The business-casual shoes of more than 500 students shuffled through the Fairmont Hotel to mingle with Chicago alumni downtown last Saturday at the eighth annual Taking the Next Step, the University's networking event for third-years.
During panel discussions, a luncheon, and a dessert reception, the alumni advised students on career choices, graduate schools, and internship opportunities, using their own experiences as templates for the eager, if not restless, students.
"This is a way to say, Look at all the things U of C alums are doing with this degree, which you'll have in a year,'" said Lori Hurvitz, director of the College Programming Office (CPO).
Many in the crowd seemed unsure about their futures, and some said they had not previously contemplated at length their career plans. "I'm a third-year and I have really no idea what I want to do after graduation, other than the general idea that a job would be a good thing and that my parents would probably like that," Sascha Fishman joked.
Her status in the job search is shared by many of her classmates. "I didn't understand the differences between categories of economic fields," Mihai Sturdza said. "That's probably a pretty basic thing, but I hadn't taken the time or the trouble to look that up."
One other third-year attending the event said he thought he had a grand careerin construction. "I was hoping to cement what I wanted to do after college," Brett Reynolds said. "I received a lot of good answers, but I'm still just as clueless as ever."
Students said that rather than causing stress, the event reassured them that their lack of definite plans was normal. "There's less pressure on you that you have to be sure about your future right now," Hyun Ah Yoon said. She attended a panel where an alumnus talked about graduating with an English concentration and then becoming a doctor.
"There's a lot more flexibility than I had previously thought," Elizabeth Petro said. "A lot of it is fortuitous."
Of his career plans, Reid Aronson said, "I haven't the foggiest idea, but this made me feel better about having no idea."
Keynote speaker Emily Nicklin, a Chicago lawyer, echoed these sentiments in her address. She stressed that there is never one straight path leading to a career destination. "Each thing I've done, I had no clue how it would turn out, but I have this set of arrows," Nicklin said, referring to the skills she acquired from the University.
"I continue to be scared. I'm a little nervous talking to you right now," she said, reassuring the room. "If you don't have some of that concern, then you're not fully engaged."
The meeting rooms of the Fairmont were filled with a variety of panel discussions, with no room holding a strong majority of panelists or students. Alumni talked to students about careers from healthcare to non-profits to urban planning.
"We try really hard not to make it about consulting and investment banking," Hurvitz said. "We have something there for everybody."
The panelists talked repeatedly about the privileges of the critical thinking skills acquired from a Chicago education. "Coming from Chicago, you have a lot of really great things behind you," said Jean Bauer, a graduate student at UVA.
Bob Levey, a Washington Post columnist, said that journalism school was not a necessity for University alumni. "Your U of C education and ability is going to get you there," he said.
Besides providing analytical skills, the University campus is also filled with good contact opportunities. "Professors at Chicago are wonderful," said Bauer. "They care about undergraduates. They want to help you. They're the experts in their fields." Bauer said her professors were integral in her search for a graduate school that would cater to her specific field.
The value of networking is not to be underestimated. Many of the panelists said that they got their first jobs from Chicago connections. "It sounds like I'm telling you to go out and ingratiate yourselves to people," said Paul Fagen, an advisor at a charter high school. "Well, I'm telling you to go out and ingratiate yourselves to people."
There was also an effort to dispel a certain stigma about networking. "Networking is what adults call making friends," said consultant Oren Lieberman.
Looking uncharacteristically sophisticated in their requisite business-casual outfits, students tried their hands at some networking. They lingered after the discussions, some straining to make small talk and form connections.
These efforts proved fruitful in many cases. "I got into a conversation at random with a guy and he said if I was looking for a job to send him an e-mail and perhaps get an interview," said Scott Weese. He quickly added that, following strict instructions from CPO, he hadn't asked for the interview himself.
"I got a couple of e-mail addressessome good contacts," Amy Steelman said.
Others weren't so lucky. Adam Wesolowski didn't find the noisy dessert reception an atmosphere conducive to meeting new people. "I think they kind of overstate the whole networking aspect," he said.
Event organizers said Taking the Next Step was a success, especially because it attracted the largest number of participants ever. "I think the day ran really smoothly," Hurvitz said. "We were really pleased with the turnout."
Hurvitz added that the CPO is awaiting feedback so they can determine what changes are needed for future years.