The Virginia Alumni Mentoring Program at a glance

Program sees success in its pilot years, but some students want more

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The Virginia Alumni Mentoring Program, which had pilot years in 2014 and 2015, is open for registration in its first official fall launch.

Lauren Hornsby | Cavalier Daily

Two years ago, the Career Center kickstarted the brand new Virginia Alumni Mentoring program, also known as VAM. The goal of the program was to connect students, primarily undergraduates, to University alumni working in different career areas.

Now finished with its two-year pilot, the program is starting recruitment for the fall semester, which includes a online sign-up form due on Sept. 15. In the program’s first official year, the Career Center expects to expand the mentoring network to develop more relationships between alumni and students.

Development of the program

The program was designed as a key part of University President Teresa Sullivan’s 2012-13 Cornerstone Plan and aims to connect students with veterans of the career in which they are interested.

“[The program’s] mission is to support students in their career exploration through the perspectives and guidance of alumni who have walked their walk,” Kimberly Link, associate director of the Internship Center, said. “It’s also aligned with the University’s strategic directions and focus on alumni engagement as well, so VAM has really come at it in both ways. It’s the perfect marriage between those two strategies.”

The development of VAM also helps provide more hands-on advising, a goal discussed in the Cornerstone Plan.

“Another place to make the connection is in the total advising part of the Cornerstone Plan that President Sullivan talks about,” Everette Fortner, associate vice president of career and professional development, said.

VAM was originally started by the College Foundation in 2013, when the Board of Visitors wanted to develop a program that would solely focus on making connections between students and alumni.

“[VAM] bubbled up from the College of Arts and Sciences Foundation, so several years ago they piloted a very small, eight to 12 student mentor program with the board members,” Fortner said. “[The BOV] loved it, but it was very labor intensive and they did all the matches, and so they came to [the Career Center] and said that we’ve got to do mentoring and this is the place to start.”

Career Services, along with then-Student Council President Henry Reynolds, took the small pilot program and started thinking about how it could reformulated into a large-scale mentoring system.

“Henry Reynolds came to us and we started to talk about how we could partner on this and we talked about piloting with 20 or so students, but we wanted to make a bigger impact with that, so we said we would take it on,” Fortner said. “We piloted it for two years [and] found a software out of Stanford that we could use for the program while the Alumni Association reached out to alumni, and it slowly mushroomed from there.”

Pros of the program

The program begins with students filling out information in order to match them to a mentor who is a good fit for them depending on their desired field.

“Career Services had a algorithm that was a great system where it would match students by putting information about their interest, job opportunities, etc. and through that you can get through the website to meet the alumni in the network,” Adib Choudhury, third-year Commerce student and College Council vice president, said.

Although the program is not designed to guarantee student employment, many students receive an internship after meeting their alumni mentor.

“I usually say that 80 percent of jobs are found through networking and they never get posted,” Fortner said. “We’re trying to teach that skill of networking and mentoring, so that you may actually find these jobs that never get posted. More than half a dozen or a dozen students can say this turned into an internship. We explicitly say it’s not designed for that, because we don’t want to put that pressure on the [alumni] or students, but it has turned into that.”

For other students, the program is more than just a foot in the door for a possible job opportunity, as they have had the opportunity to develop a lasting relationship with their mentor.

“I was interested in management consulting, and I eventually found an alumni who was an consultant in energy consumption and we totally hit it off,” Choudhury said. “I have been talking to him for about two years now and we have still kept in touch. He has been able to look at my resume as well as give me advice about U.Va. He will literally take an hour out of his work day to help me and see how I am doing.”

With these ideas in mind, the program has grown since its arrival two years ago, and the Career Center is expecting more numbers this year than during the pilot.

“In our first couple of days, there were 530 students who had already pre-registered for VAM as of last week,” Link said. “Before the season started, we had connected with approximately 800 students in the two-year pilot and we had engaged about 1,400 alumni mentors in the two-year pilot. So, this year, we are starting with about 530 and growing without the people from the major registration deadline that is ahead of us.”

Cons of the program

While the program has been a useful experience for some students, others have not received the same benefits.

“To say that my experience with the program was abysmal probably wouldn't be an overstatement,” third-year College student Zach Danz said in an email statement.

Danz said there was no one in the program close to his field of interest, and attempts to connect him with a mentor were fruitless.

“So [the head of the program] reached out to the Engineering School to see if anyone over there could help, but after following up with her over the phone a few times, no fruit came of it,” Danz said. “So, VAM left me mentor-less. And that was super frustrating.”

The program has many mentors in commerce-related fields, but students pursuing a career in liberal arts are less likely to be matched with a mentor through the VAM system.

“I notice this trend in a lot of U.Va.'s resources: there are tons of resources for students of commerce, economics and engineering, yet many of the more artistic or soft-science disciplines are neglected,” Danz said.

When asked about this issue, Career Services said they do recognize it as a problem and are trying to work on getting more alumni involved from sectors of the job market that may be underrepresented.

“As we see the demand, we go to the alumni base and sometimes it's hard to find a veterinarian that will participate and so that's where we have to go to Jason Life in the Alumni Association who knows so many alumni,” Fortner said. “When we have a specific student need, we go to him and ask, ‘Who would you call?’ and he will reach out to that person.”

In addition to those special cases, the center is also trying to expand its horizons through its new career communities, which offers students “specific, tailored industry resources and programs,” according to the Career Center’s website.

“We are strategically growing the [VAM] program with career communities in mind, so the creative arts and media design community is a big partner in us cultivating new alumni relationships and we are doing that across all six other career communities,” Link said.

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