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  • Networking Programs for Diverse Student Populations

    May 01, 2018 | By Jessamyn Perlus, Amanda Cox, Daniel Almanza, and Julia Panke Makela

    Special Populations
    Hands coming together

    TAGS: diversity and inclusion, program development, journal

    NACE Journal, May 2018

    College campuses serve increasingly diverse populations,1, 2 with students bringing a variety of backgrounds and experiences related to their ethnicities, race, country of origin, age, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and other identities. Increasing diversity of students on campuses, however, has not necessarily translated to equitable outcomes across student groups. Disparities remain for those from underrepresented minority groups regarding numerous important factors such as access to financial support and degree attainment, as well as gaps in post-college earnings and employment.3

    For career professionals who are committed to “acting without bias” and “ensuring equitable access” to resources and services, as outlined in the NACE Principles for Ethical Professional Practice,4 these disparities are unsettling. We are called to guide our practice with strategic focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion.5 Within daily practice, we are encouraged to enhance our own cultural competence, and to deliver programs and services that engage underrepresented students in meaningful ways.6 But, how might we accomplish these goals?

    The career coaching team at the Career Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recognized that each college campus has its own, unique student population and campus culture. As we looked at our experiences, we acknowledged our team’s desire to connect with more underrepresented students than were crossing the threshold into our office. This started a conversation regarding whether we were reaching students in ways that were meaningful to them—using culturally informed language, physical spaces, methods, and times—while addressing the needs that students perceived as the most pressing. How could we meet students where they were to share career decision-making strategies to develop career readiness?

    Begin by Listening

    We recognized that our career coaches needed to hear, firsthand, from the underrepresented students who we wanted to reach. During the 2011-2012 academic year, we intentionally connected with cultural program houses, e.g., Bruce D. Nesbitt African American Cultural Center; student affairs departments, such as the Office of Minority Student Affairs; and student organizations, such as the Mexican Student Association, to learn directly from students about their career interests and what they wanted from career services.

    Interestingly, many underrepresented students across the campus expressed a common interest: opportunities to network with alumni and employers. Our career coaches were enthusiastic about this finding, as much support exists across career development literature for the value of networking and mentoring relationships that consider diversity. For example, the NACE Class of 2017 Student Survey Report demonstrated that many student groups showed a preference for diversity-conscious employers. In fact, for African-American men and women, this was rated as the most important out of 18 job/employer attributes.7 Thomas contends that mentoring relationships are particularly strong when both individuals relate to one another across shared characteristics. Shared characteristics provide emotional support and allow the mentee to effectively envision themselves in the position of the mentor in the future.8

    Designing and Developing Networking Programs for Diverse Populations

    Informed by student input, and bolstered by career development literature, we enthusiastically moved forward with creating networking events tailored to the needs of specific underrepresented student groups. Each event was designed in partnership with cultural program houses, student affairs departments, and/or student organizations appropriate to the intended audience. These partnerships helped us tailor content, as well as develop buy-in and increase participation. Each event took place in a campus location that was selected in cooperation with our campus partners, and we aimed to find spaces that were familiar and comfortable to the student group. Thus, our career coaching team actively left our physical space to meet students where they were.

    It was our hope that developing tailored diversity-focused events would build both awareness of career services and relationships with students to encourage further career readiness development beyond the single offering. Along the way, our career coaching team expected to continue to enhance our own multicultural competencies as well. We wanted students to know that the Career Center was a safe space to engage a career professional with challenging diversity questions.

    This article shares details about two such diversity programs from the Career Center at Illinois; Figure 1 briefly highlights the six existing programs in our diversity networking series.

    Figure 1

    Diversity and Inclusion Networking Exchange

    The Diversity and Inclusion Networking Exchange (D.I.N.E.), established in 2013, is now in its fifth year at Illinois. The event allows students to engage with employers who value all forms of diversity in the workplace and to practice networking skills with company representatives in a casual setting. Students have the opportunity to dialogue with employers regarding companies’ diverse hiring practices and the qualities sought in potential candidates.

    D.I.N.E. takes place during the spring semester, on the evening before our campus career fair, thereby increasing employer participation. Open to all diverse students, it typically draws more seniors, as Figure 2 illustrates. The two-hour event generally brings together 50 to 75 students and 25 to 30 employers, with steady growth in participation from both groups year over year.

    Participating employers are varied, representing large organizations; government agencies; and small, local companies. One to two employers are seated at round tables and students are randomly seated with them. The event kicks off with a keynote speaker, who focuses on diversity in the workplace, and then moves into the structured networking portion of the evening. The students engage with the employers at their table through questions developed by the D.I.N.E. committee.9 (See Figure 3.) The questions are designed to help students understand the employer hiring perspective and to help employers understand how students perceive the student job-search perspective. Approximately 10 minutes of discussion is allocated for each question, and then students rotate to the next table. After the structured portion of networking, students are welcome to speak with any employer.

    Figure 2

    Figure 3

    Students have consistently applauded the event as a mechanism for empowerment, and feedback from both students and employers has been positive.


    Conexiones, an event specifically for the Latinx student population, also began in 2013. We collaborate with the university’s La Casa Cultural Latina resource center and the Latino Latina Alumni Association as well as one of our Latino registered student organizations, such as the Mexican Student Association. (The organization rotates each year.) We invite successful Latinx alumni and professionals to campus from different industries to connect with our Latinx students.

    Conexiones is intended to improve career readiness by helping students understand how to network, how to deliver their elevator pitch, and how to seek advice about their job-search process. Like D.I.N.E., Conexiones typically draws between 50 and 75 students and from eight to 15 professionals.

    Usually held in March, the three-hour event kicks off with a keynote speaker who shares his or her career path, educational background, and different obstacles overcome as a Latinx person. Students participate in a mini workshop during which they build their elevator pitch then practice it with a professional. The program also includes two breakout panel sessions on a career readiness topic; panelists represent a variety of career and educational backgrounds.

    Following the panel sessions, professionals and students have open networking. In order for the students to feel at ease, we provide examples of questions to ask the professionals, such as What is the culture of your organization?,  What kind of employees thrive at your organization?,and What was your career path?

    This event facilitates student learning and practice of different networking techniques, and it allows students to see successful professionals who share similar backgrounds. Students often note that meeting other Latinx professionals was inspiring and that they have learned from the professionals’ experiences.

    Assessing the Impact of Networking Programs

    The Career Center has a long tradition of building programming around a foundation of defined learning outcomes and assessing those outcomes both for the purposes of continuous improvement and for communicating successes to key stakeholder audiences.10, 11 As our networking events for underrepresented student populations were developed with campus-based program development grants or through collaborative relationships with campus partners, we saw great value in seeking evidence of the impact of this programming and therefore built assessment strategies into the programs from the start.

    For each event, we developed a series of brief pre- and post-event surveys. The surveys measured basic demographic characteristics to determine whether we were reaching our target populations and included networking self-efficacy reflections that students would respond to both before and immediately after engaging in the experience. These networking self-efficacy reflections could be adjusted for each specific event to fit the learning outcomes for our specific target audiences. This would allow us to gain insights into potential changes over time related to the immediate experience of the event. Paired-samples t-tests provided a strategy for exploring significance, recognizing that this is a small-scale assessment intended to reasonably inform continuous improvement of this program. Finally, open-ended prompts provided space for students to express learning and satisfaction experiences in their own words. Figures 4 and 5 provide results of the 2016 surveys conducted for D.I.N.E. and Conexiones. (Note: Institutional review board approval was obtained for data collection, and measures were taken to maintain participant confidentiality.)

    Figure 4

    Figure 5

    As Figure 5 shows, Conexiones participants rated their networking skills and confidence at a moderate level prior to attending the event. Growth is apparent following the event on all items, including comfort initiating networking relationships, structuring elevator speeches, creating meaningful connections, and confidently responding to interview connections. Average scores indicate room for growth, yet it seems progress occurs.

    There was less growth apparent on the item related to reflecting on past experiences and how they shape future career goals. In fact, on this item, it seems that participants’ pre-test score began quite high, signaling that there might be something about understanding self in relation to career, which motivates attendance in this type of program. 

    Similarly, considering the learning outcomes statements from the D.I.N.E. pre-and post-surveys, students who chose to participate in D.I.N.E may enter the event acknowledging that they recognize the value of networking. It is possible that this recognition motivates their attendance. The areas of growth for D.I.N.E. participants appear to be in developing understanding and comfort with building networking relationships, including with the focus of addressing issues of diversity and inclusion.

    Finally, for both events, we draw upon students’ open-ended responses to understand the value of the program. Both post-event surveys asked: “What was the most valuable thing you learned from today’s event?” Many of the comments highlight networking skills, such as:

    • [I learned] how to effectively network and communicate in a more social setting. (D.I.N.E.)
    • D.I.N.E. is a good introduction to presenting yourself as a college student when finding a future career.
    • I learned that all it takes is a simple conversation to make a connection. (Conexiones)
    • I have networked with alumni in and outside of my field, giving me the advice I need to succeed. (Conexiones)

    Other participants highlight the unique diversity and inclusion aspects of these events that set them apart from other career center offerings:

    • Being open with your diverse background adds more value to it. (D.I.N.E.)
    • [I learned] to not be afraid to ask employers questions about their organization’s diversity and inclusion practices. (D.I.N.E)
    • I am very proud that I am Latina and at the University of Illinois, but with this event, I truly have been touched and have seen that as a Latina in the work force I can succeed! I even teared up! [I] cannot wait until next year’s event and in the future coming back and helping with this event! (Conexiones)
    • [I enjoyed] being able to see successful Latinos/as alumni taking their time to come down and give us useful advice; it was empowering. (Conexiones)

    Together, these data help us convey the impact that networking events have had with students. We use these findings to demonstrate high-impact practices, secure additional funding, enhance marketing, and continuously improve events to enhance our ability to meet student needs.

    The Collaborative Journey Continues

    Learn More: Resources
    Get more-detailed information about these programs and assessment strategies.

    Approximately six years ago, we set out to develop a deeper understanding of the career development experiences of underrepresented students on our campus, and to develop new strategies to reach out to these groups, in spaces that were familiar and in ways that were meaningful. Out of our efforts has grown a series of targeted networking events that are co-developed as joint efforts among student associations, student affairs partners, and the Career Center. Several of these efforts have grown into award-winning programs.14, 15 These events would not have been possible without the rich input from our students and the dedicated partnerships that exist throughout our coordinated career services community and across our campus.

    Also important to our ongoing efforts are the assessment data collected, which have informed our program offerings from year to year, helped us build participation, and provided supporting information that we have used in pursuing grants for additional funding. (One example: We developed attendance incentives that motivate student organizations to get their members involved. As a part of D.I.N.E., we offered a pizza party to the student organization that brought the most students to the event, resulting in a notable increase in attendance.)

    Our team also keeps in mind that, as the needs of our students evolve, so too must our programs. Our assessment data suggest that our networking programs may be attracting a subset of our underrepresented student populations—specifically, those who have already identified networking as a “valued” skill, and/or those who have already made some progress connecting self-reflections to potential career paths. If our goal is to encourage career readiness broadly, as defined by NACE,16 it is important for us to attend to the needs of students beyond that subset, to reach those students who are working on earlier steps in the career development process. Consequently, a next step for our team will be building upon our relationships with underrepresented students and partnerships with related campus units to develop robust, intentional, culturally responsive programming that can address these additional career development needs.

    End Notes

    1 Institute of International Education. (2015). International student enrollment trends, 1948/49-20134/154. Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. Retrieved from

    2 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2016a). Digest of Education Statistics, 2015 (NCES 2016-014), Chapter 3. Retrieved from:

    3 U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development. (2016b, November). Advancing diversity and inclusion in higher education. Retrieved from:

    4 National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2017). Principles for Ethical Professional Practice. Retrieved from

    5 Saenz, S. (2017 August). “Op-Ed: Diversity, Inclusion, and Career Services.” NACE Journal.

    6 Evans, K. (2008). Gaining cultural competence in career counseling. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

    7 National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2017). The Class of 2017 Student Survey Report. Retrieved from:

    8 Thomas, D. A. (2001). The truth about mentoring minorities. Race matters. Harvard Business Review, 79(4), 98-107.

    9 Although D.I.N.E. Committee members change every year, the committee always includes individuals from multiple career services offices on campus, representatives from the Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations, and student representatives.

    10 Makela, J. P. & Rooney, G. S. (2012). Learning outcomes assessment step-by-step: Enhancing evidence-based practice in career services. Broken Arrow, OK: National Career Development Association.

    11 Makela, J. P., & Rooney, G. S. (2014). Framing assessment for career services: Telling our story. New Directions for Student Services, 184, 65-80.

    12 For D.I.N.E, 43 students completed the pre-survey and 29 completed the post-survey. For the pre-survey, students respond to the prompts “As of today (prior to attending this networking event), how would you rate the following?” For the post-survey, they respond to “As a result of attending this event…” Both surveys are on an anchored scale from Strongly Disagree (1) to Strongly Agree (5).

    13 For the Conexiones program, 42 students completed the pre-survey and 30 completed the post-survey. For the pre-survey, students respond to the prompts “As of today (prior to attending this networking event), how would you rate the following?” For the post-survey, they respond to “As a result of attending this event…” Both surveys are on an anchored scale from Strongly Disagree (1) to Strongly Agree (5).

    14 John D. Shingleton Award for Innovation and Applied Research, 2016, Midwest Association of Colleges and Employers

    15 Student Affairs Recognition of Exemplary Assessment Projects 2016, Division of Student Affairs, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

    16 National Association of Colleges and Employers. Career Readiness Defined. Retrieved from

    Jessamyn PerlusJessamyn Perlus is a graduate research assistant in the Career Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Illinois). She is a doctoral candidate in the counseling psychology program at Illinois, where she also obtained her master’s degree. Perlus is enthusiastic about teaching career classes and integrating theory, research, and practice of vocational psychology. She is currently investigating how the impostor phenomenon impacts female graduate students’ perceived career and educational trajectories. She can be reached at

    Daniel AlmanzaDaniel Almanza is currently serving as associate program director of the basic course at Purdue University. Previously, he was an assistant director of student outreach at the Illinois Career Center. He has 10 years in higher education, including curriculum development and programing for special populations. He chaired the Conexiones committee from 2015 until 2018. Almanza earned his master’s degree at Illinois State University. He can be reached at

    Amanda CoxAmanda Cox is senior assistant director for career counseling and campus outreach at Illinois and has spent the last 18 years serving the career development needs of students and providing programs. She currently serves as the chair for the D.I.N.E. Committee and enjoys seeing the personal impact that career programming can have on each individual. Cox earned her master’s degree in education from Eastern Illinois University. She can be reached at

    Julia Panke MakelaJulia Panke Makela is the associate director for assessment and research at the Career Center and an adjunct assistant professor in the College of Education at Illinois. She has nearly 20 years of experience in career development and higher education, embracing counseling, research, assessment, and program evaluation roles. Her work explores the outcomes of career interventions, focusing on how career development programming influences student learning, career exploration, decision making, and educational and career destinations. Makela specializes in leading practitioner-engaged assessment projects that gather evidence to inform and continually enhance career development practice, as well as to communicate the value of career services. She earned her doctorate in higher education from Illinois and is a National Certified Counselor. She can be reached at

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