02/28/2013 05:10 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2013

The Magic of Community: Helping College Students Evolve Into Professionals and Leaders

By Dr. Anna Barrett, Career Development, Students Rising Above

Community -- it's one of those words that is so vague and overused, it doesn't mean anything -- until it does... then, it's magic. Students Rising Above's College2Careers program makes "community" real, tangible, and impactful; it has that magic. In the last few weeks, I've received two job leads for current SRA college students -- from SRA alumni. These former low-income, first generation college students are now working professionals. They are bringing their network full circle, by helping current SRA college students.

How do we build a larger community of SRA alumni who are in a position to provide a network -- a community -- for our current students? Working in Career Development for Students Rising Above, that's my job.

Students Rising Above helps low-income youth achieve their dreams of a college education, and to prepare for the job market. The primary goals of our College2Careers program are threefold. We aim to help our students:
1) View and communicate about themselves as professionals
2) Expand their career goals and opportunities
3) Connect to a community of professionals

The first goal is an evolution in our students from their first year in college to their last. The change we see in our students is amazing. Whether their career communication channel is a resume, an interview, a cover letter, or an application essay, we teach the same basic process. In the early years, with a great team of volunteers, the focus is on figuring out which experiences our students should highlight (their "non-work" experiences are often the most substantial). We then help them understand how to articulate enough detail about their contributions. Sometimes after that first base resume is complete, students say, "I didn't realize I did all that!"

As our students progress through college, more and more of our effort is placed on helping them target their resumes, applications, and interview prep to specific job opportunities. We show students how to assess what the person making hiring decisions cares about and wants to know. In essence, we are helping our students develop a kind of professional empathy. We show them how to "wear the hat" of a member of the hiring team.

Fostering Professionalism and Self-Realization
I remember working with one SRA student who, in the first year of college, wrote a description of his professional experience as: "Led elementary school children on a tour of the museum and instructed students about California's ecosystem." As is so common at this age, he understated his experiences, and it turned out they were much more substantial. Through inquiry, we learned that he assisted the museum director with supervisory responsibilities including training and delegating to peers, observing work and providing feedback, and providing input for improving the visitor experience. He just didn't know it was important to tell us that. The trick is to ask the right questions, and to get the detail that helps students see just how much they have to offer.

Connecting Students to Professional Internships
A critical part of SRA's work is connecting students with highly professional internship experiences so that there is more substance for them to talk about. But it is also gratifying to see our students develop a sensibility about what a prospective employer needs to know. Now, as a junior, our former "museum tour guide" is able to describe his internship experiences in more detailed and relevant terms. Recently, he had an internship researching best ways to approach new markets and user groups for a tech company's initiative to introduce itself to college students. He understands what types of details are important -- like how he analyzed other companies' practices in targeting college student users; how he was able to determine how competitors became recognizable; that he interviewed users about how they interact with new technologies; and that he designed events based on his research.

This is only a brief summary of what he wrote about his recent experience. He still needs some help with wording. But he gets the goal -- communicating the value of his knowledge, skills, and experience.

Preparing for the Interview
This theme carries over to the cover letter and interview prep. Details. Examples. Making your story come to life. I've learned that college students need to learn how to "prep for the prep." To have a useful mock interview (let alone a successful interview), students first need to understand how to translate the job description, research the company, and think of examples that show they have the qualities and skills that the job requires.

Yes, there are important interview tips. But the most critical piece of advice is to do enough preparation before the interview. It doesn't sound sexy, I know. But if done well, it actually frees you up to come alive. When we dig into our memories and find the details, we can answer questions with interesting stories that illuminate our experiences. It may be counterintuitive, but if done well, all that preparation helps us be ourselves and to be natural during the interview.

Why Our Students Succeed in the Job Market
Back to community. I've found that the professionals who get involved with SRA students are interested in helping them build networks that land them jobs where they, in turn, can help other students build networks. Our students have personal stories -- stories of adversity and injustice. But people don't connect with SRA students out of sympathy; they connect out of admiration. Our students are models for achieving hard won success. They don't cave when they encounter obstacles; they rise above them. These are students you want as employees.

SRA's College2Careers program helps students get meaningful professional experiences and teaches them how to present these experiences in targeted and engaging ways. Growth is messy. It isn't always easy. But the results are indisputable. It is an honor to be part of the journey.

Help SRA Help Others
SRA has helped hundreds of extraordinary young adults break the cycle of poverty through mentoring, college education, and job training. The more funding and awareness we raise, the more students we can help. Please visit our fundraising page on CrowdRise, and support our efforts to change the lives of hard-working young men and women in our country. Thank you.