Students explore career opportunities by visiting alumni where they work
By Anthony Langley
Mark McKenzie, assistant director of Career and Industry Advising at Virginia Commonwealth University, has always enjoyed helping students find their way. That’s why he started Career Treks, a career exploration program that gives students the opportunity to survey careers in various industries through tours and meetings with professionals who work in the industries they visit. Often, those people are VCU alumni.
“Whether it’s the undergrad student who’s just trying to figure things out or the master’s or Ph.D. candidates who have a narrow focus on what they’d like to do, everyone could use a little guidance,” he says.
The pilot program, launched in January, took students on trips to several business and organizations based in Ricmond, Virginia, including UnboundRVA, World Pediatric Project, Elephant Insurance, the Virginia Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services and Virginia21.
“Oftentimes students have no idea what they want to do,” McKenzie says. “It’s important because it lets them experience different careers in a no-pressure environment.”
Chris Waggener Ph.D. (M.S.’05/H&S; Ph.D.’13/LS), lead scientist and food safety inspection services training coordinator for the Food Emergency Response Network at DCLS, echoes McKenzie’s feelings about the importance of these programs.
“I found out about a lot of different career paths way too late,” Waggener says. “It would’ve definitely been cool to have a program like this when I was going through school.”
Waggener met with Career Treks students at DCLS in March and took them through the different facets of what the laboratory does, from food safety to handling biological threats such as Ebola. He credits Career Treks for providing the laboratory with prime candidates who are interested in the sciences, and he made sure that before the group left that each student had his contact information.
“I know that networking is huge early in their careers,” he says. “Because of this program, they now have someone to talk to when they’re nearing graduation.”
Harper Lorencki (B.A.’13/H&S; B.S.’13/H&S) works for World Pediatric Project, another organization Career Treks students visited in the spring. The nonprofit sends medical mission teams to areas like the Caribbean and Central America to perform high-level pediatric specialty services. WPP also helps to identify children who can’t be treated in their home country and put them on a waitlist to travel to the U.S. for medical care.
“A lot of countries don’t have specialists,” says Lorencki, volunteer director at WPP. “There could also be a lack of equipment, and sometimes the surgeries can just be too complicated to be performed in their home country.”
When Career Treks students visited WPP, they toured the offices, viewed a presentation about workplace diversity and talked with staff about job-hunting tips.
“Students may not see the face value of these kinds of experiences, but I think that having that exposure to real-world situations early on is a vital part of preparing them for entering the workforce,” Lorencki says.
Looking toward the future, McKenzie says he’s hoping to expand the program to accommodate more students and trips as well as add more variety to the types of businesses students visit.
“We want to make it real for these students,” he says. “When they’re excited about their careers, they do better in classes and are happier. I’m glad we can help with that.”
Would you like to share your experiences with students? Learn how you can participate in Career Treks or volunteer with other career services opportunities at careers.vcu.edu/alumni/get-involved.