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“Being able to reach out to them and say, ‘I know things are strange and you’re feeling unsettled, but I’m here and this is what we’re going to do together to help you’ is so impactful right now. Finding ways to connect them to employers, virtual professional development events, certifications, and each other has been and continues to be so important.”
The Harbert College effectively supports student efforts to explore, define, and achieve their career aspirations. Through our team of program champions, this mission is carried out.
Be flexible. Be compassionate. Be Innovative.
“I take those words to heart,” said Megan Sumners, Program Champion in Harbert College’s Department of Management. “I have tried to treat every situation with those words in mind. There has been so much unknown and I didn’t have all of the answers.”
When COVID-19 forced remote instruction and advising on March 12, students’ classrooms and mentors within the college became images and voices on their respective laptops. One week, the college’s team of program champions – Sumners, Frank Oprandy (Graduate Career Services), Emory Serviss (Marketing), Colby Lakas (Accounting), Michael Lamb (information systems management and business analytics), Mandy Harrelson (Finance), and Alex Ritenbaugh (Supply Chain Management) -- were meeting face-to-face with students, discussing career paths, internship options and academic challenges. The next week, those physical meetings turned virtual. Students needed help, guidance, and mostly … reassurance.
“There is so much uncertainty right now with COVID-19,” said Harrelson. “Students ask, ‘Am I safe?’ ‘Employment … is anyone hiring right now?’ ‘Are internships being canceled?’ It was even more important for us to serve our students and be a safe place for them to come with questions and concerns.”
But Harbert College’s team of program champions were there. Serving. Assisting. Guiding.
“It is vital that we stay connected to them and serve them during this time,” Ritenbaugh said. “Being able to reach out to them and say, ‘I know things are strange and you’re feeling unsettled, but I’m here and this is what we’re going to do together to help you’ is so impactful right now. Finding ways to connect them to employers, virtual professional development events, certifications, and each other has been and continues to be so important. Just lending an ear – talking through their job search roadblocks, frustrations and ideas is huge.”
Oprandy noted that “great organizations continuously communicate during crisis situations.”
“Students are anxious, they are far away and they are out of their routines, so they need more information and a friendly ear to hear what’s on their mind,” he said. “In times like these, we are hearing more and more about what is going on in their lives, not just what’s going on in their (job) searches. They need more of our time to listen to what they are afraid of, what they are anxious about, even if we do not have specific answers.”
Sumners earned her undergraduate in Communications from Auburn University in 2008. She knows something about job searching in rocky financial times. “That was otherwise known as the Great Recession,” she recalled. “I didn’t know anyone in my college or career services that could guide me through that difficult employment situation. Fast forward to 2020. The university, and particularly the college, has built a tremendous infrastructure of career coaches, faculty and staff to prepare students for the job search process and, ultimately, long-term career success.”
‘Zooming all day, every day’
Since face-to-face meetings evaporated from most daily schedules since mid-March, how have program champions kept in touch with students? Phone, email … and the ever-so-popular web tool Zoom, of course. Zoom allows users to meet, face-to-face in real time on their computers and smart phones, in private or group events.
“I emphasize active learning in my classes and moving to remote instruction required that I find new ways for students to engage remotely with each other,” said Serviss, who, in addition to his Program Champion duties, teaches digital marketing. “So I utilized CANVAS online discussions to replace the in-class active learning. I also created a class GroupMe to interact with my students and they seemed to enjoy this more informal way of communication.”
Ritenbaugh said she’s “been Zooming all day, every day.”
“I like to have face-to-face conversations with my students,” she said. “Sure, an email or phone call will be fine for smaller questions, but when you’re having important conversations about career goals or life obstacles, nothing beats face-to-face. It’s also been fun to meet the students’ dogs and cats!
“Another silver lining to this whole situation has been being able to connect with our industry partners via Zoom. It’s expensive for companies to travel to campus to do in-person events and technology has allowed us to set up some virtual information sessions and webinars that our students probably would not have attended during their normal, busy on-campus schedules.”
Harrelson created a special blog for finance students as an alternative means of communication. The blog is updated frequently with internship and job opportunities and other important career-related resources.
Lamb noted that new graduates are facing a challenging job environment, “So we must remain committed to serving our students in different ways despite the ongoing uncertainty.”
“It’s been more difficult because students can’t just drop by my office to talk,” he said. “Many international students have had to go back to their homes and feel more isolated than other students. Technology, including Zoom, has allowed me to remain in communication with students to highlight opportunities and provide guidance for students. Luckily, information systems management and business analytics students embrace disruption and understand the importance of technology and how to leverage it in times like these.”
Adapting to Change
As the School of Accountancy’s Beta Alpha Psi Faculty Advisor and Program Champion, Lakas’ chief duty has been to connect industry with Harbert College accounting students – a matchmaker, so to speak. Things obviously changed in March. Lakas didn’t fold the tent. She adapted.
Take the SOA’s previously-scheduled career fair and regional “Meet and Greet” events, for example. Instead of hosting the physical events, the “Résumé Round Up” was born.
“Rather than expect students and recruiters to attend a single hour and a half event, we changed the format to be a résumé drop with a fun theme,” Lakas said. “Students were given a ‘floor plan’ that had a logo for each participating employer. Students clicked the logos to submit their résumés to the virtual booth and then recruiters could contact them at their convenience to set up a call, or Zoom.”
The virtual event lasted for one week in April and drew nearly 100 students and 32 employers, Lakas said. “We received great feedback on both ends about the convenience and ease of participation. Employers also appreciated that Auburn still made the effort to connect them with students despite the circumstances. Other schools cancelled events outright.”
What does a program champion’s perfect day look like? “When students pause, spend time thinking and planning for their future and learn about all of the amazing resources Auburn University and the Harbert College of Business provides for them,” Harrelson said. “The best part of our jobs is meeting with the students, getting to know their goals and dreams, and finding ways that we can help them achieve those hopes and dreams.”
What makes Auburn unique is the student experience.
“Our faculty and staff truly care about students’ well-being and development – and that care does not dissolve when we aren’t together on campus,” Lakas added. “I felt very accountable to the ‘Auburn Way’ and did not want students to feel cheated out of what we ordinarily do to serve them, as the circumstances were obviously outside of everyone’s control. I think we managed to steer the ship into the harbor, so to speak. Our roles are rewarding because we get to share in the triumphs of students getting that coveted internship. In the case of the pandemic, you also share in the disappointment that comes with an abbreviated, or cancelled, internship. The students’ ability to adapt and exhibit resilience right now is what will make them great candidates for future opportunities.”