Interview by Rebecca Ojserkis '12
This fall, Amherst welcomes Ursula Olender as the new director of the Career Center and associate dean of students. She comes to Amherst from Colgate University, where she became director of career services in 2007. She was previously associate director of career services and chief health professions adviser at Dartmouth College. She received a master’s degree in counseling from Springfield College and a bachelor’s in psychology from Greenville College. She recently spoke with Rebecca Ojserkis ’12 about her plans for Amherst. The edited and condensed interview is below.
What is the value of a liberal arts degree in today’s job market?
I think the liberal arts degree is more valuable than ever. The competencies gained through a liberal arts education are competencies that every employer values: critical thinking, analytical reasoning, exceptional communication skills, writing skills. Students who are able to hone these skills will be able to nimbly move between jobs within an organization. They’re going to be able to master new material. I believe that the liberal arts [provide] the best education for the top career fields, especially in this economy where people are changing careers more frequently than in years past. Technical knowledge is important, but being able to master new information in the way that you do as a student in a liberal arts institution is more important than ever before.
That’s a very reassuring answer for me as a rising senior! What are some challenges that a liberal arts graduate might face?
The main thing that I have to do as a career services professional is help our students present their qualifications, strengths and competencies as effectively as possible so that employers, graduate programs and fellowships programs truly understand the value that the liberal arts student or graduate brings to the organization. The student needs to communicate succinctly and directly what they may be able to offer and what skills and training they have that will enable them to contribute.
I’ve noticed many graduates applying to graduate or professional school right out of the gate instead of entering the workforce. Is this a good thing?
Graduate school is a very expensive endeavor. It’s not a great place to hole up if you’re not absolutely certain that you want to pursue that [career] path. You do it because there’s nothing else you’d rather do, or because it’s a means to whatever career you want. [Without] that rationale, people are going to find themselves very unhappy at some point: they’re going to have a lot of debt, or they’ll have to commit themselves to a profession or career that they may not [want]. The other danger is that a student may not get in. Graduate school is the right option for lots of students, but it’s not a great place to protect oneself from the perils of the job market.
Those are some of the conversations we can have in the Career Center with students in helping them assess their qualifications for graduate school and brainstorm ways to really improve those credentials, so that they’re applying to a job or a school at the right time. I want all students to be successful, and success is going to be defined by that individual student.
What do you view as the role of Amherst alumni in students’ career searches?
Alumni are critically important. Alumni at Amherst or at most any institution are going to be more than happy to help students identify resources and opportunities. We need to go a step beyond that. We need to find ways to help alumni better understand how they can hire Amherst students for internships, postgraduate employment or even employment years [after graduation]. [Exposing students] to different models of success and bringing more alumni to the attention of current students is something we’ve been very good at here at Colgate and something that I hope to continue to do at Amherst as well. Making sure that the alums are as engaged with students—it’s one of the ways that alumni can give back that doesn’t require traveling to campus or writing a check.
What immediate plans or ideas would you like to implement?
There’s a program that I’m very proud of at Colgate. We call it the Spring Immersion program, where we take students to different cities over spring break. We take sophomores to explore the nonprofit sector. We have a group that goes to New York and looks at art. We have a group that goes to Washington; they focus on civil society and international NGOs. And we have another group that goes to Boston [to] look at education. We’re looking at career paths that students may feel the Career Center has not been as strong at introducing, providing opportunities for students to interact with potential employers, internship sponsors and alumni colleagues through a program of this sort. I’m hoping that we can find a way to introduce or expand upon this idea at Amherst—perhaps also [including] other sectors that interest students, [such as] the sciences, the environment [and] communications.
What advice do you have for first-year students and, in contrast, for rising seniors?
My advice for first-year students is to engage the Career Center as early as possible—in fact, in the very first year. Probably by October or November, students should make their way to the Career Center, meet with a career adviser and establish a relationship with someone in the office. It’s not important that a student knows what she wants to do, but it is important that she understand the resources and the services available.
My advice for a senior who hasn’t been in is the same as for the first-year student. It is never too late. Career advice is something that one should seek out throughout [life]. I still spend time chatting with mentors and obtaining advice related to my own career.
When working with a senior, I want them to know how important it is to establish connections, whether it’s to peers, to faculty members, to administrators, to alumni, to friends’ parents. To learn how to communicate goals to people who are able to connect you with opportunities is such a critical skill and one that I hope all Amherst seniors will have before they leave campus. A career counselor can work with a student on how they communicate their interests, their strengths, their goals.
How important are internships to launching a career?
More and more employers expect to see at least one [relevant internship]. They want students to come in with some experience. [Internships also] allow students to explore what excites them.
But I also understand that other types of experiences can be equally or, in some cases, even more meaningful. A summer spent traveling might enable a student to think about her or his future. I think of research experience in similar ways as I think of internships, volunteer service and summer jobs—all are valuable.
What ties it all together is this ability to communicate how these experiences have been meaningful [and] have prepared them for the types of postgraduate opportunities that they want to pursue. As students are looking for summer jobs, internships or research experiences, it’s important that they understand the skills and competencies they want to develop, that they are able to achieve those goals over the course of the summer and that they’re able to communicate what they’ve learned and how they’ve grown.
Since we have only three summers as college students, how do you recommend exploring different fields if students are uncertain where to even begin?
On-campus jobs can be an effective way. Probably the easiest way to learn about different fields is [to have] informational interviews with alumni and with almost anyone who will talk to you. Everyone has a story, and being able to introduce yourself and interview people about what they do, what they find satisfying and how they got from point A to point B is going to provide insight that will enable students to make decisions about what to pursue and what to avoid. I suggest that students think about doing three to six informational interviews every semester. The Career Center can help recommend individuals who students should be connecting with.
Of the recent graduates I’ve known, most who enter the workforce receive jobs in one of three fields: finance, teaching or scientific research. What do you recommend for students who don’t want to pursue those fields?
One of the concerns that all career centers have is that students perceive the center as supporting certain groups more effectively than others. I think that is a false perception. The reality, though, is that, in the humanities, there is far more diversity of opportunities, and there aren’t neat pockets or websites or hiring organizations that are out recruiting humanities majors. The student is going to need to spend more time navigating a process that isn’t as clear-cut. That’s where a career counselor can be most helpful. No two students are alike, no two paths are alike, and that’s very interesting and exciting for the career team.
I think a lot of students imagine that you need to know what you want when you come into the Career Center. The reality is that very few students have a well-defined goal when they walk in. I think a lot of humanities students may feel a little intimidated, a little less certain about what the future holds. I want to help those students understand what the Career Center can do to help them support their plans, even their short-term plans. I think trying to plan the rest of your life at age 21 or 22 [is] perhaps not very realistic.
How does the Five College Consortium play into the Career Center’s work?
Each school has different strengths in our ability to bring different types of employers to the area. One of the challenges I had at Colgate is that we were in a rural area, not really on the beaten path to anything. It’s quite expensive for employers to recruit, and they’re not as willing to come to Colgate. But Amherst, being part of a Five College system, should be able to expose students to a wider breadth of career opportunities.
Is there any other information you want to get out to the community?
I couldn’t be more thrilled to be a part of the Amherst community. I lived in Amherst about 20 years ago with my boyfriend, who is now my husband. We feel like we’re coming full circle. I can’t wait [to support] the hopes, dreams and goals of Amherst students and alumni.