By Abby Weingarten
When the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak prompted a New College campus evacuation during spring break, the fate of a long-awaited Cross College Alliance (CCA) Reverse Career Fair hung in the balance.
New College’s Center for Career Engagement and Opportunity (CEO) had planned to host the inaugural event on March 26 in Sudakoff Conference Center, and to invite employers to visit student booths for handshakes, networking and recruiting.
That concept was no longer viable with COVID-19 suddenly in the picture. So, CEO Director Dwayne Peterson and his team had a choice: cancel the event altogether or improvise and innovate. They picked the latter, and they spent an exhausting week turning what would have been an in-person extravaganza into an all-virtual experience.
“Since we couldn’t have an in-person fair, we put together a Google drive that was accessible to all registered employers. Our students put together folders with their résumés and recorded ‘elevator pitch’ introduction videos,” Peterson said. “Our CEO team individually coached each one of our students and helped gently push them to the finish line. Turning this virtual was happening at the same time students were relocating physically. But our coaches got on the phone with students one at a time and made sure they were prepared.”
The aim of a “reverse” fair is to spotlight students (so each student has a table where they greet and interview potential employers, not the other way around). Students from the CCA (including New College, State College of Florida and the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee) had all planned to attend.
Some students from all three schools dropped out at the last minute, but an impressive number of Novo Collegians pushed through and ended up accounting for 18 of the 31 student participants (more than half). It said so much about the students’ commitment to career success and the CEO coaches’ commitment to the students. Then, when a mass of employers from all over the country (not just regional) started showing interest in the event, New College students began benefiting big time.
“When this event went virtual, the number of employers registered skyrocketed from 30 to 76. Recruiting programs nationally are all being canceled so recruiters were like, ‘How am I going to get talent?’ They were actively looking for ways to connect with students,” Peterson said. “And our event, because we turned it virtual in a day, became probably one of the first virtual events in the Handshake system available. They really noticed us.”
But how did the CEO pull this off? The concept of the reverse career fair is so new, and the CCA had never hosted one (much less a virtual one). It was an on-the-fly total coup by Peterson and the assistant directors/career coaches: Maddie Tympanick, Lisandra Jimenez and Ciara Suarez.
“It was a major challenge. Reverse career fairs are really an emerging trend, so there were no national standards to draw from and no precedent for this situation. It took a lot of work from all the schools to get students to the finish line. But, in one day, I’ve received emails back from students who have already heard from employers,” Peterson said. “If this had been in person, students would have had backdrops and tables, so we created a ‘virtual connections’ map instead, so that employers could identify participants that interested them and then go inside of that student’s folder on the Google drive. Also, this virtual format allowed our students to connect with opportunities outside of our region. It worked out so students could explore opportunities all over the country.”
With this proof of success, the CEO is now looking at turning the concept into a prototype for other colleges.
“I think we could share this with other schools to use it as a national model. If schools are looking for new ways to showcase their students’ talents in a way that’s driven on the students’ terms, this is a really great idea,” Peterson said. “At a regular career fair, by happenstance, the right student might come to your table, or you might not even walk away with any good candidates. This is so much better for the recruiters because they walked away with 31 talented candidates, and now they can take it from there.”
And Peterson’s staff walked away with an incredible sense of accomplishment and hope.
“It feels amazing. We are so committed to our students’ career success, and I just hope our entire campus and community see it and believe it,” Peterson said. “We are always going to do whatever it takes to help students be successful no matter what.”
Sebastian Plank, a fourth-year political science student, knows this firsthand. Because of the Reverse Career Fair and the work of the CEO team, he already has job prospects. One employer (a financial company) contacted him and set up a meeting for next week, another employer (a political organization) viewed his LinkedIn profile, and Plank is now waiting to hear back from a nonprofit. This all happened within less than 24 hours of the fair.
“My career coach, Dwayne, has really helped me. Without him, I probably wouldn’t have participated in the career fair, formulated a proper résumé, learned how to conduct myself in an interview, or had the confidence to apply to jobs,” Plank said. “Seeing the career fair get moved online was disappointing, but I’m very happy it wasn’t postponed or canceled because I need to get a job after college. I’m also shocked that I got a follow-up considering the current economic outlook. I’m excited to really get started on job hunting and interviewing.”
For more information on the CEO, visit ncf.edu/ceo.
Abby Weingarten is the editor/writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing.