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Making the Most of Your Professional Development During COVID

Updated: Sep 9, 2020

So things are a little bit different this year in going back to school. Normally, college freshmen are excited to move out and live on their own for the first time, and college seniors are both relieved and anxiety-filled that they will be stepping foot on campus for the last time. However, this year, many of these students will not be stepping on campus at all. Depending on where you are in the world, things are looking very different right now. 

For example, at my alma mater, Stevens Institute of Technology, only first year students are being welcomed to campus. My fear, as someone that went through a full 3-day orientation during my freshman year and had the opportunity to lead orientation as an upper-classman, is that students won’t feel the same warm welcoming atmosphere that Stevens usually offers. My larger fear is that students all over, independent of the class year, are going to be missing out on some of the most important aspects of their college experience: engaging with student leaders, having access to mentorship for both acclimation and career development, and receiving the same amount of networking and skill-building opportunities.

Therefore, in going back to school, I wanted to give students some advice on how to still take part in some of the activities listed above, no matter your institution, and get the most out of your year with regards to your own personal and professional growth.

Before I continue, I do want to say that all of the ideas stem from either my personal experiences or opportunities that I know are wonderful to take advantage of. There are so many more ways to grow that are not listed here, and you do NOT need to do all of these things to feel like you are ‘best’ utilizing  your time in college. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself; you’re doing great! 

1. Participate in an Online Mentorship Program 

Was I really going to write this article, and not plug the international mentorship program that we run both virtually and in-person? As if! Mentorship Programs are more important than ever because they give you access to a lot of resources that have become increasingly hard to get your hands on.

Resources like: 

  • Connections with student leaders and working professionals 

  • Networking opportunities with peers at your school and peers at other schools 

  • Experiences that provide you with leadership and communication skills 

While EWAAB’s Encourage Her Program, that I would recommend all 1st and 2nd year self-identifying women, non-binary, and gender non-comforming students apply to, is an all in one package for professional development - it’s also not the only program out there. 

Built By Girls is another organization in the U.S. that provides students with a personal mentor from the working professional world. The Girls In Charge Initiative in the UK is a program that allows young women to attend free workshops to build up many of their soft skills. There are even great programs for your specific field of study that are independent of gender. It all exists; it just takes a bit of googling on your end. 

2. Attend an Online Conference 

Online conferences are one of the best ways to network, especially because right now, most of them are free! This opens up so much opportunity for students to attend working professional conferences in their field, or workshops held by top companies. Just to list off some companies that do this regularly: IBM, JP Morgan, Amazon, etc.. You get the point. Almost any big name corporation is currently doing this to some extent. 

Take advantage of these opportunities to learn more about your field of study or topics outside of your field of study that interest you. My own personal bias and recommendation would be to try to attend as many computer science and machine learning workshops as possible - no matter your field of study. I do believe that tech weeds its way into every industry and to have some skills in this space (basic coding, knowledge of algorithms, etc.), will help you no matter what you’re pursuing. 

Also, you may be wondering - where can I even find these opportunities? Well that leads into my next tip.

3. LinkedIn is Your New Best Friend

LinkedIn is virtual networking on crack. It is the best way to professionally network, contact people at your university or in your field, and do it all while in your pajamas. If you don’t have a LinkedIn account, make one. It’s free, and there are so many resources on how to not only create an interesting profile, but also on how to demonstrate your ‘good LinkedIn behavior.’ A lot of working professionals take LinkedIn quite seriously when it comes to making connections and building professional relationships - so it should definitely be treated differently than your other social media accounts.

One of the great things about LinkedIn is that you can follow companies that you are interested in, and those companies will post updates on when they’re hosting virtual conferences or workshops. Once you follow the company, these opportunities will automatically appear on your feed. It takes the stress away from having to do your own searching.

Another great thing about LinkedIn is that after you attend one of these virtual workshops, conferences, or roundtables, you can then connect with everyone that you engaged with on your LinkedIn profile. Even a simple note like 'We both attended the conference on x, and I would like to connect with you. I hope to see you at the next one!' goes a long way. Now you’re building a network! 

4. Reach Out for Virtual Coffee Chats 

This is perhaps one of the best ways to grow your network and should not be overlooked! I would first start with people at your university. Reach out to professors by email and ask them to have a virtual coffee chat with you because you’d like to get to know more about how they ended up at your institution. Ask them about their research. Ask them about their work experiences. Usually, professors will make a little time to talk about their interests with students. This is a good start to building your university network. 

Then, take it to the next level. Email your college Dean, your University President, or University Alumni. Why not? The worst that will happen is they either don’t have time, or won’t respond, and either way, they won’t even remember that you emailed them. The best that will happen is that you’ve made a really valuable connection at your university and a relationship that you can continue to foster. You give yourself a no if you don’t even try! 

Then, you can even take it a bit farther. Reach out to someone that you don’t know, but you would like to learn from. This can be through email or LinkedIn - both are valuable ways to cold contact. There will be more resources to come on how to do this effectively! 

5. Get Informed 

This last one ties everything else together. The best thing that you can do is to be informed about social and professional development events, what mentorship programs and networking opportunities are available to you, and what your university is already doing to support you during this time. Reach out to your Student Affairs Office or your Career Center to find out more. 

Use this time to absorb information. College is the best time to do this. Listen to the experiences of your professors, mentors, professionals that have succeeded in your field. Read outside of the classroom on hot topics that interest you. Find out what you personally care about and what drives you. If you can, use some extra time to learn more and connect with people who have a similar interest. 

While going back to school is going to be different, it is still going to be a rewarding experience that provides you with fruitful opportunities to learn, engage, and act. Be excited! Know that you are not alone in this process. Know that you are supported. Know that while everything seems so uncertain, you do have some control. You’ve got this! 


About the Author: Kaitlin Gili is a Quantum Computing Researcher as well as the Executive Director of Encouraging Women Across All Borders. She received her B.S. in Physics from Stevens Institute of Technology and plans to pursue her PhD in Physics at Oxford University after working at Los Alamos National Laboratory and gaining industry experience at Zapata Computing. In the past, she has worked on four different research projects across three continents, including developing quantum algorithms for practical applications. She is passionate about providing mentorship for young women, creating new outreach tools for getting more young people interested in STEM, and helping others in their personal and professional development.

Tune in for her future Making the Most of It blog posts.

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