It was common knowledge among L&S students: Career fairs were intimidating.
“Everybody felt that the business students had been really well-prepared,” recalls McKenzie Halling, now a senior majoring in journalism. “There was this sense that we weren’t showing up that well in comparison.”
The perception that L&S students were “unprepared” to talk about their strengths, skills and interests with potential employers is exactly what Dean Karl Scholz set out to change when he launched the L&S Career Initiative soon after becoming dean of Letters & Science in 2013.
Scholz knew his L&S students were hard-working, critical thinkers who could leverage their degrees in limitless ways. But he also knew they needed help learning to articulate their unique strengths.
The media was full of reports of students fleeing the liberal arts to pursue more vocational degrees like engineering, nursing or business. Scholz saw an urgent need to combat that narrative.
“We needed a new, coordinated approach to prepare students across our departments and programs for careers,” he says. “We aimed to accomplish several key things: fire up students’ imaginations about career possibilities, connect them with alumni through strong networks, coach them to talk about the lessons and skills they were gaining at UW-Madison and cultivate employer partners who recognize L&S students are the perfect solution to their talent pipeline challenges. We knew if we could do that, the sky’s the limit.”
Five years later, the vision has become a reality.
SuccessWorks is the brand-new, state-of-the-art career center for L&S students, with its own sleekly modern space on the third floor of the University Book Store. Students from any of the college’s 62 undergraduate majors — and at any point in their university experience — can stop by to meet with an advisor, get help polishing their resumes, attend a mock interview, pop into a photo booth for a headshot, pick up a professional interview outfit, network with L&S alumni and interview for internships and jobs, either in person or remotely via videoconferencing.
For Associate Dean and SuccessWorks Executive Director Rebekah Pryor Paré, this exciting work adds up to an ambitious goal that powers her vision for SuccessWorks: “We’re striving to make L&S the number-one, go-to source for employer talent acquisition in the Midwest and nationwide.”
Representatives from other Big 10 universities (Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio State, Rutgers) as well as universities of New Hampshire, Florida, Iceland and Jordan and Texas Christian University have reached out for insights on SuccessWorks’ process. There’s a waiting list for the employer interview rooms. And the Career Closet, which supplies free professional clothing (donated by alumni and staff) to those in need, has outfitted 240 students since January.
Support from alumni and friends is also critical: SuccessWorks depends on private gifts. A generous lead gift from George Hamel (Communication Arts,’80) and his wife Pamela helped launch the initiative. Key benefactors soon followed.
“When Dean Scholz first described the concept of the L&S Career Initiative, my husband Kevah and I were in awe of the many different benefits for L&S students,” says Michele Konner, a member of the L&S Board of Visitors who, along with her husband Kevah, created the Konner Fund in support of the new L&S career-prep course. The Konners’ twin sons graduated from UW-Madison in 2016. “The Taking Initiative course and SuccessWorks offer invaluable resources to students, enabling them to tackle the intricacies of the intern and job markets with more confidence, knowledge and professional support.”
Touring SuccessWorks this spring, after the grand opening, Konner felt both proud and excited.
“L&S students are intelligent and have so much to offer the world,” she says. “SuccessWorks and the Career Initiative provide lifelong skills for these students, as they immerse themselves in their undergraduate studies in pursuit of meaningful careers.”
Another key to the new center’s success: a professional, bold look that also feels very student-friendly. This tricky balance was executed with flair by Milwaukee’s Traction Factory, an advertising and graphic design firm led by Scott Bucher. Through a pro-bono branding treatment that included graphics and way-finding, a new logo, animated messaging graphics for digital screens and a powerful brand concept (“Madison Made, World Ready”) the firm captured a sense of momentum and excitement designed to speak directly to L&S students.
“We were inspired by this opportunity to help SuccessWorks develop a strong, student-friendly brand,” says Bucher. “But for the vision to succeed, students and non-students alike had to buy in. Together with the SuccessWorks team, we worked to communicate this place as important, but also personable, accessible and fun. We look forward to a long and continued partnership with this dynamic group.”
Donors have also stepped up to eliminate one of the greatest barriers — cost — for many students who want to pursue internships. Some of the most interesting opportunities (at non-profits or small companies) pay modestly or not at all. Even with paid positions, many students face financial challenges, especially if internships are located in an expensive city like New York. The SuccessWorks Summer Internship Scholarships support students who land great internships but still need to cover living expenses. In summer 2018, $137,000 was awarded in internship support, thanks to a growing number of generous alumni (including the Weils, the Henderson-Reznicks, the Shinners family and the Picus family). Half of all awardees fell into the neediest category of financial aid eligibility.
The SuccessWorks team knows that the most important metric is whether there is an increase in student participation in the center’s wide array of offerings. Data shows this is happening: Mock interviews are up more than 250 percent; formal interviews have increased by 300 percent; and items are flying out of the Career Closet.
“We want our L&S students to understand they have nothing to fear, and everything to gain,” says Paré.