In February 2021, like career services teams everywhere, our office reworked a major employer/alumni recruiting and networking event scheduled for the spring from in-person to digital. We also continuously customized it according to rapidly changing factors. Ultimately, YSEinDC, an event that has been in-person since its inception, became Virtual YSEinDC.
With a small team of professional staff and student leaders, what is typically a two-day event became a weeklong one. Virtual YSEinDC kicked off with a career panel on Indigenous rights, development, and conservation, continued with four days of 20 virtual information/networking sessions with approximately 80 employer representatives, and was bookended by a virtual alumni/student networking reception co-hosted by our Alumni Services team. More than 110 students participated from multiple time zones.
How did it go? What did we learn?
Overall student feedback was generally positive, with one post-event survey respondent noting, “I was offered an internship by an org I met at YSEinDC. I knew it was a worthwhile event because they reached out afterwards to confirm that I had applied for a position that I expressed interest in.”
However, other students had a mixed reaction to the event, which was new for everyone. In addition, students were adjusting to hybrid and asynchronous learning environments while dealing with a high level of ambiguity and the very real effects of a global pandemic. The challenges of integrating career development with academic work was expressed in this feedback: “I really enjoyed the YSEinDC events but felt a lot of burnout trying to balance sessions with my coursework during the week. The level of engagement was varied depending on the organization, with some only leaving five minutes or less for questions at the end. However, these events exposed me to organizations and summer opportunities that I would not have otherwise known about, which is a positive.”
Another student expressed a high level of enthusiasm while noting the reality of the strain of virtual programming: “Even during this era of Zoom fatigue, each of the CDO-hosted events were fantastic and really well-done opportunities to network and gain insight! They helped a lot in the search for a summer opportunity!”
Takeaways for further review
After reflecting on this experience, we were able to identify a number of lessons learned that could be helpful moving forward.
- Adapting to virtual programming required a significant level of staff reskilling in a short amount of time. Flexibility in innovation and teamwork were key elements for successful reenvisioning and implementation of this event.
- One of the biggest challenges in planning this event was in striking the right balance for virtual engagement. For example, should Zoom meeting group sizes be limited? If so, what is the sweet spot? Are there better platforms available? One-on-one interactions were not easily accessible, whereas during the in-person trip students could arrange to meet employer representatives and alumni for coffee; we did create a Slack channel for informal engagement among students and employer hosts, but it didn’t get much engagement.
- Integrating schedules with changing class schedules during the pandemic was a challenge, along with varying facilitation techniques amongst visit leads. Documenting events photographically was also a challenge, although there have been some very creative approaches to the Zoom screenshot.
- On the other hand, several strong positives were evident in the move to virtual programming including a broader scope and greater availability of panelists with fewer geographic limitations, greater accessibility for students with a 20% increase in participation from the in-person model, asynchronous participation available indefinitely through event recording library, and a marked increase in flexibility in scheduling for students who felt less pressure to attend a high number of sessions because of a reduced financial/time commitment. From a budgetary and operational perspective, the reduction in travel and refreshments expenses to nothing and reduction in travel time to zero (discounting travel from room to room!) were huge advantages.
- Additionally, our team gained valuable technical upskills and a more expansive view of programming possibilities. Much of our post-event survey data was also very encouraging—32% of students reported that they planned on applying for positions they learned about during the visits, and 100% of employers indicated that they will be happy to host students next year, virtually, in person, or in a hybrid format.
- At the end of the day, we all know that Zoom and pandemic fatigue are real and need to be acknowledged and accounted for. Students need a heightened level of positive support to balance or integrate academics, personal and social concerns, career development, and a wide range of individual priorities.
How about your office?
We would love to hear about your adaptations, innovations, challenges, takeaways and keepers! Please share in the comments.
Kathryn Douglas is senior associate director of Career Development at Yale School of the Environment.