From IWU Magazine, Summer 2010
Standing Out in the Crowd
Faced with a tough job market,
students are bringing their A game.
Story by NICOLE TRAVIS ’11
Photos by MARC FEATHERLY
Just as Illinois Wesleyan students reach the finish line of graduation, many find
themselves in another race: to find a decent job.
Despite the current economic downturn, the nationwide unemployment rate for people
who hold a bachelor’s degree is 4.7 percent — less than half the rate for those with
only high school diplomas. Still, there’s no denying that job prospects are tough
for new college graduates. Only one out of four college seniors this year had a job
waiting for them upon graduation, according to a survey by the National Association
of Colleges and Employers. That’s up from one in five last year, but still not encouraging
A survey of 323 graduates of the Class of 2009 by Illinois Wesleyan’s Hart Career
Center shows that, within six months of graduating, 44 percent had found full-time
employment, 32 percent were in graduate school, 7 percent worked part-time and 15
percent were still formulating their plans or seeking employment.
“This is about what we expected,” said Career Center Director Warren Kistner ’83.
“Most of our graduates who sought employment found jobs. Our contacts with potential
employers show that our students have what they’re looking for in new workers, and
the prospects for our 2010 graduates look even brighter.”
Still, Kistner concedes, IWU students shouldn’t walk into the employment market after
graduation expecting to automatically find a job. “We advise our students to start
early, even in their first and second years of college, to obtain the necessary skills
and background that will make them stand out to employers.”
The following tips are not just for new job seekers, but for anyone competing in a
tight job market.
Networking is key
When it comes to career planning, there’s truth in that old clich, “It’s not what
you know; it’s who you know.”
That’s why Hart Career Center staff encourages students to make as many face-to-face
contacts as possible via career center programs or job and internship fairs.
At the annual Fall Internship Fair held in the University’s Memorial Center, students
meet with employers in a variety of fields.
For English major Melinda McNeil, attending a job fair last year eventually led to
a job at Liberty Mutual that she began after graduating in May.
“I was trying to find a company and I couldn’t find their booth,” she recalls. That
was when she made eye contact with a Liberty Mutual representative. “It was kind of
that awkward eye contact where it was long enough that I thought I should probably
say hi.” After approaching the representative and introducing herself, McNeil was
asked back for an interview with the company that day and later accepted a job offer
“That face-to-face interaction — there’s nothing like that,” says McNeil. “It gives
you an opportunity to be more than just a piece of paper.”
IWU alumni are another vital networking resource. Alumni who volunteer through the
Career Center’s mentoring network talk with students about their career goals or invite
them to visit their workplaces. At events like the alumni coffeehouse series, graduates
speak about their own career progression and the variety of options that may be available
in their fields.
Alumni also frequently assist students in finding jobs at their workplaces. “Working
through alums is a great tool for us to get our foot in the door for some organizations
that might not necessarily recruit at a smaller school like IWU,” explains Kistner.
“We’re not going to have the drawing power of a University of Illinois or a Michigan
in terms of numbers, but we know we have the quality. Sometimes we have to find our
way in the back door by finding an alum in a company who already values a Wesleyan
education and who will shepherd a resume through the ranks and make sure it gets into
the proper person’s hands.”
Kyle Borkowski, an accounting major who graduated in May, was able to secure interviews
with two different companies via alumni networking. “It is an enormous benefit to
have someone inside the organization pushing for you come interview time,” he says.
Laurie Diekhoff, assistant Career Center director, urges students to use “whatever
networks they might have” to make valuable alumni career connections, whether they
be Greek affiliations, athletics, on-campus organizations or academic departments.
Of course, networking has taken on a whole new dimension in the Internet age, and
job experts encourage students to build connections through business-oriented social
networking sites such as LinkedIn, which has over 65 million registered users. But
while professional networking and web recruiting have taken off in the past decade,
recruiters still depend on more traditional placement and interview processes to make
their final decisions.
According to Renee Haning, college relations and employment coordinator at COUNTRY
Financial in Bloomington, “Job and internship fairs are still one of the best ways
for us to recruit, especially at the college level. It allows us to have a conversation
with the individual, and to learn more, to ask questions. That interpersonal communication
is really critical for us, and it’s a great way to recruit.”
“One thing that I would encourage potential job seekers to do is broaden their perspective
a little bit — look at things they wouldn’t have looked at before,” says Kistner,
who suggests that students look into the non-profit sector as well as postbaccalaureate
internships and fellowships for work experience.
Warren Kistner (seated) meets with Kyle Borkowski and Melinda McNeil, who both used
the Career Center to find jobs after graduating this spring.
McNeil says she made her way to both an internship and job offer by keeping an open
mind while researching her prospects. She had never heard of the Normal-based CornBelters
until just days before the new professional baseball team contacted her for an internship
interview. “When they asked me why it interested me, I said, ‘Because right now I’m
open to trying new things.’ And I think that’s what people need to be when they’re
looking. Don’t judge a book by its cover — definitely go in thinking, ‘Yeah, maybe
I could do this.’”
Haning has noticed that students are more flexible in planning career goals than they
have been in the past — a change she considers positive. She encourages students to
“be open to opportunities that you weren’t originally thinking about that might be
good for your career development or help you ultimately get to a dream job in the
“I think there has to be some adaptability,” Kistner concurs. “It’s going to be absolutely
key. Students are going to have to recognize that things aren’t necessarily going
to fit into nice, neat boxes.”
For that reason, Kistner says, the broadness of a liberal arts education should give
an edge for job-seeking Wesleyan students. Scott Searles ’95, a business analysis
team leader for Kimberly-Clark, agrees. “The IWU experience provides a particular
advantage, because the liberal arts curriculum requires students to stretch themselves
into areas where they may not be as comfortable.” Such an education shows that a student
is capable of “applying critical-thinking skills, presenting their ideas well, thinking
fast on their feet and [possessing] substantial bandwidth to take on assignments”
— all assets that are eagerly sought by today’s employers.
Do your homework
“The main message that we try to get out to students is that career planning is not
something that you do two weeks before you graduate,” Kistner says. “It really is
something that a student should begin thinking about when they first walk through
A 2009 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that “students
who used career center services extensively were significantly more successful in
the job search” than those who had used the career center minimally or not at all.
With these statistics in mind, the Hart Career Center has taken action to make its
services more accessible, such as developing a Facebook page and blog that take advantage
of students’ growing interest in social media. According to Kistner, the center received
over 2,000 appointments this year, with 80 percent of students accessing its services
at least once prior to graduation.
Unfortunately, Kistner says, many students delay accessing the Career Center until
late in college, thus failing to take advantage of the career guidance and planning,
internship and job-search assistance it offers.
In McNeil’s experience, getting an early start at the Career Center helped prepare
her for the remainder of her job-search process. “I went in and started working with
Warren, and he completely tore my resume apart, and that’s wonderful. That’s what
you need,” she says.
Renee Haning from COUNTRY Financial (left) interviews Amy Chang ’12 for an internship
with the company as part of the Career Center’s on-campus recruitment program.
“I also did several mock job interviews, and I feel like that really helped my communication
skills. They actually record you, and you get to watch. It’s a very humbling experience;
but it’s a great thing to know that I play with my hands a lot when I talk and I need
to tone that down a little bit or make sure that I smile a lot to show that I have
“Balancing school and a job search as well as an internship turned out to be a huge
challenge,” says Borkowski. “I would guess I spent an average of eight to 10 hours
a week on my job search, whether it be cold-e-mailing companies, talking with alumni,
researching companies, preparing for interviews or just educating myself on the industry.”
McNeil recommends that students get a head start on their job search by starting the
summer before their senior year. “If you get a ton done before then, all you have
to do is print your resume out and go to the interview.”
That proactive attitude was crucial through all stages of Borkowski’s job search process
— and it all came down to making sure he did his homework.
“I knew Baird was a company I really wanted to apply to, but they did not recruit
at IWU,” he explains. “So I e-mailed about 10 or so of the higher-up, managing directors,
letting them know I was interested in their company and that my resume was attached
for their consideration. One of them passed my resume to a recruiter who eventually
contacted me to schedule an interview. After three phone interviews and two days of
interviewing at the Chicago office, I finally received an offer.”
But this kind of preparation is even more beneficial for recruiters, who prefer to
hire candidates who are already familiar with their industry and company.
At COUNTRY, that research is not necessarily limited to reading online newsletters
and press release information. Haning suggests “talking to people who have previously
interned or are currently working at COUNTRY to hear about their experiences and learn
what they like about the organization — how they feel about our culture.”
The right amount of research into a company can also “help you better articulate what
you can bring to the organization,” Haning says.
Build on experience
According to Haning, the most important aspect of a candidate that recruiters consider
when filling an open position is the relevant experience he or she has already developed.
To have a good shot at fitting the bill, students need to get started early on building
the skills and knowledge that will be applicable to their future careers.
“Students should begin getting practical experience as early as they can,” Diekhoff
says. But, she warns, many of the more competitive internships require students to
be at least juniors or seniors just to apply.
Carrie (Harmon) Nance ’99 explains internship opportunities at State Farm.
To get a head start while still underclassmen, students should look into a variety
of practical-experience venues, including volunteer and research positions. For recruiters
like Haning, leadership experience in student organizations does not go unnoticed.
“As you get more involved in different organizations in the academic environment,
you certainly are developing leadership skills that can be translated back into the
Diekhoff adds that studying abroad also develops skills “that are very valuable in
the workplace: comfort interacting with diverse groups of people; better understanding
of cultural differences; and the heightened abilities to adapt to change, work independently,
take risks and solve problems.”
The best experience of all, most experts agree, is an internship. According to a 2009
survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, college graduates who
had participated in internships “fared far better in the job market” than those who
“An internship isn’t the only way to get practical experience,” Diekhoff says. “Relevant
leadership and volunteer experiences are critical for your success and your future.
But I would still say that an internship is probably the single most effective way
to demonstrate to potential employers that you are ready for the job.”
Looking into the future, Haning says, student interns will be a valuable resource
for organizations to consider when replacing the 76 million baby boomers who are due
to retire in the coming decades.
“There will come a point when all organizations are going to lose some of their leadership
and need people who can fill in those gaps,” she says. “It’s great to bring in people
who have leadership skills now so we can continue to develop them as leaders for the
future of our organization.”
Don’t get discouraged
Despite all of the professional and anecdotal advice available to them, Illinois Wesleyan
students may still face disappointment and rejection in their job searches. But students
should know that in a tough economic environment, getting turned down is just part
of the process and should not be seen as a signal for surrender.
McNeil was frustrated at the beginning of her job search. None of her campus jobs
were relevant to the professional career she wished to pursue. In the full year it
took her to land an internship, she focused on building up more relevant experience
by getting a job as a church secretary the summer before her senior year. By the end
of that year, she had the luxury of making a choice between three different job offers.
Finding a job during an economic downturn is “going to take a longer period of time,”
says Kistner. “If things were rolling along like they were some years back and somebody
had a gap between school and work or between two jobs, there might be a question about
motivation. But right now there’s more recognition that this student could have done
everything right, but the number of opportunities out there are just not what they
were at one point.”
Diekhoff’s advice for students does not change in light of these challenges. She continues
to advocate proactive, innovative job-search techniques: Keep trying, get creative,
aim outside the box, volunteer, follow up, be assertive, show your interest, use your
network. Kistner adds that students should read publications that are relevant to
their job search in order to become more informed about their desired industry. These
publications may also specify emerging job markets or opportunities, as well as those
that are fading.
“You have to try to determine if you would be getting into a dead-end field, or something
where there’s likely to be some growth taking place. Have ways to stay current yourself,
and update your skill sets. Tap into those things you do well that may have increased
value in this new economy,” Kistner says. For example, “there’s going to be a bigger
push for green jobs, and we’re going to see new opportunities with social media. I
think what students are going to have to do, to a certain extent, is ride the wave.”
As new graduates navigate the difficult economy, Haning suggests that they “remain
patient and persistent as they go through their career search. It is undoubtedly a
tough job market right now; but these are cycles that we’ve seen throughout history,
and we hopefully will see a change soon. In the meantime, what I’m recommending to
students is to get out their A game, if you will — to utilize all the resources they
have available to them, so they are as ready as they can be when the opportunity comes
Garrett Rapp ’10 contributed reporting to this story.
To visit the Hart Career Center website, click here.