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Sophomore Career ConnectionsFifth Annual Event Continues Tradition of Jump-Starting Careers

What you major in isn’t nearly as important as getting good grades. Don’t apply to grad school until you find your passion. In most jobs, there’s no such thing as a “typical day.” The critical thinking skills you learn at Vassar will help you a lot, no matter what career you choose. These are just a few pieces of advice and observations Vassar alums offered to the 250 students who enrolled in Sophomore Career Connections this year.

View a collection of images from Sophomore Career Connections 2019.Photo: Karl Rabe

The fifth annual event was hosted by the Career Development Office and the Office of Alumnae/i Affairs and Development (OAAD). More than 90 mentors working in fields ranging from finance and medicine to entrepreneurship, education, and entertainment spent the weekend before the start of the spring semester helping 235 young mentees begin to plan their post-Vassar lives.

Stacy Bingham, Director of Career Development and Assistant Dean of Studies, says the event has grown larger every year. “We’ve doubled enrollment since our first year, and we continue to fine-tune the experience for mentors and students alike,” Bingham says. “The mentors and the students are really impressed with each other. The mentors see the students as the future, and the students see the mentors as a conduit for how to get there.”

The weekend started in the Villard Room in Main with some loosening-up exercises led by Gretchen Eng ’12, a Chicago-based comedy improv performer and instructor. Activities included a rock-paper-scissors tournament, improvisational storytelling, and other fast-paced games designed to put everyone in a receptive and inquisitive frame of mind.

“I urge all of you to network like mad all weekend with your mentors,” Eng told the students. “Ask them anything.”

Gretchen Eng ’12, a Chicago-based comedy improv performer, loosened up the crowd at the start of Sophomore Career Connections.Photo: Karl Rabe

Keynote speaker Caterina Fake ’91, a founder of Flickr, Etsy, and Kickstarter—currently a venture capitalist for public benefit start-up companies—assured the students that most career paths do not remotely resemble a straight line. “I became an entrepreneur because I was virtually unemployable,” Fake said. “I didn’t like to get up until noon, and I had a tendency to want to disrupt.”

Resilience and perseverance, Fake said, are two key ingredients to success. “I also have a tendency to get back up,” she noted. When she and her partners were trying to launch Flickr, they were virtually out of money. “We were only paying one guy, because he had kids,” she said. “Then the Canadian government gave us $200,000 and we were on our way.”

Tech entrepreneur Caterina Fake ’91 delivered the keynote address, emphasizing the value of resilience in any professional endeavor.Photo: Karl Rabe

After her talk, everyone adjourned to the first of three 75-minute “Career Clusters,” where mentors in various fields met with students in small groups to engage in more informal dialog about each topic. The mentors offered valuable tips on how to secure internships and acquire skills that would help them in their careers.

Mentors in the Finance cluster urged students to learn Excel and PowerPoint, but they also offered more general advice. “You’re better off getting an MBA after you’ve been out in the world a few years first,” said George Putnam S’75, managing partner of New Generation Advisors, LLC.

Richard Bi ’06, a private equity investor with The Blackstone Group, urged students to “spend some time on self-visualization—ask yourself, ‘What is my definition of happiness?’ The people who ask these questions are the most successful.”

In the Scientific Research cluster, Luc Peterson ’06, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said mastering the subject matter was obviously of primary importance. But Peterson added that other skills he acquired at Vassar had helped him as well. “My experience in theater groups has helped me immensely in my presentations,” he said.

The final featured speaker was Darys Estrella ’92, who shared “12 Habits of Highly Successful Vassar People” on Saturday evening.

Career Clusters gave students an opportunity to explore various fields in small groups.Photo: Karl Rabe

The sophomores left the weekend with more knowledge about their fields of interest and a great appreciation for the mentors. “I learned that I need a multidisciplinary skill set in almost any field I choose,” said Zsa Zsa Toms, an urban studies major from Seattle. “But now I have a better idea of some of the specific skills I’ll need before I start my first internship next summer.”

Jake Fletcher, an English major from Los Angeles, agreed. “It was comforting to learn that many people with my major have had success in many fields,” Fletcher said, “and I got a lot of specific suggestions for what to do between now and graduation that will really help me.”

Discussions with mentors also helped expand students’ horizons. Willa Vincitore ’92, Senior Director of Alumnae/i Engagement, said she’d overheard a student talking to a mentor from the Education cluster in the hallway at Rocky. “She told the mentor, Deborah Brand ’96, a high school principal, that she had never considered an administrative role in education, but after hearing her tell her story, she was fascinated and wanted to know more as she could really see herself doing that work someday.”

One of the messages mentors imparted was that the support students felt at the event wouldn’t end there. As Gregg McCarty, Associate Director of Leadership Gifts, who staffed the event, recalled, “One student asked ‘What if I need advice three to five years now? What should I do?’ The mentor, Shari Leventhal ’85, Special Counsel at Sullivan and Cromwell, told him ‘Vassar has an amazing network of alumnae/i that lasts your lifetime. You can send any of us an email down the road. We are here for you today, and later in life.’”

Financial supporters of Sophomore Career Connections, Vassar trustee Carol Ostrow ’77 and husband Michael Graff (both P’09 ’15), were pleased to see how much the event has grown over the past five years. Graff said they wanted to support the event for a simple and obvious reason. “We’re parents,” Graff said. “We’ve met a lot of students who are brilliant and talented, but sometimes they don’t have a grasp on their future when they leave college. We wanted to find a way to show them some of the paths they ought to be taking.”

Mentors wanted students to know they could count on a lifetime of support from fellow alumnae/i.Photo: Karl Rabe

Lisa Tessler, AVP for Alumnae/i Engagement and Executive Director of AAVC, says she was impressed, but not surprised, by the turnout of mentors for the event. “Alumnae/i are passionate about giving back to Vassar in this way and are genuinely invested in the future success of our students,” Tessler said. “They are particularly committed to the idea that making this vast Vassar network so accessible has the potential to level the playing field for all students. Several alumnae/i shared with me that Sophomore Career Connections was by far the most rewarding experience they’d had reconnecting with the college and each other since their graduations, and if asked, would come back to do it again in a heartbeat.”

Tessler said the success of the event was a testament to the teamwork, not only between OAAD and the CDO but also to the support of numerous others on campus, including the President’s Office, Office of Communications, Media Resources, Dean of the College, Dean of Studies, Residential Life, Office of Accessibility and Educational Opportunity, Campus Activities, Dining, Facilities Operations, Safety and Security, and Alumnae House.

Zsa Zsa Toms said it’s clear that their vision for the program is working, and that she is grateful to be at a college that provides her with such guidance. “The experiences I had this weekend made me realize what a privilege it is to be going to Vassar,” she said.