Alumni share advice on successful careers with students at ‘Taking the Next Step’

More than a thousand students packed into a ballroom at the Chicago Marriott on Saturday, Jan. 12 to meet alumni in dozens of professions, ask questions and make connections for their future careers. The gathering, called Taking the Next Step, is the largest career event in the College and one of the largest at any university.

“It’s important for our students, who have become trained in rigorous inquiry and liberal education, to become the leaders in their chosen professions,” said John W. Boyer, dean of the College. “Taking the Next Step symbolizes the commitment of our College to our nation.”

Boyer addressed the students as they sat down with alumni for a working lunch.

“William Rainey Harper was convinced that the University should generate cultural, social and political leaders, as well as academics,” said Boyer. “What we’re doing today is reaffirming that mission of validating and valorizing our liberal arts tradition. Also we’re convinced that this tradition empowers us to do so much more for our nation and our communities.”

A combined venture of the College and Career Advancement—with logistical, behind-the-scenes assistance from a team of College Programming Office staff members—Taking the Next Step has grown in many ways since the first event in January 1998. That first year drew about 200 students, a surprisingly large turnout that only hinted at the potential interest among students. Since that “terribly cold Saturday” 15 years ago, Boyer said, the event has served as a seed that helped nurture the Jeff Metcalf Internship Program and the scholastic and extracurricular opportunities available through the UChicago Careers In programs.

‘Follow your passion’

This year’s keynote speaker, David Axelrod AB’76, shared his personal history—including his interest in politics, which dates back to 1960 when he heard John F. Kennedy speak at a rally in New York, and his days as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago.

Axelrod, who is the inaugural director of the Institute of Politics at the University, described his pursuit of a career in journalism during his time at UChicago, and how his education helped prepare him for his future as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a political consultant to President Bill Clinton, and later as advisor to Barack Obama during his successful presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012.

Axelrod gave the students three pieces of advice to think about when considering career choices.

“One, find something that you feel passionate about. Follow your passion. Do things that interest and excite you. One of the benefits of being at a great liberal arts college is that you’re exposed to a lot of things,” he said.

“The second is, don’t make 30-year plans. I had no idea where life would take me, and I seized the opportunities as they came. You’re the beneficiaries of great training and that will open all kinds of doors for you,” Axelrod said.

Axelrod’s third piece of advice focused on why one chooses a specific career path. “The pursuit of wealth is a legitimate passion but it’s limited in its rewards. It’s incumbent on all of us, particularly those of us blessed with a great education, to make a difference in the world around us. You’re going to live in that world and shape it for others and your children,” he said.

“This is such a group of talented young people here, and my admonition to you is to be one of those people. Go out there and change the world.” 

One day of lessons for a lifetime

About half of the second- and third-year classes in the College attended this year’s event, and fourth-year students who studied abroad in Winter Quarter last year also were invited. About 250 alumni came to the daylong event to tell the next generation how to navigate life after college.

The day included a networking lunch, in which students dine with alumni working in various fields. They share advice and stories of transitioning into successful careers as varied as advertising, community organizing, journalism, healthcare, and urban planning.

 “It’s inspiring to see College alumni who went through what we went through as students, but who also succeeded in their own realms,” said third-year Cindy Wang.

Participating students also learned that meals provide excellent opportunities to display conversational skills and poise, reveal an awareness of cultural expectations, and demonstrate a sense of humor and composure. In fact, students are given a few tips about dining protocol beforehand, so they can avoid any possible calamities that might derail a job prospect in a more high-stakes setting.

The students then split into 14 different panel discussions with alumni at all stages of their careers.

“The panels really help you see what an industry is like from the point of view of people who were recently in our place,” said Marsha Moses, fourth-year and co-chair of the event this year. She attended TNS during her second and third year, unsure whether she wanted to go into consulting, business, finance, or something else.

“Meeting alumni from the big firms that I was most interested in helped me solidify my internship and career plans,” Moses said. After graduating this spring, the New York City native plans to start working full-time at an investment bank. 

Whether the alumni panelists were just five years out of College or at the top of their fields, the gist of their messages to the students was the same: lots of people stand ready to help you to get where you want to go.

“This is a place that in its fundamental DNA is a very individualistic place,” said Boyer, “and you need to blend into it a spirit of community. You need to be able to help each other. The alumni here today, they’re here to help you.”