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Super connector

Super connector

Alumna Jessica Kubasak (BS ’03, BA ’05) uses Skype to connect with a Loyola student she met through LUConnect, an online platform that allows students to seek career advice from alumni. (Photo: Natalie Battaglia)

A new online platform is helping students tap into an incredible resource for career advice: Loyola's vast network of alumni

By Jenny Kustra-Quinn

Loyola senior Nikki Devens knew she wanted to pursue a career in law. But there are a lot of options within the field, and Devens wasn’t quite sure which area she wanted to focus on. Getting advice from practicing lawyers proved difficult, since most were too busy with their own workloads to make time to talk to a college student.

Then Devens discovered LUConnect, a growing online platform that gave her access to a vast network of Loyola alumni willing to provide exactly the kind of perspective the aspiring lawyer was seeking. She ended up contacting six different lawyers—all Loyola alumni who had signed up with LUConnect. All were happy to have a conversation with a fellow Loyolan looking to break into the legal profession.

Devens asked them what they wish they had done as undergraduates to better prepare for law school, and she gained helpful insight on what life is like for law students and lawyers. When she talked to a lawyer who specializes in immigration justice, “a light bulb went off,” Devens says. “And I just knew this was what I wanted to do.” It has been her focus ever since.

Most college students grapple with the same kinds of life-changing questions—what their first step should be on the career path, whether to go to graduate school—and LUConnect is making it easier for students to navigate these questions with support and guidance from alums who have been there and done that. An easy-to-navigate website allows students to quickly find alumni who share their interests and have already committed to helping students in the same position they were once in: trying to figure out how to transition from college to career.

After a soft launch a year ago and a hard launch in the spring, LUConnect has more than 850 registered participants. Students and alumni are asked to create profiles and each group can determine the extent of their interactions, which can range from a mentoring relationship to a one-time conversation or e-mail exchange. Either way, the goal is for students to come away armed with the information to make well-informed decisions about their future.

The alumni—known as “champions”—are experts in hundreds of fields and can advise students on things like finding their first job or determining if the career they are seeking is really right for them. Alumni who create profiles can also connect with one another if they are looking for a new job or are thinking about switching careers.

LUConnect is kind of like “LinkedIn meets Match.com,” says Brian Kurth (MA ’92), who created the software platform and donated it to the University. “You can reach out to someone on LinkedIn, but there are no guarantees they’ll respond,” says Kurth, founder and CEO of Revere Software. “The advisors on LUConnect have signed on to share their expertise and best practices and can’t wait to do so.”

Kathryn Jackson, director of Loyola’s Career Development Center, agrees that the availability and enthusiasm of alumni champions are crucial to the success of the program, which is facilitated through partnerships between the Career Development Center, Alumni Relations, and Information Technology Services. Networking can be overwhelming if you have a massive group of people to sift through, Jackson says, and students can quickly lose confidence in the process. But with LUConnect, students find mentors who are targeted to their situations and very likely to respond. “It’s not just a database of names,” she says. “It’s a real learning laboratory.”

Many of the conversations that take place through LUConnect are examples of “flash mentorship,” according to Kurth, who has himself mentored students on being an entrepreneur. Long-term mentoring “can be stifling for millennials,” he says. “They’d rather get a variety of perspectives and do it on their own timeline.” However, he adds, long-term coaching is still a possibility through LUConnect in cases where a student and an alum are open to it.

Many students find LUConnect especially helpful in areas where professionals are busy or overworked, as Devens discovered with lawyers. The same is true in the medical field, making LUConnect popular at the Stritch School of Medicine. Stritch student Nathan Pecoraro (BS ’15) helps lead a Stritch mentoring program that uses the platform to connect about 200 medical students with undergrads looking for guidance. Many discussions involve the medical school’s Early Assurance Program, and sophomores have asked Pecoraro to review their applications to make sure they’re on the right track.

Having been a Loyola undergrad who went through the process himself, Pecoraro is able to offer valuable advice to students on getting accepted to medical school. “It can be an intimidating process,” he says. “Students want to know how they can compete against 10,000 applicants.”

His advice is simple: “Do what you love to do, not just what you think will help you get into medical school. We’re all unique, and we all took diverse paths. You don’t have to put on a fake version of yourself to be a good applicant.” Pecoraro hopes that mentoring through LUConnect will eliminate barriers that might discourage younger students. “You shouldn’t give up on your dreams,” he says.

On the other hand, mentors can help a student change course if he or she is heading down a path that might not be the best fit. Until recently, senior anthropology major Judy Kyrkos was thinking about medical school. Talking to alumni made her aware of other opportunities to get involved in health care, some of which are a better match for her interests. She decided to attend graduate school and pursue public health or a more research-based field.

“The med students were really honest and up front about things like the work load and the realities of the financial burden,” says Kyrkos, adding that she might still attend medical school after receiving her graduate degree.

Jessica Kubasak (BS ’03, BA ’05), a child life specialist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, says it’s important for students to learn that school and careers don’t always take a “straight and narrow path.” She’s a good example of this, as she prepares to go back to school and transition into a new career in physical therapy.

Kubasak says mentoring can give students clarity and possibly point them in a direction that differs from what they had envisioned. She has communicated with a few students through LUConnect and has asked them to really think about what they enjoy doing with their time.

“When you’re 18, we tell you to choose a major and do that for the rest of your life. But even if you have a firm idea of what you want to do, life doesn’t always work out that way,” she says. “So I ask students to do some real soul searching.”

Jackson says LUConnect is quickly building momentum with students, who like that the service is free, online, accessible 24/7, and even available to those studying abroad. At the same time it offers flexibility to alumni who wish to serve as champions. “Alumni can choose how much time they want to devote, and they can communicate via phone, Skype, e-mail, or in person,” Jackson says. “It’s a nice way to give back.”

That’s a message that has resonated with Devens, who is already thinking of how she can assist future Loyola students who are pondering the same kinds of career decisions that alumni mentors have helped her tackle. “The people I’ve talked to have helped me with big decisions,” she says, “and I would love to pay it forward and be there for the next group of students.”

Sign up to be a champion or learn more about LUConnect at LUC.edu/LUConnect.