Alumni-Student Mentoring Program Provides Career Boost in a Challenging Year
An innovative new program matches students with alumni of relevant backgrounds and experiences for job search advice, networking, and moral support.
Imagine that you are two months away from receiving your MSW and partway through a job search. Suddenly, many of the job fairs, interviews, and networking opportunities you expected to utilize have been put on hold due to COVID-19. Where do you turn to determine your next steps?
Enter the School of Social Work’s Offices of Alumni Relations and Career Services. In the weeks following the COVID-driven shift to remote learning, these two offices teamed up to create a pilot networking program that aims to connect graduating MSW students with alums for talks about their career prospects as well as tips on job search strategy and longer-term insights on professional development and growth.
Said Dean Melissa Begg, “This wonderful collaboration between our Alumni Relations and Career Services offices could not have come at a better time. Our second-year students were able to have in-depth conversations with some of our accomplished alums right in the weeks around graduation, building their confidence, broadening their perspectives, and allowing them to tap into our extensive alumni network just as they are entering the job market. I know how powerful mentorship can be. I am excited that this pilot program will become an annual opportunity for our graduating students.”
Inspired by a similar program at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, the organizers initially planned to enlist just 20 alumni mentors.
“We initially thought, ‘This is the middle of COVID. Who knows what kind of response we’re going to get?’” said Jennifer March, associate director of alumni relations. “In less than an hour, we met our goal of 20 mentors. And the offers kept pouring in. But in fact, we weren’t that surprised. This is the nature of our community; they’re invested in giving back and helping students in any way they can. We are truly grateful for their support.”
All in all, over 200 alumni stepped up to support students in a program that is set to continue this fall, some of whom said they wished such a program was available when they were students. Originally conceived only for graduating students, the program has since been expanded to continuing students as well. That way, first-year students can get a head start on their career planning and think about the most beneficial ways to spend their second year, said Tomomi Uetani, director of career services and leadership management.
For the pilot program, students and alumni completed profile questionnaires, and then students chose the mentors they wished to speak to. Many conversations were open-ended. “Our alums have diverse careers,” Uetani said. “They may have started in one place and ended up in another. That in itself can be interesting for students.”
To help the students prepare for their conversations with their alumni mentors, March and Uetani coached students in the art of the informational interview. “We know that initiating a conversation can be intimidating, so we made sure to let them know what to expect and how best to prepare, including approaching this as an opportunity to build a relationship and gain insights and advice on a career, job, or field. You plant the seed and you have to let it grow,” Uetani explained.
Regardless of whether the seed bore fruit over the summer, she said, most students were “overjoyed” with their mentoring experience. Some mentor pairs may choose to stay in touch, she said, and some won’t. But most indelible is the students’ sense of feeling supported and encouraged by the School’s alumni community. With all the uncertainties of navigating the COVID-era world, said Uetani, “knowing that they had an extended community to turn to was really significant to them.”
Meet three pairs who participated in the program.
Mentor Match: Qin Sun (“Sunnie”), MSW’20, and Ann Burack-Weiss, MSW’71, PhD’90
Qin Sun was preparing to graduate and pursue a career in aging and gerontology at the time the pandemic struck. Ann Burack-Weiss is a former CSSW professor and an associate faculty member in Columbia’s Program in Narrative Medicine; she has published three books with Columbia University Press.
Qin Sun: “I didn’t realize it when we had our initial conversation, but I found out very soon afterwards why her name looked so familiar to me. I was doing an independent study about Narrative Practice with the Aging Population, and Ann was on my reading list!
Our initial conversation was very intentional. Ann asked me a number of questions to gain a sense of my interests. She later helped me revise my résumé, reading it from line to line and offering many constructive suggestions.
I am now working as a geriatric care specialist at Hamilton-Madison House Caregiver Services Program. Ann will no doubt be my constant source of inspiration as I carry on with my journey. It is like a spring of water flowing into your heart when your passion is recognized and cherished, when what you value about yourself is also valued by someone who knows so much about what the field needs.”
“Although fifty years and five time zones separated Sunnie’s beginnings in social work and my own, I felt an immediate affinity. Not only with her wholehearted embrace of aging as a field of practice, but the enthusiasm and drive to go above and beyond the expected, to continually seek out new opportunities to learn and to serve.
Talking over her résumé, we realized that an outline developed for a typical student was not a perfect fit for one with her extensive international and business experience. The challenge, then, was a re-organization that would highlight her direct practice experience while adequately showcasing her other strengths.
A few emails back and forth did the trick—a great CV, a desired job, and Sunnie on her way to what I know will be a grand professional future. I continue to be in contact with my mentees as they meet the challenges of their first professional jobs, and I look forward to continuing in the program.”
Mentor Match: Mary “Molly” Kowalski, MSW’20, and Ashleigh Washington, MSW’09
Molly Kowalski has aspirations to pursue a career in clinical social work. Ashleigh Washington is senior director of learning and staff development at Safe Horizon, founder of the career development company HumanizEd Learning, and a PhD student at City University of New York.
Molly Kowalski: “Ashleigh reminded me that social work is broad and there are many different things you can do, but not to get overwhelmed by that. My conversations with her helped me to narrow my job search and learn more about organizations I might work for.
We discussed how to prepare for job interviews, how to market myself, and what’s new and challenging in the world of virtual interviews. She really took the time to go through things thoroughly instead of just mentioning them in passing. When I found out I had an interview, we met again and we rehearsed some potential questions and answers.
Ashleigh also provided me with links to webinars for professional development and connected me with others in the field for networking. I subsequently found a job as a multisystemic prevention therapist at the New York Foundling in Queens. I am grateful for all of Ashleigh’s help and support throughout a difficult time entering the profession.”
Ashleigh Washington: “Molly came prepared with questions and drove the conversation, which is key to my mentoring approach. I invited inquiry about her goals, interests, and fears. I am always candid and direct with mentees, and I emphasized self-reflection and self-promotion in her job search.
As a mentor, it’s important to be genuine and share lived experiences personally and professionally, moving away from the myth that work and life are separate and that one does not inform the other. I think mentees appreciate this, especially those who are women of color or people with limited professional experience.
My advice: Do not underestimate your abilities, do not strive for perfection in meeting 100 percent of the qualifications, and don’t rule yourself out by not applying. Get comfortable with technology, work on standing out on paper and in interviews, and leverage existing networks by telling anyone who will listen what you are looking for in a job.”
Mentor Match: Nancy Gershman, MSW’20, and Mark John Mineo, MSW’19
A creative arts practitioner and the co-author of Prescriptive Memories in Grief and Loss: The Art of Dreamscaping (Routledge, 2019), Nancy is pursuing a career in clinical social work. She met with four mentors. Mark Mineo previously counseled job seekers at Upwardly Global and is now a psychotherapist at Jason Walter LCSW and Associates.
Nancy Gershman: “For my mentor I wanted to find an experienced clinical social worker who resided in the New York City area and was running a private practice or working at one. I also looked up each potential match on LinkedIn to see if they took additional training in psychoanalysis or leaned towards more integrative approaches in their practice.
My first mentor, Mark Mineo, was instrumental in aesthetically shaping my CV and therefore my brand. Once the CV enabled a reader to see the forest in the trees, Tomomi Uetani in Career Services further shaped it by asking me the quantitative questions employers ask, such as caseload and percentages.
I asked Mark and two subsequent mentors, John Silver and Ashley Leeds, what it felt like to work in a group practice versus a community mental health center. John Silver also introduced me to a practitioner who was integratively inclined as I was, but who was working as a coach. With my last mentor, Penny Page, I asked delicate questions about job search etiquette and workplace behavior, such as how much to talk to one’s supervisor on the job.
I am now working as a psychotherapist at BHAVA Therapy Group in Midtown. My caseload is 11 and growing. The founders of the practice picked my CV from a pile of applications driven by Indeed, which is mind boggling, as I am 62 years old. Looking back, I think by the time the summer mentorship program ended, I had the steam (and self-esteem) to figure out exactly what to pull out of the job application criteria, and how to respond to it memorably in my cover letter.”
Mark John Mineo: “I began the call by developing a rapport with Nancy as a colleague and then asked her how I could best help. Our conversation was free flowing. We discussed her professional background, internship experience during graduate school, and future career aspirations. Nancy’s curiosity about my background led to a rich discussion about psychotherapy and the rewarding work with clients.
I answered her questions about licensure, job search strategies (utilizing university career services, LinkedIn, the alumni network, and her personal network), and how a private practice differs from a community clinic (in population, organizational structure and culture, supervision experience, procedures, documentation, and payment structure). At the end of the call I offered to review Nancy’s résumé and stated my openness to further discussion and support.
My advice to job seekers is to trust your intuition during a job search. Process your thoughts and feelings about the interviewer and organization after each interview though journaling and speaking with trusted friends, family, counselors, and mentors. Don’t discount your lived experience as valuable preparation for a position. Finally, utilize an Excel spreadsheet to maintain organization, and tailor your résumé and cover letter for each job.”
Want to get involved?
The Alumni-Student Mentoring Program eventually enrolled 220 mentors and 163 students and resulted in over 270 one-on-one conversations. The second iteration of the mentoring initiative will take place during the Fall 2020 semester. To participate as a student or as an alumni mentor, keep an eye out for emails announcing that registration is open.
- Alumni Stories (YouTube playlist, last updated 4.19.2019)
- First Stop Washington, DC, for an “Unstoppable” Career in Social Policy (12.18.2018 news article)
- What’s a Columbia School of Social Work Graduate Doing at Google? (4.13.2016 news article)
- Careers in Social Work (2013 interview series)