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Paving the Way to a Smooth Graduation

By Rachelle Douillard-Proulx
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, April 19, 2007 10:17 AM

Aaron Hake, a 2005 graduate of American University, remembers a moment of mild panic when he crossed the stage to claim his diploma. What would he do next? Was he ready for what lay ahead post-graduation?

But that mild panic could have been much worse. Hake, who had taken an intense course load in order to graduate in three years and peppered his time at school with internships, had done plenty to prepare. He soon landed a job in government relations near his Los Angeles childhood home and is now also pursuing a Master's Degree from the University of Southern California's School of Policy, Planning and Development on the side.

That preparation and extra work paid off, Hake says. "Colleges are very good at talking about all of the wonderful careers you can have when you graduate from their institution, but the truth is a degree is not a free pass to employment."

The message from Hake and others who have graduated recently or work with students to the classes of 2008 and beyond is perhaps that while mixed emotions about graduation are understandable and even expected, but there are steps -- such as using on-campus resources such as the Career Center, taking on internships and networking -- seniors can take to ease the transition.

If you're just learning this now and graduating next month, you may be too late. If not, read on.

Career Center Offers Guidance, Support

Most universities work to help prepare students for post-collegiate jobs with a range of career services including assessment, resume help and on-campus interviews. Judicious use of these offerings can often land a student a job well before graduation.

"The job I'm going to do after graduation I got through [American University's] Career Web," says American senior Pete Drummond. "It started as an internship. I interviewed on campus and from interning there I was offered a full-time position after graduation. If it had not been for that posting, then I don't know where I would be today."

An early visit can really pay off, insists Marie Spaulding, job and internship counselor at American's Career Center. "The worst case scenario is the senior who comes to the Career Center for the first time in their last semester before graduation. They have missed out on all the help we could have offered for their whole college career."

Spaulding is accustomed to an influx of graduating seniors banging down her door before their last semester on campus. Many students, however, are more proactive. And some, such as American senior Susanna Reid, find other sources of assistance on campus: Reid built a network through campus work and visits to her academic advisor for "support and direction."

The Importance of Internships

Another way to prepare for a post-college career is the internship -- popular among students at all stages of their collegiate careers.

"An internship helps a student decide what he enjoys as well as what he never wants to do again," says Spaulding. "This is very important information to have. It's better to learn this now than to accept a full-time job and discover three months later that one cannot stand the type of work."

Dan Galuska, who graduated from Lehigh University in Pennsylvania in 2006, interned at Connecticut military engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney during summer breaks. "The internship, I believe, was crucial in preparing me both professionally and emotionally for my post-graduation career. It gave me the opportunity to apply learned knowledge in a real world, fast-paced environment."

And the connections Galuska made at Pratt & Whitney helped him secure a job with the company upon graduation.

Work on Your Network

Whether you're looking for a prized internship, a dream job or just a post-collegiate mentor, networking is a skill graduates must prepare to hone as they launch their new careers. And it can start before graduation as a source of job leads and other advice.

Dan Lennon, a senior communications and theology major at Boston College, has worked with his school to meet and speak with alumni about job possibilities. "In the Boston area," he says "there's no school with better connections."

Schools and professional organizations, meanwhile, offer receptions where students can introduce themselves to professionals in their fields of study; American's Reid has used these to help guide her job search.

Finally, sometimes valuable information can be found closer to home: Many students turn to friends and family for support during the final months of college.

"Having a great circle of friends and a great support system from my family helped me deal with all of that stress," says Amy Anderson, who graduated from Champlain College in Burlington, Vt., in 2006. "They were always there if I just needed to relieve some stress by talking, and they gave me good advice on what to do next."

Ready for Takeoff?

Between job and apartment searches, classes and internships, senior year may appear daunting. But by planning for graduation throughout the college career, many students find they are amply prepared for a cool stroll across the state come commencement.

Already packing in visits to her academic advisor and the career center, University of Massachusetts junior Kristen Anderson hopes she'll be one of the cool ones. "I think it is very important to start preparing for graduation at this point," Anderson says.

She can take some solace from the experience of those who passed before her. Without a job or place to live prior to graduation, 2006 American University graduate Liz Buser was nervous things wouldn't work out the way she'd planned. After juggling an internship on Capitol Hill, a full load of classes and finding a full-time job, Buser is very happy with the way things fell into place.

"It is amazing how things work out differently than you expect," Buser said, "but turn out great in the end."

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