Author: Tess Langan
Each May, fewer than 500 students walk across the Greek Bowl stage, turn their tassels and exchange their student rank for the daunting title of “alumnus.” Every four years, then, Occidental churns out a humble number of alumni, just under 2,000.
While Occidental prides itself on its tight-knit community and subsequent advantages of a small liberal arts college, a student body smaller than most public high schools undoubtedly acts as a double-edged sword. The 21,000 person alumni network of Occidental simply can’t compete with that of larger schools; for example, the University of Southern California’s network, called the “Trojan Family,” is currently 300,000 strong.
Recognizing the importance of a strong alumni network in today’s global economy, a number of dedicated Occidental alumni, parents and staff are spearheading several initiatives to improve connections between members of the Occidental community.
This January, Occidental’s Career Development Center (CDC) introduced a budding job-shadowing and internship program designed to encourage parents and alumni to provide students with internships and jobs in the Portland, OR area. The CDC is overseeing the project and working to replicate it in other areas of the country.
The Portland initiative, along with the construction of the new Samuelson Alumni Center at 1599 Campus Road, signals Occidental’s renewed commitment to galvanizing alumni to create a more connected and engaged Occidental community and to increase the college’s competitiveness with other small liberal arts schools.
The project will join a variety of other services currently offered by the CDC. The online networking directory, Tigerwire, helps students find internships and jobs, and the CDC annually offers six arts and public service-based internships under the Community Arts and Public Service (CAPS) program. The Walk in My Shoes (WIMS) program provides opportunities for students to shadow alumni in careers that interest them, and a new, smaller program known as Boot Camp will provide intensive career-preparation to first and second-years.
“Under President Veitch and our Supervisor, Brett Schraeder, AVP of Strategic Initiatives, we are in the process of defining a strategic plan that will change the way we deliver career services which includes a class-based approach to career discernment and fundraising for Oxy-sponsored internships in career areas of high interest to students,” CDC Director Valerie Savior said.
Still, many Occidental students are unaware of the services offered by the CDC, particularly underclassmen.
First-year Michaela Bosch, who spent much of her senior year of high school shopping for colleges by sifting through brochures and reading college admissions books, said Occidental’s literature for prospective students failed to mention an alumni network. “I’ve heard literally nothing about it,” she said.
Tess Morrison (junior) also had little to say when asked about the network. “I haven’t really heard anything about the alumni network,” she said. “Unfortunately, I don’t feel like current students have much of a relationship with alumni.”
Though it can be difficult for small schools like Occidental to create alumni networks comparable to larger schools, the Princeton Review ranks two small liberal arts colleges, Claremont McKenna in California (No. 6) and Lafayette College in Pennsylvania (No. 15), among the country’s 20 best for their career services. The success of Lafayette and Claremont McKenna proves that it is possible for other small institutions to compete with big state schools, and Occidental is aiming to do just that.
Another example of a small liberal arts college with a thriving alumni network is Colgate University in New York. On its website, the school boasts its 74 percent employment rate for alumni one year after graduation (another 20 percent are in graduate school and 1 percent are on fellowship). Colgate maintains an Office of Alumni Affairs, on and off-campus recruiting, pre-professional planning programs for all major disciplines and an internship credit program to open up internships that, according to the website, “would otherwise not be available to our students due to some employers’ hiring conditions.”
Whitman College in Washington has also implemented an alumni network program in Portland. Through their Student Engagement Center students can connect to Whitman alumni working in various fields. According to their website, the college’s expansive database supplies students with contact information for “group of alumni who have volunteered to be resources for students looking for information on internships and careers.”
Director of Parent Relations Jim Wheat ‘74 is the pioneer of the Portland alumni network program. Wheat compared the Portland initiative to career development programs at other similarly sized liberal arts schools like Kenyon College in Ohio, which encourages students to take internships during a one-month winter term in January.
In another move designed to improve Occidental’s connection with its graduates, the college broke ground on the Samuelson Alumni Center in November 2010, which will replace the current Alumni Relations building at 1541 Campus Road and serve as the college’s new guest house.
Executive Director of Alumni Relations and General Counsel Carl Botterud ‘79 elaborated on the functions of the new center. “We envision opportunities for networking and mentoring by bringing alums together with students.” He said the building will “remind students and alums alike that membership in the Oxy community does not end at commencement but endures for a lifetime.”
The center is the brainchild of lead donors Jack Samuelson ‘46 and Sally Samuelson ‘48, who approached President Veitch about building a new alumni center in the summer of 2009, according to Occidental Magazine.
“I was the first trustee who got to meet Jonathan after he was picked as president. And I laid it on the line. I told him we’ve been fooling around for 10 years, and it’s time to do something,” Jack Samuelson said.
In many ways, the creation of the Samuelson Alumni Center parallels the goals of the Portland alumni network project, which is also cultivating connections among Occidental graduates to establish a strong alumni network.
According to Wheat, the Portland alumni network project began last year at a reception hosted by P’14 parents in the city. David Griswold ‘84, founder and CEO of Sustainable Harvest, an international coffee-importing company that finds buyers for third-world farmers and educates them to dissolve divisions within the supply-chain, attended the event. Each summer Griswold offers several highly contested and coveted internships to Occidental students.
Last summer, Lee Rosch (junior), Tara Skar (senior) and Nicholas Conti (senior) interned with Sustainable Harvest. Rosch said he enjoyed working for the company. “It is a really exciting and innovative company that was great to be a part of,” he wrote. “I was able to apply my major [Media Arts and Culture] to help the company generate media-based training materials that will help coffee producers from around the world strengthen their
farming practices and improve the well-being of their families and communities.”
The success of Griswold’s initiative highlighted the untapped potential of alumni involvement, potential that Portland-area parents Leslie Trim and Iraj Vojdami P’14 are eager to capitalize on. At another Portland reception to announce new internships in June 2011, Wheat said the parents gave a call to action for other parents and alumni.
On Jan. 12 they invited students to apply to job-shadowing and internships opportunities in the Portland area for spring and summer break. “Student response has been very strong so far, with over 90 parents, students, alumni and internship providers showing up at our last event,” Savior said.
Rosch praised the Portland receptions. “It seemed that at both events students were really excited about the career development possibilities available. The events in Portland were great at helping to establish a close-knit Occidental community away from Los Angeles,” Rosch said.
Peter and Rebecca Wright, P’13, attended the January event and are equally supportive of this new project and its expansion. “As the parents of a current Occidental student, we were very encouraged by the efforts of the Career Development Center and the Alumni Association to help students in the area of finding job-shadowing and internship opportunities,” Peter Wright said.
“We sincerely hope that this type of event can be duplicated in cities across the country as networking is becoming more and more essential for our students as they enter a very competitive job market,” Rebecca Wright added.
Current job-shadowing opportunities in Portland span a wide range of fields, including finance, health, public policy, social services, public health, broadcasting and entertainment. Internship options are diverse as well and include focuses on sustainability, global business, social services, non-profit housing services, health and political communications.
As an Occidental alumnus himself whose parents met on campus in the 1940s, Wheat is particularly excited about the new project. He commended the Portland region for its participation and initiative and said he hopes that the program will catch on in other areas with many Occidental alumni such as Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Boston, Chicago and Minneapolis.
But tempering his enthusiasm with a realistic outlook, Wheat acknowledged that the program is just getting started. “This is the first one we’ve done. We’re using it as a sort of incubator to see how it will work and how we will engage Oxy students.”
Savior added that it might take a few semesters for the program to find its footing. “It is a nascent project in its pilot year. Experience shows that new projects such as this take time to acclimatize into the college culture. Our work now is to outreach to make sure students understand and apply for the opportunities. It is still a work in progress.”
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