Interviewing Potential Bosses: Bi-College Career-Exploration Days in D.C

Posted February 2nd, 2012 at 4:02 pm.

Photo: Architect of the Capitol

Photo: Architect of the Capitol

What kinds of entry-level positions in the federal government are open to humanities majors? Does a career in public-health policy require a Ph.D.? Which employers have adopted family-friendly employment policies? Is affordable housing available in Washington, D.C.? Is commuting from the suburbs expensive?

These are among the questions Bryn Mawr and Haverford students posed to professionals in their workplaces during two “Career Exploration Days” that took place in Washington before the Spring Semester began in January.

On Jan. 10, a small group of Bi-Co students visited Bryn Mawr and Haverford graduates at four different agencies to get their perspectives on working for the federal government; on Jan. 11, a second group of students made the rounds of four more D.C. offices to learn about careers in public-health policy. A broader group of D.C.-area Bi-Co students and alumnae/i met at a networking reception on the evening of Jan. 9.

Equipped with a schedule and travel instructions, each group used public transportation to reach its series of destinations. After emerging from the Metro (and sometimes negotiating building-security checkpoints), the students met with Bi-Co graduates who offered frank insights into the everyday realities of their jobs, tips about  what employers are looking for, and stories about their own surprisingly varied career paths.

“It gave me a chance to see people in their workplaces and to look at organizations that I’d either never heard of or hadn’t thought about as potential employers,” says senior Marni Klein, who is pursuing a major in political science and attended the Jan. 10 program, which included visits to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Education, the Department of State, and the National Cancer Institute.

It was not Klein’s first experience of a Bi-Co Career Exploration Day in D.C.; last spring, she participated in a round of visits focused on international relations. Students register on a first-come, first-served basis, and Klein knew from experience that the slots fill quickly. This time, she says, “I showed up at the Career Development Office before it opened to make sure I got in.”

Anika Ali, a junior math major with a minor in creative writing, has also attended more than one of the events. On Jan. 11, she visited the National Academy for State Health Policy, the Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program  Payment and Access Commission, the AARP, and the Public Health Institute of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“Before I started college, I planned to go to medical school,” says Ali, “but at Bryn Mawr, I discovered that I really loved math. Before I took Discrete Mathematics with Professor [Leslie] Cheng, math was something I was good at, but I had never considered it as a career path.”

Through the D.C. Career Exploration Days, Ali says, “I’ve learned that math is a very versatile skill. At first I thought that a career in math meant being a professor, but I’ve realized that there are other opportunities that might work for me.”

“You need to be creative and open-minded about where you might find work,” Ali continues. “Most of the alumnae/i we talked to are doing jobs that they wouldn’t have imagined themselves doing while they were in college.”

Elizabeth Margosches ’69, a biostatistician who works for the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, agrees: one reason she has hosted Bi-Co students, both for Career Exploration Days and as externs, is to help  them discover the range of potential career paths.

“I realize now that parents of some of my high-school friends were in fields related to what I do, and I had no idea at the time—I didn’t even know the field existed. How does one get people to enter a field unless they know about it?” Margosches says.

Margosches’ willingness to share her knowledge and access with Bi-Co students illustrates a prime reason for the program’s long-term success.

“This program works well in D.C.,” says Bryn Mawr-Haverford Career Development Office Director Liza Jane Bernard, “not only because of the geographic concentration of workplaces, but because of the dedication of the Bi-Co alumnae/i volunteers there. Our office works with the students, but volunteers organize the alums.”

The first Bi-Co Career Exploration Day took place in 1994, says Haverford alumnus Jay Goldman ’78, who developed the program with Bryn Mawr alumna Mike Niccolls ’39, the longtime D.C.-area career-network volunteer.

“Mike and I were looking for ways to involve alumnae/i in D.C., where there really are quite a few committed alums,” says Goldman. “We discovered that there are concentrations of alums in certain fields and suggested to the Career Development Office that we put together a series of short visits to alums in a particular field-two from each college in each field.”

Or, as Niccolls puts it, “We decided it would be a good idea if people came down and interviewed potential bosses.”

According to Goldman, the Career Development Office surveys students to determine which career fields generate the most interest. He and his fellow Bi-Co alumnae/i career-development representatives identify Bi-Co graduates in the field, solicit their participation, and arrange a schedule that takes account of travel between offices and usually includes lunch with a group of alumnae/i.

Although Niccolls still helps to organize the events, she says that she has handed over the reins to Sumaya Abdurrezak ’05, her D.C. co-representative to the Bi-Co Career Development Network. The two also worked closely with Kirin Kalia ’97 until Kalia’s recent move to California.

Abdurrezak, who works with the management-consulting firm Corporate Executive Board, experienced her first Career Exploration Day from the other side: she participated in Career Exploration Days as a student.

“They were very helpful to me,” says Abdurrezak. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I started college. Being able to visit people who had graduated from Bryn Mawr and Haverford in their workplaces helped steer me in a productive direction and prepare me for the working world.”

“Sometimes,” Abdurrezak notes, “the most important thing a student learns about the realities of work in a certain field is that it wouldn’t suit her very well. That’s a valuable insight.”

Finding willing Bi-Co alumnae/i is not a problem, Abdurrezak says, although scheduling is often challenging, especially in fields that tend to require a great deal of travel.

According to the Career Development Office’s post-event surveys, students are grateful for the effort Abdurrezak, Goldman, and their co-representatives put into organizing the events.

Says Klein, the senior poli-sci major: “I certainly couldn’t have arranged this on my own: you don’t just walk into the U.S. Department of State!”

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