Coe College connects students with alumni for friendship, advice

'I just wanted to get her connected to Cedar Rapids'

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CEDAR RAPIDS — A California transplant, Jessy Holen didn’t know anyone when she migrated east in 2015 for her freshman year at Coe College.

She did have, to some degree, a ready-made community via the Kohawk soccer team she was joining.

But, sights set on show business and aspiring to become the next Ellen DeGeneres, Holen felt no intrinsic connection to Cedar Rapids, or Iowa. Until, that is, she got looped into Coe’s new “alumni mentoring program,” which — at the time in spring 2016 — was in an inaugural pilot form.

It potentially changed her course. It definitely gave her ties — if not roots — in the community.

“Initially, when I came in, I was like, ‘Why would I ever stay in Iowa?’” Holen, now 19, said. “But even after last year — just one year being here — I don’t see myself leaving Iowa any time soon. Because if there’s opportunities here, and there’s connections and there’s jobs, then that would be silly of me to turn that down.”

Partly to credit for Holen’s about-face is Lauren DuBay, a 26-year-old Coe alumnus, former student-athlete and now multimedia specialist for United Way in Cedar Rapids. DuBay was Holen’s alumni mentor during the pilot portion of the new Coe program.

That connection, Holen said, made a difference.

“Just having someone that I knew I could go to — not even for professional situations — but also just in general,” Holen said of DuBay. “Just having like an older bud, just like a friend, a pal, to go to for life advice, or boy advice, or friend advice. Luckily, I didn’t need to use that too much. But I knew that I had it there.”

“And you still do,” Coe spokesman Rod Pritchard chimed in during a discussion on the new program.

HOPE Is TO KEEP COLLEGE GRADS IN IOWA

Because even though that initial pilot phase of the program has ended — and DuBay now has a new student to mentor in Coe’s first full year of the initiative — the connections are meant to last.

Holen, for example, still views DuBay as a go-to for local networking, “which is really important as a college student — because I don’t want to be homeless the rest of my life.”

The Coe program, born out of its new Center for Creativity and Careers, is among several initiatives the school has debuted to prepare graduates for the workforce — potentially bolstering Coe’s job-placement rate.

But it also plays to other hot-button issues facing higher education right now — including the ability to bolster alumni support and engagement and keep graduates from leaving the state. Gov. Terry Branstad has called for 70 percent of Iowans in the workforce to complete some form of postsecondary training or education by 2025.

To do that, state analysts have said, Iowa needs not only to increase the post-high-school education of its current population and high school students but also retain Iowa college graduates.

“Historically, Coe has always done a good job of keeping a pretty high percentage of its graduates in the Cedar Rapids area,” Pritchard said. “But these types of programs can only enhance that. And we would like to have as many alums as possible stay in the Corridor. There’s tremendous opportunities here.”

Coe isn’t the only Eastern Iowa institution seeking innovative ways to engage alumni, boost job placement, and keep graduates in the state. But its mentoring program, specifically, is unique and catching on.

GETTING CONNECTED TO cEDAR RAPIDS

In its pilot form, the program coordinated six mentor-mentee matches — including Holen and DuBay. For its first full year, which officially began in January and will continue through December, the program involves 46 pairs who are encouraged to touch base monthly and meet at least three times, said Barb Tupper, director of Coe’s external partnerships and annual giving who also heads the new Center for Creativity and Careers.

“The goal is to have a student have a connection outside of our campus that they can just ask questions of,” Tupper said. “But we purposefully left it open.”

Students and mentors met at the start of the year to lay out goals and hopes for the relationship.

DuBay has a new mentor this term — another Californian with undefined career goals, eager to test the local waters and experiment with opportunities.

Remembering her first meeting with Holen, DuBay said her offer was simple.

“I just wanted to get her connected to Cedar Rapids and feel like she had somebody here,” DuBay said. “I know as an alum that all of my jobs have come from networking and who I’ve known and who Coe has known. So to give a current student that sense of ‘I have somebody here even though I’m however many miles from home’ was my goal.”

Coe administrators coordinate the matches through a personalized process that involves questionnaires, follow-up questions, and staff awareness of the individuals involved.

“Our challenge going forward is, how do we expand it and make it meaningful but also doable — beyond that 50,” Tupper said.

Coe has about 5,000 alumni in the Eastern Iowa corridor — about a quarter of its total alumni.

“So we see a huge opportunity to better leverage our relationships with those alumni,” Coe spokesman Pritchard said. “We have a lot who want to be a part of a program like this and have offered their time, and they’re in all different disciplines professionally.”

‘Helping each other out’

Take Greg Swartzendruber, 41, a 1998 Coe alumnus who now directs business development for Hunter Companies in Cedar Rapids. He got involved in the pilot version of the program last year and now has his second mentor in the yearlong version.

That student, Mari Hunt, was looking for an apartment next year — and Swartzendruber connected her with a property management group. She also was interested in an internship with the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids, “and I happen to know another Coe alum who happens to be the director of that program,” Swartzendruber said.

“That’s kind of what it’s all about,” he said. “Helping each other out.”

And although Swartzendruber said he felt fairly involved as a local alum before becoming a mentor, the program has connected him more deeply to the campus.

“It’s really interesting to me to get Mari’s perspective on things,” he said. “It’s one of those funny things — it kind of helps you stay young.”

Alumni engagement extends statewide

On a smaller scale, but aligned with the mission to improve college preparedness, Coe also has initiated a pilot psychology internship program that has students enroll in an “applied contemporary psychology” course before taking an internship.

That course helps students gain a better sense of their abilities, areas for potential growth and career interests. It also helps them hone written and verbal skills through mock interviews, leadership and resume preparation.

The program, developed by Coe assistant psychology professor Benge Tallman, has spiked the number of psychology students taking internships sixfold after just one year.

Across the state, Iowa’s public universities are continuously looking for new ways to engage alumni and ramp up post-graduation job placement rates.

The University of Iowa, in fact, is in the midst of revamping its Alumni Association structure — pitching the idea of merging it with the independent UI Foundation to create a more streamlined mission and engagement platform.

mount mercy, cornell involving alums, too

At Mount Mercy University, administrators are taking similar steps to engage alumni and increase student-community connections. In addition to social media seminars, “career nights,” student-alumni visits and job fairs, Mount Mercy has launched a program called “Project Connect.”

That program is geared toward helping low-income, minority or first-generation freshmen navigate what can be a stressful first year. Part of the program connects students with alumni mentors “so they can work on skills like networking as well as having someone who can support them in their journey at MMU,” according to Isaiah Corbin, who directs the program at Mount Mercy.

Alumni programs are flourishing at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, including ones that send students on “career tours,” involve alumni on expert panels, engage students and alumni in networking events and bring alumni into the classrooms for guest lectures.

This spring, Cornell has launched an “electronic platform” allowing alumni and students to connect directly through a social media platform created to “facilitate lasting alumni and student connections.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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