Polish, Practice, Prepare

A professional development program at Tennessee Tech helps ready students for the workplace.
Polish, Practice, Prepare

IN 2002, I ATTENDED a scholarship dinner for undergraduates at Tennessee Tech’s College of Business in Cookeville. This annual event allows the college to recognize and thank donors, but it’s also a chance for students to meet the very people who have made it possible for them to attend college. Unfortunately, at the dinner I attended, few students took advantage of that chance. Many of them didn’t have training in how to dress, how to interact, or how to present themselves to potential future employers. Most students talked only to people they knew, without networking with any of the donors. That was a lost opportunity for all in attendance.

Not long afterward, the dean at the time raised the idea of starting a success center for business students. His goal was to provide not only a one-stop advisory center, but also a place that could offer professional development training. At that time, the only option for business students who wanted such training was to turn to a small career services department that served the whole university.

The need to provide professional development was highlighted by the responses to a survey that had been sent to alumni from the past ten years, asking what they had not gotten from their college experiences. Overwhelmingly, both undergraduate and graduate students informed us that while they had felt academically prepared to start their careers at graduation, they had not developed the professional polish and business etiquette they needed for the workplace.

The dean realized that, as a business school, we had an obligation to teach our students more than how to read financial reports and devise marketing plans; we had to show them how to function socially and navigate professionally in the business world. Shortly after that, the Student to Career (S2C) program was born, and I was asked to lead it. While it had modest beginnings, it has grown to encompass an ambitious series of events and services designed to teach students how to be professional in every sense of the word.

I WANT STUDENTS TO START THINKING MORE ABOUT THEIR TRANSFERRABLE SKILLS.

DRESSED FOR SUCCESS

In 2005, I organized my first S2C event: a bus trip called Ticket to Ride, which took business students to the Nashville Career Fair. At the time, I was working out of a cubicle with the aid of one work-study student. Together, we spent six weeks prepping students on all aspects of attending the career fair: writing résumés, researching potential employers, dressing for the event, preparing for interviews, talking with prospective employers at the fair, and following up afterward.

While a few of our students secured interviews or internship opportunities on that first Ticket to Ride, it was apparent that most of them needed much more help to create a professional appearance. For instance, some students couldn’t adequately dress for interviews because they simply didn’t own the proper clothing. Therefore, in 2008, we launched the Business Professional Clothes Closet and filled it with donated items that students could check out like library books.

Today the Clothes Closet is still an essential part of the S2C program. We stock suits for men and women, as well as every imaginable accessory—everything but Spanx and underpants. There’s no specific time limit, but they are required to have the clothing dry cleaned before they return it. To make that simpler, we partnered with an alum who owns a dry cleaning establishment and who can offer a Tennessee Tech University discount on dry cleaning and alteration services.

Over the years, the closet has grown from a small cubbyhole with hangers hung over lead pipes to a new location that used to be a storage closet. When we first opened the Clothes Closet, about 15 students per semester utilized it. Today that number is about 200 per semester. I estimate that, in any given year, between 40 percent and 60 percent of COB students take advantage of the resource.

The closet is stocked by an ongoing stream of donations, even though I only made a single appeal for gifts when I sent a postcard to alumni asking for interview-appropriate clothing. That was back in 2008. Since then, word has continued to spread through donors, stakeholders, and the business community. I’ve received entire wardrobes from people with no direct affiliation with the school; the director of our advancement foundation has received donations earmarked for S2C that enable me to purchase items in very large or very small sizes that I don’t have on hand. My staff keeps track of every shoe, belt, and tie we receive, so the advancement department can write letters to the donors that they can use for tax purposes.

I have found that students who rely heavily on the closet are the first to donate once they graduate and get jobs. They’re also more likely to come back to be speakers or to participate in our other events, and they’re more likely to donate scholarship money.

The Clothes Closet has helped the College of Business institute a culture of expectation, because incoming students quickly see how they are expected to dress. They understand that they need a suit, just like they need a laptop. They understand that we are grooming them to succeed in the business world.

PRACTICE MAKES PROFESSIONALS

Soon after we launched the Clothes Closet, we began looking for more opportunities to allow our students to socialize and network in professional environments. For instance, a few years ago, the director of our advancement department invited a small number of students to attend the College of Business Board of Trustees (COBBOT) Foundation Celebration Dinner so they could hear a celebrity speaker and meet with stakeholders. Today, up to 200 business students can attend these annual dinners, depending on budget and venue. Students who are interested can register to attend, and my staff and I hold workshops with them before the event to prepare them for the opportunity.

We also decided to host our own event to give students additional chances to practice networking and table manners, and in 2009 we launched the Etiquette Dinner. The first event was relatively small, drawing only 25 students and one corporate sponsor, but over the years it has grown in both size and significance. Today, it draws more than 200 students and 100 business professionals, and it has become a signature event for the College of Business. Not only does the Etiquette Dinner give students a chance to practice their networking skills, it gives the college a way to forge deeper connections with community leaders, alumni, faculty, staff, and the administration. It also offers an opportunity for prospective donors and employers to interact with TTU students.

Any business leaders who want to come to the dinner is funded by COBBOT and private donors. Both undergraduates and grad students are welcome, but they must pay a US$10 fee. This fee, along with the extensive workshop and professional development training they receive for the event, gets them invested in the experience and makes it less likely they will cancel at the last minute.

This is an important consideration, because the seating arrangements are so intricate. I painstakingly match attending students with business leaders who might have similar backgrounds. For instance, I might seat students from a small county in Tennessee with an extremely successful professional alum from the same county so students can see what kind of success is possible for people who might have started out just like them. Like other aspects of the dinner, the table pairings are designed to foster confidence in students and show them the path toward becoming professionals.

EVENT PREP
Because the Etiquette Dinner is such an important event for the College of Business, it has sparked a series of changes to the S2C program. Many of these changes are interrelated, and most are designed to support or enhance the banquet:

Brand packages: I always survey employers to ask which candidates they choose for interviews and why. I learned that, even when they liked candidates in person, employers tended not to invite them for interviews until they had done a Google check to see how the students presented themselves on social media.

Therefore, in 2013, I started requiring students to develop their own individual online “brand packages.” My goal is to make sure students know how to present themselves accurately and effectively in person, on paper—and online. Each brand package must consist of a professional photo, a résumé, and a bio or LinkedIn profile, and each package must be uploaded to the S2C website before students can register for the Etiquette Dinner. To help students put together their brand packages, we hold workshops on writing résumés and creating LinkedIn profiles in the weeks leading up to the banquet.

Photo Booth: We also make it easy—and free—for students to obtain a professional photograph of themselves. We hire the school photographer to come to the student lounge for two hours once every semester, a few weeks before our biggest events. He tapes butcher paper over the wall and sets up the proper lighting; my staff and I provide items from the Clothes Closet. We can serve more than 150 people in 120 minutes. While the $100 cost for the two hours comes out of my budget, I make Photo Booth available to the entire university, and it’s become extremely popular with students, staff, and faculty.

I’m convinced that a professional photograph is a key component of the job search. Employers, interviewers, recruiters, and professional business guests all say they consider the photos when they’re looking at applicants. I also believe that when students sit for photos and include the portraits in their profiles, they take ownership of their personal brands both on- and offline.

Let’s Talk About You: At this event, students who are new to S2C bring in their résumés and are paired with “shepherding ” students who have more experience with networking and interviewing. The shepherds read the résumés and interview their partner students, Therefore, in 2013, I started requiring students to develop their own individual online “brand packages.” the room; this process helps uncover any gaps that exist in the information students are presenting about themselves, both on paper and in person. We also host a networking night and invite local offers an opportunity for prospective donors and employers to interact with TTU students. Any business leaders who want to come to the dinner first must be vetted by my staff; once they’ve been approved, they can attend at no cost, because My goal is to make sure students know how to present themselves accurately and effectively in person, on paper—and online. Each brand package must consist of a professional photo, a résumé, and a bio or LinkedIn profile, and each package must be uploaded to the S2C professionals to come in so students can practice talking about themselves.

Such activities are important be- cause most jobs require applicants to have about three years of experience, and my students tend to think they don’t have any work history that qualifies. I want them to start thinking about their transferrable skills. If a young man has owned a lawn-mowing business since he was 14, he’s had to learn accounting, management, marketing, upkeep of equipment—everything. I ask students, “What do you have to bring to the table, and how can you talk about it?” I tell them, “If you’ve sold food to the American public or helped them buy shoes, you can work for anybody.” Dining etiquette workshop: At this event, students get a chance to practice everything from pulling out a chair to holding a napkin to dishing out salad dressing. We provide fun food like donuts, cheese, and brownies so they can learn to cut things into bite-sized pieces and practice conversation as they pass the bread. Held shortly before the Etiquette Dinner, this workshop gives students the final preparation they need to successfully network at the event. As these activities indicate, S2C is not a career services center or a placement office; it is a professional training course. In fact, I hand out business cards that include the motto “polish, practice, prepare” because that is what every one of our activities is designed to help students do.

 

MORE UPGRADES

The S2C program continues to evolve every year—in part because, after every event, I survey all attendees to find out how to improve the next one. For instance, a couple of years ago, students began asking for a chance to meet business leaders seated at tables other than their own. So, I started asking our professional attendees to upload their own information to the S2C website before the banquet. Now, students are able to research who will be at the dinner, and I allow them to choose different business leaders to sit with during the dessert portion of the evening.

All of these uploads have been made possible because our website has matured and grown along with our program. At the beginning, the site was just a place where students could register for events or make appointments to meet with me. Once we launched the Clothes Closet, we needed a page where students could make appointments to try on clothes; we also created a page where benefactors could submit donation forms and arrange for pickup. Next we began posting photographs from each event to encourage more students to attend, then we added the section for attendees to post profiles in advance of the Etiquette Dinner. Finally, we added a resource tab that provides students with a wealth of information on topics related to personal branding and professional development.

Over the years, our physical space has changed just as much as our digital space. After years of being situated in small offices all over the business building, S2C now is housed in one large room, with my office and the Clothes Closet nearby on the same floor. I’m hopeful that in the future the S2C program will be funded by a professional development fee added to tuition, which would give me a predictable budget to work with every year.

But I think the biggest change in the S2C program has been the staff, which today includes one graduate assistant and four student interns who work between five to 29 hours a week. The internships are made possible through donor support. This small group of students serves our entire student body by managing marketing, social media, and workshops; handling student appointments; administering the Clothes Closet; and coordinating and executing events. They also assist with elements of the professional development classes I teach via the English department—one for students across the university, and a new one solely for business students.

To me, the “student” part of “Student to Career” is the special sauce that makes the whole program work. I am inspired every day as I watch individuals blossom from being business students to being business professionals, and I have seen a number of students utterly transformed by the S2C program. One was home schooled all her life until she arrived at TTU. She attended all the S2C workshops and completed a demanding double major; now she and her husband own and operate a five-star hotel in Cambodia. Another student completely changed the direction of her life after she attended every S2C workshop and event. She became a student leader in several organizations, landed an amazing internship with our PBS station, and will graduate with a job.

While the S2C program is optional, 75 percent of our students participate. I believe it has been so successful because it has had the support of donors, administrators, faculty, and staff at every step of the way. Our current dean, Thomas Payne, has been particularly enthusiastic about S2C, calling its activities central to our mission. He believes that donors make financial commitments to the program for three reasons: It makes a difference in the lives of students; it achieves results; and its activities bring together students, business leaders, alumni, and campus decision makers.

Julie Galloway, the director of our College of Business Student Success Center, says S2C is a game-changer for our students, because it gives them a chance to meet people who share their goals. In addition, she says, “The program serves as a bridge between generations, because when they sit together at meals or chat during networking events, they learn from each other, develop a better understanding of their unique characteristics, and find common ground.”

I often think back to the first Ticket to Ride bus trip I took with a couple dozen unprepared students. Fifteen years later, when Tennessee Tech business students attend career fairs, they arrive in groups of more than 200. They know how to dress, how to network, how to talk about themselves, and how to take advantage of every opportunity. They are ready to make the leap from being students to being business professionals—and to help the next generation of students make the same transition.

To read more about Tennessee Tech's Student 2 Career program, visit www.cobstudentsuccess.com.

Amy Jo Carpenter is associate director for professional development at the College of Business at Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville.