Winter 2016

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Northwestern is the quarterly alumni magazine for Northwestern University.
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Lola Asensio ’00, ’14 MS, left, and Natalia Okon, met for brunch in suburban Chicago in August. Paired through NAA’s mentorship program, Asensio helped Okon break into the pharmaceutical industry. Photo by Chris Zoubris.

Power of the Network

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Mentorship program helps alumni, students build connections.

At a career crossroads, Natalia Okon planned to apply to medical school. But first she wanted to work for a pharmaceutical company to learn more about clinical trials and bringing drugs to market. In search of guidance and perspective, the graduate student in the School of Professional Studies and Feinberg School of Medicine’s online master’s in medical informatics program visited the Northwestern Network Mentorship Program website to find an alumni mentor. Her search pulled up a pharmaceutical executive from the Chicago area. Without knowing a name or contact information — mentors remain anonymous until they agree to partner with a mentee — Okon sent a request to connect.

The executive was Lola Asensio ’00, ’14 MS, a 19-year communications and business operations veteran who works at Shire, a global pharmaceutical company based in Dublin. Weeks after the two met in person for the first time, Asensio’s valuable industry knowledge and coaching helped Okon land her first job as a clinical studies assistant at AbbVie in North Chicago, Ill., in May. 

“The mentorship program allowed me to log on and pinpoint exactly whom I wanted to reach out to, and Lola was eager to talk, give advice and share her story,” Okon says. “I am where I am right now — with a fantastic job — because of her guidance and enthusiasm.”

Their connection exemplifies what the new program, launched by the Northwestern Alumni Association in January 2016, is designed to do:  cultivate meaningful, professional relationships between alumni and fellow alumni or students.

“The mentorship program is making the power of the Northwestern alumni network more visible and easy to navigate for alumni and students,” says Laura Wayland, the NAA’s executive director.

Through the program, alumni mentors share their knowledge and resources while alumni or student mentees build their professional networks, gain industry knowledge or explore a career change or graduate school. As of October more than 4,000 alumni and students from 89 industries and 58 countries have signed on through the user-friendly online platform.

Northwestern’s program is flexible, allowing alumni to pair with other alumni and students, decide the parameters of the relationship and serve as mentors and mentees at the same time. Mentees are responsible for finding their own mentors and can match with up to two at a time, while mentors can accept up to three mentees at once. Participants can also join at any age and stage of their careers.

“Whether you’re starting out, re-entering the workforce, thinking about a career change or seeking advice on how to navigate your C-suite position, you can turn to the Northwestern Network,” Wayland says.

The mentorship program is one of many career-oriented NAA programs that connect alumni. In fact, Okon first decided to pursue a pharmaceutical job after participating in the Northwestern Externship Program, which provides job-shadowing opportunities. Last March she shadowed Michelle Gibson Meeks ’96 MD, a primary care physician who fueled her interest in how pharmaceutical companies work with doctors.

These programs put alumni who want to help, like Meeks and Asensio, within easy reach. During Okon’s interview and hiring process at AbbVie, Asensio provided useful résumé tips, interview pointers and negotiation strategies to help Okon get the best salary and benefits package. Now their conversations focus on how Okon can succeed in her job and gain a competitive edge in her medical school applications.

For Asensio, the benefits of serving as a mentor are both professional and personal. She shares advice she would have liked to have had at the start of her own career while fulfilling her desire to give back and counsel others.

“To me, it’s energizing and refreshing to be able to give Natalia some guidance and direction,” Asensio says. “It’s very rewarding to help, in a way, the future of our community and society to succeed.”