With the world of career development and employment changing so quickly, we thought we should introduce you to Mike Sciola. As associate vice president for advancement and director of career services, he’s leading the effort to make the most of the Colgate connection, for students as well as alumni.
Q You earned a BA in gerontology, then an MA in human development and counseling. How did you meld those into the world of college career development?
I grew up in Kingston, Rhode Island, in a four-generation household, and I have a huge extended family — thirty-two first cousins. Sundays were get-together days, with a lot of intergenerational storytelling. Even as a little kid, I was fascinated by how wise the older folks were. That got me interested in gerontology. I enjoy talking with folks about their lives, and the things they have learned along the way. My graduate degree was, again, about way finding for folks.
Now, as a “career center guy,” I’m working with young people as they’re trying to figure out the next stage in their lives. I often say, by the time they’re seniors, they’re at the top of their profession — nobody is better at being a student. And then in May, we lay them off. So, being present as people are unpacking the lessons and wisdom that they’ve learned has translated into my work with students.
Q And your approach to career services capitalizes on that notion of generational learning.
Unlike other colleges, we’re not making graduation a full stop. We want Colgate to remain relevant in their professional lives.
We want to connect with young alumni as they move forward in their careers. As they grow in their professions, we want to create opportunities for them to be mentors, speakers, and folks we can connect students to, and when they are in a position to influence hiring, to be a champion for us in their place of work or in their profession.
The proposition of graduating is scary. It can feel like we’re saying, “We’re done, now go live a life you have not yet lived.” But that’s the beauty of a school like ours. We’re small enough for substantial relationships among our students and alumni, but large enough to have this incredible diversity of student interests and experience and an alumni body that is so accomplished.
Our alumni want to have these real relationships, and the students are willing to seek them out. By connecting alumni and students up and down the generations, we can help our newest members of the Colgate family see the great opportunities their education will bring.
Q You are saying, then, that career services is about more than job hunting?
A lot of people think that all the career center does is to help students get jobs. I have found that’s not enough. We’re trying to teach career resilience and self-management, and help students learn about all the great places that they can employ a liberal arts degree. There are three ways we do that.
First, we help them discern what we call their VIPS (values, interests, personality, and skills), learn to articulate them, and use them as a lens to investigate the opportunities.
Second, they need to understand how the world of work is organized. We do that through resources online and in the career center as well as networking events and discovery activities like career panels and immersion trips to workplaces in different cities.
We have partnered with alumni relations to develop professional networks that are purposefully broad. The Health and Wellness Network, for example, includes medical practitioners and health care providers as well as researchers, funders, and legislators. [See more in Stay Connected.]
We want to engender a robust conversation with people who have a similar focus, but come at it from different professional experiences. For example, often, a student comes in and says, “I have an interest in policy and law, but I don’t want to be a lawyer, so I guess I can’t do it.” Through these networks and our other resources, we’re teaching students that there are hundreds of roles that will feed their passion and leverage their skills.
Third is preparation and launch. That’s where we do the résumés, cover letters, interview skills, mock interviews, and internship and job opportunities.
Connecting students with alumni and parents is key. And through these connections, we have an opportunity to serve the broadest population.
Q So, career services is also not just for students anymore?
If you think about it, we’re the only office that can work with students from pre-matriculation to retirement.
Q What other changes have you implemented here that you’re proud of?
We have refocused our outreach to engage our youngest students early and often. We start talking to first-years about, “Who are you? What are you passionate about? What skills do you have? What skills are you interested in developing?” Then, we introduce them to our wealth of resources, so that by the time they graduate, they have a solid plan for launch.
That makes a much more successful transition after they graduate, and it helps us to get to know them, so we can make those connections happen. We’ve had a tremendous response: almost eighty-four percent of the Class of 2017 has been in contact with us this year — a huge increase from years past.
My goal is to never have a remedial conversation with a senior. But, if a senior comes in today and says, “I’ve never been here before,” my line always is, “Today is a great day to start!”
Q LinkedIn, Monster.com, Facebook. In thinking about the importance of digital tools in the job search, what’s the part people forget about?
It’s critical to understand that whatever is on the Internet is fair game for potential employers. They’re using it to find you, and to rule you out or disqualify you. We’re adamant in talking to students about auditing their online profiles.
And, where is the human element? Even with all the social media, websites, and databases, at some point you’re going to have to sit in front of a decision maker and be able to talk about why you’re a good fit, why you’re interested, why you’re the best candidate for the job.
I’m a little worried that the proliferation of things connecting students digitally is lessening their ability to have that personal conversation. We find that we’re having to do more work helping our students articulate in person what they bring to the table. That’s why we are putting so much effort into connecting students to the alumni network.
That said, technology and social media are powerful tools; we help students to think strategically about leveraging them in their career development and decision making.
Q What’s the most satisfying part of your work?
I was at Wesleyan for 17 years, and some of my closest friends are former students. I even got asked to be the officiant at a wedding a year ago!
I also get a great deal of satisfaction seeing how things have turned out, and now that I’ve been here for two years, young Colgate alumni are checking in and telling me what their first year is like. That’s what I love most. I get to build relationships with these amazing, cool young people who are going to change the world.
Q What was the biggest mistake you ever made in a job search?
In college, I was on a fast track to being a nursing home administrator, and woke up my senior year realizing that would have been a dreadful life for me. I went to the career center director and said, “I have no clue where to begin.” I did not think early enough about who I am and what I am good at. Each job that I’ve had has built a better understanding of that.
Q Any special talents or outside interests?
As a kid I was very musical, so I play lots of different instruments. In college, and since then, I’ve joined a variety of music groups, mostly singing (I’m a baritone). I was the president of a statewide concert choir in Middletown, Connecticut. We sang at the governor’s inaugurations and once with Kenny Rogers, for his Connecticut Christmas Spectacular. His choir never made it, so we jumped in and backed him up. It was a neat gig.
Later, I got involved with the Oddfellows Playhouse, a youth theater in Middletown. We worked with about 3,000 students a year. We built programs that went out into our poorest communities, and in many cases were providing the first and only safe space for these kids to have their own agency and identity. I would see these amazing transformations happen. I joined the board, and quickly became the chair. It was an eye-opening experience about how important the arts are to young people.
Most recently, I have been working with a mentee in Rhode Island. Working with him over the past six years introduced me to the incredible need for support for kids coming out of foster care. Only twenty percent of them enroll in college, and under three percent complete a bachelor’s degree. I’ve just joined a national higher education leadership group looking at ways we can boost these statistics. And, I’m thrilled to say, my mentee will be graduating this spring with a B.A. and attending graduate school in the fall.
Now that I’ve had a couple of years to settle in at Colgate, I’m itching to get out into the local community. My partner, Frank Kuan, is working here, too, as senior associate director for the Office of Undergraduate Studies. We’re just starting to figure out what we’re going to get involved in here.
Q Are you living in Hamilton?
We’re down at the old Gin Mill, which is now two townhouses. It’s an 1850s tavern and it’s got quite a history, I hear, which some alumni might remember.
Q Do you have any pet peeves?
I’m a pretty easygoing guy, but my pet peeve is people who are inconsiderate to others. You never know what the person you’re having an interaction with is going through. I think this is a good theme for life. Don’t make assumptions. Take time to have a relationship. That’s what my grandmothers taught me — because at the end of the day, that’s what is left.
Q Anything people might be surprised to learn about you?
I’ve been doing public speaking forever and am quite a ham, but I get incredible stage fright.
Q If you were to change careers, what would you do?
Frank and I renovated a house in Connecticut and designed the addition, and at the same time we were building the new career center at Wesleyan. I’d want to be a design/build architect. But I’m absolutely having a blast — I wouldn’t change a thing!