College Connect: Jobs in college double as career experience

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As long as you’re paying your way through college — as nearly half of us are — you might as well make it worth your while by picking up real skills along with a paycheck.

From driving a campus shuttle bus to designing mobile and tablet apps, students are doing just that – getting a jump start on the careers they plan to pursue after school.

Alexa Jensen, a recent graduate at the University of Massachusetts, was able to turn a seemingly mundane campus job into opportunity.

At first it was about money: “I just didn’t want to scrape plates at the dining hall,” she said.

So she got a job as a shuttle driver, completed degrees in art and accounting in December, and then decided to stay in transportation during spring semester.

Next stop is an accounting internship at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. And far from being just a part-time job, Jensen says driving a bus has taught her leadership skills that will be valuable wherever she ends up.

Since starting as a freshman she’s worked her way up to operations supervisor for a staff of 120 drivers. The biggest lesson: Be assertive.

“There’s a sense of authority when you’re in the seat that makes people think you need to be respected,” she said. “You definitely have to have, not a loud voice, but a strong voice.”

Students can find plenty of job advice in print and online, including the “10 Résumé-Boosting College Jobs,” from U.S. News & World Report. At the top of the list: on-campus tour guide, brand ambassador (someone who markets specific products to their peers) and on-campus IT support.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that about 45 percent of undergraduate students will have a job in college. There’s even National Student Employment Month in April.

Tyler Varnau, a sophomore journalism graphics major at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., is an “apprentice,” or new staffer, at the school’s Digital Corps, which houses student media software experts who design projects for outside clients.

Varnau likes his journalism design and graphics courses best, and gets to put those to good use most nights after class when he walks into the Digital Corps computer lab, puts in his headphones and gets to work.

His last project was a fishing game for smartphones. Now he’s working on a “smart basketball” with sensors that provide feedback to players.

“It’s not only a job,” he said. “They’re trying to give us experience and things to put on our résumé. It’s really an immersive project.”

Whatever your job, a common-sense strategy is to find some way to make your current role apply to your career goals. Being a food server isn’t a bad plan, for example, if you can pick up the leadership and communication skills that the top-flight people in that business have.

These types of indirect, or “soft skills” are valuable when it comes to starting a career, said Patti Beck, director of student employment at the University of Findlay in Ohio, and a former president of the National Student Employment Association.

“Today’s employers know the importance of finding a job candidate that not only has the ability to master the skill set required for the specific tasks of a job, but also has the emotional intelligence to interact well in the workplace,” Beck said.

The student employment association holds its annual conference in October. Included is a section for employers on enhancing the overall learning experience for people in campus jobs.

“Employers today want new hires to bring actual hands-on experience to the table demonstrating that the theory learned in the classroom can be applied to practical application in the workplace,” Beck said.

Varnau, chatting before his shift at the computer lab, said he would love to take pictures and design for National Geographic, or possibly work at a design firm.

In the meantime, he says, “I’ll at least have this experience as kind of a freelance, outside graphics designer.”

Sarah Boswell is a senior at Ball State University and editor of the Ball State Daily News. As she weaves through the confusion of managing personal finances, she’s eager to share with other students.

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