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  • Engaging Underserved Students Through Industry Dinners

    August 01, 2019 | By Amy Ferman

    Best Practices
    A group of students eat dinner together.

    TAGS: faculty, program development, journal

    NACE Journal, August 2019

    At the University of North Texas, career-related programming has historically tended to be geared toward students in the colleges of engineering and business. That is not unexpected, given that most large employers in a metropolitan area like Dallas-Fort Worth have great demand in these two fields.

    However, after a variety of planning meetings across campus last summer, our career center director found that faculty and deans from other colleges were interested in having more for their students; in particular, there was a lot of interest in providing programming for students entering the health and arts industries and giving them more opportunities to interact with employers to find jobs and internships. Fortunately, we had just been given some funding along with a directive that it be used to provide four industry events within the 2018-19 academic year.

    As our career center already had a large number of events scheduled for the 2018-19 year, we considered the time and staff commitment required to carry out four more events and settled on the idea of hosting industry-focused dinners. Our goal was to recruit 10 companies to attend each dinner and to give all students the opportunity to take part.

    Logistics

    For us, a major advantage of having an industry dinner versus a major career fair or expo is that the logistics are much simpler. For example, with approximately 10 companies per dinner, providing parking was not an issue; similarly, in terms of supplies needed, we only used table tents to distinguish each of the employer representatives and did not have the complications that often arise from employers shipping or bringing bulky booth displays to the event.

    Determining attendance—and its impact on the food provided—was trickier. The dinners were open to all students, regardless of major or class year, and, although we encouraged students to register for the dinners, we were open to “walk-ins.” We mitigated this by providing food buffet-style.

    Each dinner followed the same format:

    • The dinner begins with a welcome from our director, who also explains the purpose and goals driving this initiative.
    • Participants were invited to get their food and find a seat.
    • Next, each employer representative was asked to introduce him- or herself, tell a little bit about the organization they represent and the organization’s opportunities, e.g., full-time jobs, internships, and/or volunteer positions.

    Employers were assigned to their own table—most organizations sent one representative, although a few sent more—and students were encouraged to move around among the tables.

    Overall, each dinner lasted approximately two hours.

    The Dinners

    For our first dinner, we partnered with faculty in the College of Health and Public Service and the College of Science to hold the Health Industry Dinner in October 2018. Faculty from the colleges helped to publicize the event among their students, and some faculty members took part in the actual event—an important “plus” for our team as it raised awareness among faculty of our services and the role we could play in helping their students.

    We easily met our goal of having 10 employers attend and found that the dinner had the potential to open other doors. Because the representative would be on campus for the dinner, one of the employers decided to extend its reach by giving a presentation to a class prior to the dinner.

    For our second dinner, we partnered with a newly formed student organization—the Nonprofit Leadership Student Association (NLSA)—to hold the Nonprofit Industry Dinner in November. Although attendance at that dinner was disappointing—mostly due to the timing of the dinner itself—it enabled the NLSA students to connect with relevant employers and to integrate those employers into the organization’s programming for the year. An added benefit: One of the students in attendance now sits on the career center’s student advisory board and is one of our biggest advocates, helping us to promote our events and services to other students.

    Our most popular dinner—in terms of student attendance—was not focused on industry at all. The Diversity Dinner, held in February 2019 in partnership with our Office of Diversity and Inclusion, attracted nearly 50 students. Many employers we work with have employee resource groups (ERGs) to support their employees, so we were confident that an event tailored to employers that are committed to diversifying their work forces would be successful. In a number of cases, the employers we invited sent a representative from one of its ERGs. Also, we did something a little different for this dinner: We invited a high-ranking professional who oversees diversity and inclusion initiatives at one of the employer organizations to emcee the dinner.

    We hosted our final dinner, the Arts Dinner, in early April. Many of the employers in attendance were recruited using our recruiting management system. They posted jobs with us, yes, but many never had been on campus before the dinner and likely would not have come to campus without it. One of the representatives taking part not only talked with students about the opportunities her organization has to offer, but, as she sits on the board of an annual festival that showcases documentary films as well as the work of prominent photographers and musicians, she also discussed volunteer opportunities available at the festival. While the festival opportunities are volunteer, they offer students the chance to significantly expand their network at a highly visible event in their career field.

    Added Benefits

    The dinners were designed initially to provide underserved students with more opportunities to network with employers and met that goal. However, there were additional benefits to the career center and to the campus as a whole.

    For example, in terms of employer participation and feedback, we recognize that some of the success that came out of the dinners may have been as a result of them being free, unlike career fairs. Nevertheless, the dinners rewarded us with relationships with many new companies with which we did not have a prior recruiting relationship.

    In addition, the dinners were a chance for us to partner with various colleges, departments, and offices on campus and promote the career center and its offerings to them. Not only did our partners help promote the events, but members of those areas took part in the events themselves, which enabled them to form or enhance relationships with employers.

    Moving Forward

    Overall, the feedback we received about the dinners from our campus partners, students, and employers was positive, and we were pleased to learn that the Student Service Fee Committee, which provided the initial funding, agreed to fund the initiative again for 2019-20.

    This coming year, however, we will be hosting twice the number of events, as faculty from other colleges and other groups have approached us to replicate the experience for their students. Currently, we are considering events for veterans, students with disabilities, and students in the sciences, among others.

    Although we are comfortable with hosting approximately 10 employers per event for 2019-20, we plan to incorporate different strategies and formats to promote greater participation among students. We learned from our initial events that timing is key: Our November event was held too near the Thanksgiving break; we believe attendance would have been better had we held the dinner during a peak time in the semester. We also plan to host brunches, instead of dinners. We think this timing will be better for students. (An added benefit of the switch from dinner to brunch: The cost per plate of food is lower.)

    We also plan to change the venue of the events. In our pilot year, all of the dinners were held in UNT’s conference/banquet facility. This year, we will hold the events in the respective colleges themselves, where students attend classes. This change affords us some other opportunities to help our students stand out. For example, we are in discussions to host a brunch in our brand new College of Visual Arts and Design building, where students can showcase their art projects to employers.

    In addition, we plan to schedule the events to match up with the highest traffic times in their respective locations; this should encourage more students to take part on a “walk-in” basis. We think these changes to timing and venue will boost participation among students.

    Given the success of the pilot and the changes we plan to implement, we are looking forward to the positive outcomes that will result from the coming year’s industry events.

    Amy FermanAmy Ferman is the associate director for employer development and outreach at the University of North Texas (UNT) Career Center, where she oversees her team’s outreach to new and existing employers. Previously, Ferman held positions at UNT in the registrar’s office and in academic advising for the College of Business. She recently presented a webinar for NACE titled “Mastering Partnerships on Your Campus,” which outlines strategies for cultivating successful partnerships with colleges and departments. Ferman holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from Stephen F. Austin State University and a master’s degree in higher education from UNT.

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