Land Your Dream Job
Careers that help you move from intention to action

Turning Your Student Experience into a Career | 3 Experts Weigh In

Deborah Swerdlow profile image

Deborah Swerdlow

A Black woman graduating.

“So, what are you going to do after you graduate?” If you’re in the Class of 2018, you’re probably hearing this question a lot lately.

You know you want a career where you can make a difference, but the path to your first job isn’t as clear as it would be in engineering, accounting, medicine, or another field. Sometimes it may feel like the only thing you have to show is your student experience.

The good news is, student experience may be exactly what you need to land that first social-impact job.

Chances are, you have transferable skills from your campus involvement and student internships or jobs. And you’ve got access to a college alumni network, career center resources, and other tools that can help you break into the nonprofit sector.

For inspiration and ideas, read these success stories from three social-impact professionals who leveraged their student experience to launch their social-impact careers.

Lander Gold on the power of relationships

Current job:

Senior Director of Advancement and Philanthropic Partnerships at Moishe House

First social-impact job:

Friends and Alumni Network Associate at BBYO

How he got that first job:

Lander Gold knew he wanted to work for BBYO because of the impact it had on him as a Jewish teen. Every summer during college, he staffed their international programs to stay connected to the mission.

During his senior year of college, Lander saw a BBYO job posting and reached out to one of his contacts to ask if it could be a good fit. That position didn’t work out, but it did set him up for what happened next.

BBYO was creating a new position: an alumni network associate, who would help alumni and their parents reconnect with the organization and help raise localized support for the programs. Once they drafted the position, Gold heard from his contact—not the other way around—who reached out to encourage him to apply.

Takeaways: Relationships matter

The relationships he formed with BBYO staff each summer helped Lander find out about the job he eventually got, even before it was posted.

To build other relationships, Gold recommends trying to connect with alumni who were involved in the same student organizations as you, so that you already have a common interest beyond your alma mater.

Dr. Froswa’ Booker-Drew on leveraging volunteer experience

Current job:

Director of Community Affairs for the State Fair of Texas

First social-impact job:

Assistant Director at University Crossroads

How she got that first job:

As a student, Dr. Froswa’ Booker-Drew volunteered with University Crossroads, a program on her campus (The University of Texas at Arlington) that helps first- and second-generation students from low- and moderate-income households prepare for college.

And as it turns out, the students weren’t the only ones paying attention. After graduation, Booker-Drew got an offer from University Crossroads for an assistant director position overseeing schools in Dallas County (which she split with another assistant director).

“I could not have gotten that position if I hadn’t been volunteering,” Booker-Drew says—and not just by volunteering with University Crossroads, she adds. She had also gained leadership, presentation, and program management skills from volunteering with a local daycare center and being active in campus organizations.

Takeaways: Start developing your network early

“I always tell students, ‘It’s great to have good grades, and that’s important. But it’s also important to look at how you develop a network while you’re in college, whether it’s through your volunteering or whether it’s through beginning to look for mentors that can help you and open up doors for you,’” Booker-Drew says.

Case in point: She’s still in touch with her boss from University Crossroads, who is now a vice provost at UT Arlington. They are partnering on a college fair this year.

Paige Robnett on applying your student experience

Current job:

Project Manager at Cook Ross Inc.

First social-impact job:

Senior Program Associate at the American Association of University Women (AAUW)

How she got that first job:

Paige Robnett admits that when she was a college senior, she didn’t think strategically about how to leverage her student experience to land a social-impact job.

She ended up in a paid internship at a for-profit company but quickly missed the mission-driven work she had been doing in college, most notably as the activism chair for the AAUW student chapter she had helped start. So, she went on AAUW’s website to find a local branch to connect with and instead discovered an internship in the organization’s public policy department in Washington, D.C.

Five months into her internship, a position opened up in AAUW’s campus leadership department. At first, Robnett doubted she was qualified for it, but her internship supervisor encouraged her to apply—and this time, she confidently drew on her student experience to land the job.

When her interviewer asked her to talk about a time when she mobilized a group of people in a creative, innovative way, “I almost jumped out of my seat because I was so excited to answer the question,” Robnett recalls. She talked about organizing more than 300 students to create a music video promoting a campus music festival. At other points in the interview, she referenced specific metrics and accomplishments from her student career, such as managing a $100,000 budget for the music festival or raising funds as philanthropy chair for her sorority.

Takeaways: When talking about your experience, be confident and be specific

Robnett says experience on a team (sports or otherwise) can be particularly useful because it demonstrates you can communicate effectively, collaborate with others, and work hard.

The other place to be confident is when you’re negotiating your salary, something Robnett says she didn’t do enough of at first. Do your research, which includes asking multiple people for advice on an appropriate salary range for the positions you’re seeking as well as conducting some online investigation.

Final thoughts from a career advisor

To add to the tips from these success stories, we spoke with Leslie Saul Garvin, senior program director for Cardinal Careers at the Stanford University Haas Center for Public Service. Other tips she suggests that students don’t always think of:

  • Ask faculty members in your field for advice. “Faculty are well connected and can recommend organizations and open doors for students,” Garvin says. “I’m surprised by how few students take advantage of this great resource!”
  • Use the LinkedIn Alumni tool to search for alumni in your field or at organizations you’re interested in. Garvin describes this tool as “a top go-to resource,” in addition to, Service Year, and ProFellow. It doesn’t always show a person’s email address, so you may need to use your school’s alumni directory, too.
  • Consider taking a course to add a needed skill. What counts as a “needed skill” can depend on the kind of work you want to do. Garvin often recommends adding data or quantitative analysis, which she sees as increasingly important in the social-impact sector.

And, at the end of the day, a little perspective never hurts.

“I emphasize that students shouldn’t worry too much about getting the ‘right’ first job. There’s no such thing!” Garvin says.

“First jobs are about building skills, making connections in the field, and learning where you feel most and least productive and fulfilled,” she adds. “Often, the negative job experiences are more formative than the positive ones in that they can motivate you to engage in deeper reflection and broaden your outlook.”

Did you enjoy this post? There's plenty more where this came from! Subscribe here for updates.

Deborah Swerdlow profile image

Deborah Swerdlow

As a nonprofit advocacy professional living in Washington, D.C., Deborah works with groups across the country to educate their communities and lawmakers about public policies that can help low-income residents make ends meet. She is passionate about helping people connect their interests to a cause they believe in and empowering them to take action.

Explore Jobs on Idealist