University Relations and the Career Center hosted the first Connect@WES networking event on Friday, Feb. 29 and Saturday, Mar. 1. Registration for all events was free and open to all students and alumni. Friday’s events were targeted toward student education and experience, while Saturday’s program was more alumni-oriented and focused on career management.
Director of the Wesleyan Career Center Sharon Belden Castonguay spearheaded the project, having experienced success with a similar format at a business school. The schedule began with a networking exercise for students, during which they were individually paired with business professionals for brief, one-on-one sessions.
Belden Castonguay said that this exercise was designed to give students an opportunity to practice presenting themselves to industry professionals.
“It was really about walking up to a stranger, sticking out your hand, and introducing yourself, and recognizing that that seems like something that should be easy and it’s actually really hard,” Belden Castonguay said. “If you’re doing it for the first time in a setting where it counts, that’s a lot harder.”
She further emphasized that student learning was the primary goal of the exercise.
“We told the expert advisers [that] this [was] educational,” Belden Castonguay said. “Give them feedback…. If they’re [speaking] for too long and not giving you enough information or their handshake isn’t firm enough, whatever it is, give them that feedback. That way they can get that level of polish in a safe space before they go to [a] trade association meeting or a job fair or a job interview.”
Kate Davis ’16 attended the networking event and stated that she found it extremely beneficial to practice being professional in a more relaxed environment.
“I’m looking to increase my comfort level,” Davis said. “A lot of this professional networking is super intense. There are a lot of expectations, there are a lot of dignified people in suits, and I’m just trying to not embarrass myself.”
Following the networking exercise, CEO and President of Alliance Data Ed Heffernan ’84 gave a lecture about succeeding in the business world. This event was open to all and was aimed at informing students about the most important parts of a corporate career.
Heffernan stressed flexibility in professional life, encouraging students to take risks and jobs outside of their comfort zones. He also emphasized the importance of maintaining personal energy in the workplace.
“Never forget the personal touch,” Heffernan said. “The personal touch means more than you could possibly imagine…. When you’re out there, it doesn’t cost you a dime to say ‘thank you,’ but boy, it will pay dividends forever.”
Heffernan concluded his talk by saying that the benefits of a liberal arts education do not manifest immediately, but are hugely important in the long run.
“You are playing what I call the long game,” Heffernan said. “You are not playing the game where you’re learning skills so that you can go out into the market and be an engineer tomorrow. What you are learning is far more valuable, but it’s going to take time. My wish is that, 20 years from now, there’ll be five Wesleyan [CEOs] in the top 500 companies. Why not? Smart, aggressive, energetic, willing to take a risk.”
Saturday’s schedule included an opening lecture, lunch, and two blocks of three breakout sessions. Events focused on working across generations, building a personal calling card, and possibilities for professional development. The day concluded with a reception in the Career Center and closing remarks from Bradley Whitford ’81. Whitford’s talk focused largely on his own experience in the film industry and why a liberal arts degree is an advantage in Hollywood.
“Part of the reason [Wesleyan] has such a strong presence in the film business, which is really extraordinary for a school this size…is precisely because they did not come out of narrow film school,” Whitford said. “The film education they got here was done in a liberal arts atmosphere and they became interesting kids who could really write.”
The University hopes to make Connect@WES an annual event. Belden Castonguay stressed the importance of career awareness in a liberal arts setting.
“[Career planning is] not an easy thing [for the University] to do because every student has their own way of doing that, especially at a school like Wesleyan,” she said. “The interests here of the student body are disparate in a very good way, but it means that every student has to think individually about what this means to them. These events are important so that even freshman and sophomores can start thinking about these things.”