At Brian Ferrente’s professional development workshops, participants rarely introduce themselves to him. But at an event with New Haven Promise scholars, he was pleasantly surprised that “a number of students introduced themselves before I even started talking,” he said.
Ferrente — the Senior Associate Director at Yale’s Office of Career Strategies — was leading an event on interviewing as part of New Haven Promise’s professional development program in 2019. Scholars interning at Yale University and around New Haven were invited to a series of “Lunch & Learn” sessions designed to develop students’ professional skills. Topics ranging from LinkedIn profiles to financial literacy were covered. J.Crew even hosted a professional attire event with a few scholars modeling work-ready outfits.
In today’s job climate, the demand for professionally developed students is increasing. “Students need to understand what it is to work in a professional environment earlier,” said Robyn Acampora, who led Promise’s Lunch & Learn on networking. Indeed, according to one Forbes article, less than half of employers feel confident in the professionalism of college graduates. Ben Duster, corporate governance expert and member of the Promise Council to support scholars’ careers, echoed this sentiment: “To have maximum impact, students must take every opportunity they can to develop and enhance their professional and interpersonal skills to complement their technical knowledge.”
Those summer “Lunch & Learns” sought to maximize scholars’ impact. Amayia Cordova was a keen participant in the program and her supervisor at Yale’s Finance Department strongly encouraged her to attend. In job interviews, Cordova often stumbled on the question of: “What is your biggest weakness?” But after the interviewing Lunch & Learn, she gained confidence to answer the question as Ferrente had broken down all the types of tough questions that candidates face. Although her college — the University of Connecticut — had offered her professional development resources, she said that she took greater advantage of Promise’s program because it was during her internship — and her lunch break.
A student at Eastern Connecticut State University, Amariah Rodriquez felt motivated after attending the workshops. Once she understood the skills required to achieve career success, she began to take responsibility for her future. If you encounter Rodriguez today, for example, you might receive one of her new business cards.
Both Rodriguez and Cordova agreed that their college peers weren’t taking advantage of the career center on campus. One piece of advice Ferrente would give to incoming college students: don’t assume that professional development comes with the college experience. Students are “responsible for piecing together what you are to take away from” college. If students wish to prepare for their career, they are responsible for tapping into professional development resources.
The same could be said for Promise scholars. Data shows that scholars who attend resume workshops are twice as likely to be hired as summer interns than those who don’t. Simply put, students who utilize professional development resources will be better prepared to enter the workforce, even though that might feel far away.
Meanwhile, Hamilton College rising sophomore Hector Rivera was up for a challenge. While working at the Yale University Library as an Ebook Analysis Intern, his supervisor asked him to give a presentation. Although he felt confident in public speaking, he still sought ways to improve his presentation skills.
At the same time, New Haven Promise offered scholars the chance to participate in a PechaKucha public speaking competition for interns, an opportunity that Rivera couldn’t miss.
The format of the competition particularly appealed to him. PechaKucha is practiced around the world. It’s very simple: you show 20 slides of images; every slide plays for 20 seconds; and you talk along to the images. During high school, Rivera had been used to 15-minute Senior Capstone presentations. But our competition offered a different way of presenting that encouraged him to “learn new things,” he said.
UConn rising junior Te’a Gray participated for a different reason. She had not taken advantage of public speaking at college and wanted to “get back into it.” She knew that public speaking skills are like a muscle — you have to keep exercising those skills in order to succeed. Gray appreciated that public speaking would be important throughout her life and career.
Ferrente couldn’t agree more. When asked what he thought students most needed to work on before entering the workforce, he answered “public speaking” without missing a beat. Skills in public speaking, he said, “touch on every aspect of your career: your ability to connect with audiences, to communicate efficiently, to improvise, to write well…”
According to a survey by Prezi, 70 percent of Americans agree that public speaking skills are critical to their success at work. In 2014, billionaire entrepreneur Warren Buffet suggested that employees’ value increased by 50 percent if they were competent public speakers. In fact, PechaKucha first emerged in the architecture field as a way for junior architects to improve their presentation skills. The format has always revolved around the professional development of budding employees. New Haven Promise knew that organizing this competition would boost scholars’ all-important presentation — and on-the-fly thinking — skills both during college and beyond.
A series of workshops helped prepare the PechaKucha presenters. The very first workshop was run by Jo Wilcox, the organizer for PechaKucha New Haven. Gray and Rivera remembered how exciting the workshop was. Rivera enjoyed how they had to introduce themselves in 20-second intervals, to familiarize them with the format. He didn’t know many scholars before he joined the competition but the event provided him with an opportunity to connect with like-minded students from his city. Wilcox found working with scholars helped “center her in the community.”
Indeed, Artspace invited the winner to present at its city-wide Open Studios on October 23 for a special PechaKucha event, on the theme of “Older, But Younger.” Moreover, the competition judges included New Haven community arts leaders Malik Lewis and Nico Wheadon — the Executive Director of the exciting new Dixwell community arts center, NXTHVN. Not only did our competition provide students with life-long skills; it also brought them closer to the city that has given them so much.
— Author Max Himpe, who served as a Yale University President’s Public Service Fellow this summer, oversaw professional development programming for Promise scholars.