While students study, volunteer, and cheer on their favorite sports team, a group of professionals quietly work to support campus life. You may get to know a few of them, including your professors or an advisor but each college also has a network of offices designed to provide students with valuable life experiences and, eventually, to support students in landing their first job, post-graduation.
While you may already know about these offices, when you’re ready to utilize their services, it can be difficult to know just where to start.
Here are some tips to help you connect with three offices that you’ll find on almost every college campus.
The volunteer programs office may be the most obvious place to start, but many students don’t realize the full range of opportunities available.
In addition to having a keen sense of the needs of organizations hiring or looking for volunteers, the staff in this office will understand your career goals better than anyone else on campus. After all, they too are drawn to working with nonprofits and many have extensive experience in the sector, through previous jobs, their own volunteer service, or in serving on nonprofit boards.
Make this office your first stop and ask them questions like:
- What’s the best way for me to gain experience in a range of social-impact organizations so that I can figure out what type of nonprofit work is most meaningful to me? Before your first visit, check out Volunteer to Career: 6 Tips to Help Make it Happen for ways to turn a volunteer opportunity into a job.
- How can I use my skills or major to have the biggest impact this semester?
- Are there any leadership roles available that may help me build my resume?
- What needs do you see in the nonprofit workforce? Do you have suggestions for how I can get ahead of the curve?
Pro Tip #1: Before your first visit, spend some time catching up on the news and reviewing literature or updates from some nonprofit organizations that inspire you. Keep in mind that a successful meeting is a dialogue and there’s a good chance that whomever you meet with will have just as many questions for you as you will for them.
If you’re interested in a nonprofit career, the volunteer programs office should be a significant player in your college experience. After your initial visit, be proactive about staying in touch and checking out new opportunities as they arise. Volunteer positions become available quickly (think disaster relief) and they can fill up just as fast.
Pro Tip #2: Before you wrap up, confirm that you know the best way to keep updated on the latest news and opportunities. They may simply suggest that you stop by in person from time to time, but maybe there’s a newsletter or a listserv that you can sign up for.
The secret weapon of this office is their access to opportunities. In addition to knowing about local organizations, they’ll be on email lists that regularly announce scholarships, internships, and fellowships for volunteers.
Professionals in this office attend conferences where they connect with national and international organizations. For example, when the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps want to find good candidates on your campus, they’ll contact the volunteer programs office first.
Make yourself known (and useful) to this office and you’ll be plugged into opportunities long before other students start their job search.
On most campuses, the career development office maintains a network of employers and internships and offer personality and career assessments. The advice and resources that you’ll find at a career development office can be an immense help in deciding what type of social-impact work you want to do.
There’s no need to visit the career development office with the same frequency that you visit the volunteer programs office; once a semester is great.
Set a reminder on your phone to check in a few weeks after each semester has started. Stopping by once the semester is underway will usually mean that the staff has more time to focus on your unique situation, as career development staff tend to be busy the first few weeks of each semester speaking to classes, and the last few weeks of each semester sitting with soon-to-graduate students.
During your first visit, share your career interests. While it’s important to be as specific as possible in selecting the details you want to share, during this visit, start by asking for general advice on how to get started.
On follow-up visits, drill down into the details with questions like these:
- How do I best document volunteer work on a resume?
- Can you connect me with nonprofit-professional alumni who may be interested in offering an informational interview?
- Where should I look for nonprofit job opportunities?
Pro Tip #3: Career development staff are often masters at advanced searches on job sites like Idealist, so pick their brain for tips!
With the right questions and repeat visits, these conversations may result in invaluable advice, career connections, and scholarship opportunities.
Pro Tip #4: These offices often have a small conference room where you can conduct interviews, by phone or Skype, in a quiet space, with a solid landline, and a professional background. Some will even take headshot photos for your professional profile!
Many students contact alumni affairs after graduation, but connecting with them before then will plug you into their national and international alumni network.
Look up your alumni affairs office on your college’s website, and if your academic major has a point person listed, start with him. Otherwise, contact the director or an administrative assistant. Begin by briefly explaining your career goals and be sure to be clear about your interest in connecting with alumni.
Ask if there are:
- Events or alumni in your hometown or in the city to which you want to move.
- Alumni working in your nonprofit area of interest.
- Alumni in your desired field available for informational interviews.
Carrie McGinnis, Director of Alumni Relations at Murray State University in Kentucky offers some advice to current students:
“Get to know your Alumni staff...Volunteer to help with events. Serve as a student ambassador. Attend the lectures in your field anytime an alum has been asked to speak, and make it a point to shake his or her hand. When an alumna or alumnus contacts our office and asks if we know any soon-to-be graduates moving to their area, or any top-notch students who need an internship, I will most likely contact the person with whom I have the most positive relationship first. That is where jump-starts start.”
Alumni are often generous with students from their alma mater, eager to offer advice, mentoring relationships, referrals, and internships.
The alumni affairs secret weapon is their relationships with alumni. McGinnis says, “We have relationships with people who have relationships with other people all over the world.” Most people only get access to the alumni network once they’ve graduated, but if you connect with the staff, they may be willing to reach out to their contacts so you can start making valuable connections prior to graduation day.
Tapping into invisible networks
These three offices—volunteer programs, career development, and alumni affairs—have vast networks which you may not fully grasp until you visit each office for an in-person conversation. Once you tap into them, though, they’ll put you one step closer to landing your dream job.
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About the Author | Michelle Barber is a marketing consultant with a passion for nonprofits and higher education. Her marketing work focuses on social impact and data-driven creativity. She currently serves as the interim LGBT Coordinator at Murray State University.