About Around the Square January 19, 2010

Photo by Yvonne G. Fowler

Leo Charette, Director of the Office of Career Services

Name: Leo Charette, Director of the Office of Career Services
Residence: Oberlin, Ohio
How long have you worked at Oberlin?    
Two and a half years

Where did you previously work?
I’ve been in career services for more than 20 years. I directed the career offices at Duke University, the College of William and Mary, and Hartwick College.

Educational background?
BA, University of Maine
MA in education, Northeastern University


How has the way you approach career services changed over the years?

The approaches of career services professionals have changed as the requirements of employers have changed. No longer is it only about top students attending the best schools. Employers seek broad knowledge and skills, and Oberlin College provides students with the liberal arts preparation that employers want. However, students need to learn to translate their classroom and extracurricular learning into transferable skills and qualities. The Office of Career Services is an important resource in that integration.

Another change is the importance employers place on experiential learning, particularly internships. No longer optional as they were a decade ago, internships are now a necessity for entry into most competitive industries. To meet this requirement, the Office of Career Services has created several resources:
•    A winter-term internship program that provides experiential opportunities during the month of January to college and conservatory students. Alumni host many of these internships, for which we are most grateful. 
•    Oberlin students have access to two comprehensive internship databases that span geography and career focus and contain thousands of internships. These databases are the results of efforts of two college consortia, both of which I started. One is known as the University Career Action Network (21 colleges) the second is the Liberal Arts Career NetWORK (30 colleges). Comprised of career offices across the country, these consortia have each created and continually maintain web-accessed databases of internships. Oberlin students can now access internships from anywhere in the country.

There is also a need to put employers/alumni in direct communication with students. At Oberlin that translates to alumni networks. In addition to learning about the various career options that are available, students also need to know that the liberal arts path they have chosen is the correct one.The report is available online. http://www.coreoutcomes.project.mnscu.edu/.

Resources in social networking (e.g., LinkedIn) have made an impact not only in helping in transitions, but also they have become significant in job performance. Career service offices must play an important role in teaching students how to build a professional network.

What type of careers are students mainly interested in at Oberlin? Every campus has a different culture.

A significant percentage of students who come to Oberlin College are socially aware. They are interested in having an impact on society, and they really look to see how they might make their time, once they graduate, meaningful. They look at a number of gap-year programs—such as Teach for America and the Peace Corps—because they have a social impact. And, because Oberlin believes in educating students about a variety of career options, career services also runs the Oberlin Business Scholars Program, which brings students to Wall Street and meetings with accomplished alumni. We run the Entrepreneurship Scholars Program, which helps students start thinking about ideas they would like to develop and launch. We also assist Professor Ron Kahn with the Oberlin Law Scholars Program by placing students in law firms over the summer. What’s ultimately important is to help students find their own path.


Are students alarmed about their after-Oberlin prospects because of what’s going on with the economy?

Certainly there’s an awareness that the economy is going through a tough time. If you had friends who graduated last year, you know how difficult it was for them. But most students I meet with are more interested in finding something that they can be passionate about. Most still want to know, ‘how can I take what I’m really interested in, and apply it?’


Has your office received many calls from alumni since the job market’s nosedive?

I would say so; we’ve heard from members of the class of 2009 who are still in the area. I’m working with alumni, and I know some of the other counselors are working with alumni as well. I wouldn’t say that the numbers are excessive, but we’ve certainly have seen an increase.


When alumni do call, what are some of their concerns?

Many of them are in job transitions and looking for ways to make connections with other alumni. They want help with their résumés, and some of them want to go to grad school. It really runs the gamut.


With the economy situation, I’m sure alumni would like to know how your office would be able to help them. Are there specific things that you can do for them?

Many of our services are available to alumni who are no more than five years out. That’s because we focus on students who are going into entry-level positions. As a result, we’re not as geared for folks who are in management range or higher. However, we have never turned an alum away.

[As an office], we help alumni build personal networks. I’ve been pretty excited about LinkedIn. The profiles of alumni in LinkedIn are rich, and one sees a history of what their professional progression has been. At this point we have profiles from about 8,000 alumni on LinkedIn, plus an Oberlin alumni group with about 1,800 alumni profiles. What’s excellent about the Oberlin group is there’s a lot of discussion that goes on—about Oberlin in general and about careers. With LinkedIn, the user can invite people to be a part of their network. If they agree, then you know all of their contacts. It becomes a very rich resource, not only for job searches, but for enhancing the information base for your current job. You can go to your network and ask questions that you might be dealing with on your job. LinkedIn can become a vital part of your career.


What new services are you planning to provide alumni?

We definitely recognize that there’s a need. The Business Scholars Program includes a networking reception, during which students meet with alumni. I see no reason why that can’t grow to become a networking resource for younger alumni, too. So this year, we will expand our New York networking reception to include a broader alumni population.

As for future plans, we are interested in helping alumni produce excellent résumés. The trend is to put résumés online and build independent websites that are interactive. Moving forward, we’ll certainly look at offering those types of services. Alumni can already post their resumes to their personal profiles in ObieWeb.

I’d like to see Oberlin’s alumni network grow so alumni can more effectively build relationships.

For those alumni facing job loss, what words of wisdom can you offer?

I’ve gone through a time of unemployment myself, and I know it can be a difficult time. Every person I have met from Oberlin is magnificent in his or her own way. I would tell newly unemployed alumni that they will land on their feet, even though at some points it may seem that nothing will ever open. It’s helpful to see what other Oberlin alumni have done in similar situations. Our office certainly views its role with alumni as coach, assisting them with developing a plan and keeping them moving toward that goal. Sometimes you feel like saying, ‘gosh, I don’t think I can send in another résumé.’ It’s helpful to have someone who can serve as a coach or consultant to keep you on task.


How can alumni assist current students to prepare for their future?

The backbone of our office are the alumni, successful professionals who can sit with a student and tell them what things are really like in their fields. Keeping your profile updated on ObieWeb and creating an account on LinkedIn and joining the Oberlin Alumni Group at LinkedIn would be most helpful in assisting students and fellow alumni who are seeking knowledge about careers, industries, and employers.

We’re definitely in a time when students who have some experience on their résumé will have leverage. As I mentioned earlier, alumni have been very supportive of the winter-term internship program. Where most companies may be reluctant to take an intern for only a month, our alumni have been incredibly generous. We’ve had internships across a wide range of professions all over the country, from James Taylor in his recording studio, to publishing houses, and in not-for-profits. We’ve also had alumni who have volunteered to open their homes for a month, because students need temporary housing during winter term (or also during the summer months).

We would welcome alumni getting involved in our on-campus recruiting program by telling employers they work for about our students or by coming to campus themselves to recruit. I realize that in this day of tight travel budgets, coming to Oberlin may be out of the question. To address this issue, Oberlin has joined (as a founding member) a consortium known at the Select Liberal Arts Consortium. This 14-college consortium organizes off-campus recruiting events in four cities (Chicago, Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C.). Satellite offices are set up for a day in each of the cities, and employers are able to interview pre-selected students from each of the participating campuses. This is a very cost-effective means for employers to gain access to some of the brightest students from highly selective colleges, including Oberlin.


Interviewed by Yvonne Gay Fowler

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