior Jessica Davidson shadowed Charles Katzenmeyer, vice president for external affairs at the Adler Planetarium and a holder of degrees from Weinberg College and the Kellogg School. They sat in on Katzenmeyer's meetings about corporate sponsorships and the museum's fundraising campaign. They also spoke with Katzenmeyer's staff about their jobs and toured exhibition spaces.

Thai says that in just that one day her perspective on fundraising was changed. "I learned that the fundraising world is not all about asking people for money," she says, "but more about building relationships with individuals and groups who believe in the institution you're working for."

The externship helped Davidson refine her thoughts about what aspect of museum work she wants to pursue. Although she's decided she prefers "the curatorial and educational side to fundraising and development," Davidson felt "the day was very informative."

"I learned a lot about how various museum departments interact with each other, where the impetus for new exhibits comes from and how objectives are funded," Davidson says. "We talked about the function of a museum and its relationship with an intended audience."

NEXT originated in 2004 with Alumni Relations' career services office, which enlisted University Career Services' collaboration. It began with about 40 extern-alumni matches the first year and grew to its highest number yet, 224, this year.

Most of the alumni volunteers, who are called hosts, were in the Chicago area, but more than a third were elsewhere. Between March 23 and April 23, when the shadowing took place, students met with their hosts on the East Coast, the West Coast, and places in between, and some even went outside the country to Paris, London, Sao Paulo and Amman.

Ten job categories were represented -- consulting, education, engineering, finance, government, health care, journalism, law, marketing and communications and not-for-profit -- along with a "unique" classification for jobs not fitting any of these.

More than 600 alumni volunteered this year, and some said they would accept more than one extern, so more students could have participated.

"We have more alumni volunteering to host than we have students apply," says Lauren Herpe, Alumni Relations coordinator of career services for students and young alumni. "About 2 percent of undergraduates participate in this program before graduating."

Still, that's a good number when students have so many career programs to choose from, says Betsy Bishop, internship specialist at University Career Services, who works on the orientation workshop externs are required to attend before their shadowing day. "There are a lot of career development programs and counseling the UCS offers," Bishop says, "and NEXT gets good participation. It's worth our effort. Just that one day gives a student more information."

Students apply by submitting applications and résumés, from which each alumni host chooses five possible externs. Herpe then spends most of her work time in January and February matching the externs and hosts.

"I looked for applicants who seemed focused in their studies and expressed their ideas well," says the Adler Planetarium's Katzenmeyer. "Being a NEXT host was an opportunity for me to promote museum work in a future generation of leaders."

While the externs got a behind-the-scenes view of a large nonprofit at the Adler Planetarium, those at Open Books Literacy saw what it's like to work for a very small nonprofit. The social venture has only six full-time employees and 10 interns. Externs at Open Books Literacy learned a crucial lesson about working for an organization so small: "You jump right in," says director Walter.

"My externship at Open Books Literacy was immediately hands-on, which I really appreciated," says Meaghan Joyce, a senior English major. "The first thing I did was copy and paste works that kids had written during creative writing workshops into the document that will become the final anthology. I spent most of the day editing stories that came from other workshops. I sorted some book donations, too."

Joyce, who had already done two summer internships with a larger nonprofit, welcomed the opportunity to shadow at Open Books Literacy "to experience a different, smaller nonprofit to see if I like the whole nonprofit field in general. I wanted to make sure that it wasn't just because of the organization I interned with that I want to work with a nonprofit."

The answer was that she likes the whole field. "The day was an affirmation that I truly do like working with non-profits in general," Joyce says.

Of course, there are other externs who come to the opposite conclusion after shadowing: They decide the field is not for them. "Some have said on their evaluations that the experience was an eye-opener," says Herpe. "They no longer want to go into the field."

"A student told me that the shadowing was why she wasn't premed anymore," Bishop adds. "I think she was already having doubts about a medical career, and the shadowing experience was the nail on the coffin."

A point Herpe and Bishop stress with the externs is that the shadowing day is intended for gathering information, not landing a job or an internship. But the experience does offer lessons in how connections that may lead to jobs are made. "Quite a few participants are seniors," Herpe says, "and a lot of them are networking."

"There was one student who went to her shadowing just after having an interview for an internship at a Cleveland TV station," Bishop says. "She didn't think the interview had gone well. She mentioned it to her host, who knew someone at the TV station and called. The student got the internship. She learned something about how connections are made. If you make a good connection with an alum, they'll want to help."

Over and above the career benefits, the program also helps Alumni Relations cultivate connections with both current and future alumni. "Alumni want more involvement with their alma mater," Herpe says. "They want to give back."

Katzenmeyer, who is president-elect of the Northwestern Alumni Association, says, "It's very satisfying as an alumnus to support the University and its students through informal teaching opportunities such as career mentoring. It's important to remember that NEXT doesn't exist for a single day. It is an annual program that helps build a stronger community of Northwestern students and alumni. Such a community is critical in an institution like Northwestern."