‘Enjoy the ride’: Alumni inspire students to explore career paths

Unique networking event helps first-years in College chart path to success

Chika Okere was in a slump. Although the first-year student in the College had wanted to pursue a career in medicine since taking her first biology class in eighth grade, she had lost passion and focus for her goals.

But she discovered a sense of optimism after recently attending a unique College networking event for first-year students, where she listened to UChicago alumni working in health care discuss their professional journeys and share career advice.

“I was able to once again see why I am passionate about medicine,” Okere said. “I could hear their passion for their work, and this struck a chord in me. It was as if I was being introduced to the medical field in a new light. This was different from wanting to be a doctor in middle school—now I could actually see myself doing it in the future.”

Okere is one of more than 700 first-year students who attended Taking the Next Step, an annual conference-style career exploration event. It includes alumni-led panels on more than 20 different industries—from arts and entertainment to science and technology—as well as networking and breakout sessions that teach students career skills such as interviewing and writing cover letters.

“College career centers have traditionally focused on upperclassmen, but at UChicago students begin career development in their first year,” said Meredith Daw, associate vice president and executive director of UChicago’s Office of Career Advancement. “With early-career advising and events like Taking the Next Step, we help undergraduates explore industries, master core skills such as resume writing and prepare for summer internships.”

Gina Ruiz, an aspiring women’s rights lawyer, learned through the event that pursuing a career in law would allow her to explore her other interests.

“I learned that it can be helpful for college graduates to explore other passions and enter the workforce prior to entering law school,” Ruiz said. “I became even more excited to pursue a legal career as I will be able to use reasoning skills to advance critical social issues and serve disadvantaged communities.”

Twenty-plus years of tradition and impact

Since it launched in 1998, Taking the Next Step has impacted generations of College students, inspiring many former student attendees to volunteer for the event after they graduate. This year more than 225 alumni returned to Chicago to mentor current students.

Frank Alarcon, AB’13, who attended the event as a UChicago student, moderated a panel for first-years interested in social innovation and community change. He discussed his career trajectory from State Department intern in Botswana and Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador to his current role as an urban planner in the Twin Cities.

“I remember being at my own Taking the Next Step and having an opportunity to speak with someone who worked with President Obama in the White House every day,” recalled Alarcon, a planning specialist with Ramsey County, Minnesota. “It was such a valuable experience, so I jumped at this chance to provide whatever support I can to the next generation of UChicago students.”

For Maria-Alicia Serrano, AB’00, volunteering for Taking the Next Step has become an annual tradition.

“What keeps me coming back every year is the conversations,” said Serrano, the senior director of research, analytics and insights at the YMCA. “I love helping students think through their goals and sharing what I’ve learned so that they can see career development as a lifelong adventure rather than some big, scary decision.”

A research professional whose career journey has included roles in government, nonprofits and the private sector, Serrano advised students that their career path might take them in unexpected directions.

“Enjoy the ride,” Serrano said, “and try not to stress out: Your alumni and your University are here to support you.”

Same passions, new confidence

Many students have already started taking Serrano’s advice.

The event motivated Dante Vaisbort, an aspiring entrepreneur, to get more involved with UChicago’s entrepreneurial community.

“Taking the Next Step encouraged me to build meaningful connections with people in the business world,” said Vaisbort, who has already contacted one of the alumni panelists for an informational interview. “I’m trying to get involved with the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and with planning next year’s Taking the Next Step. Going forward, I also want to take advantage of the many events, information sessions and networking sessions available at UChicago.”

Jaylen Moulton has similar plans. After exploring her passion for film, writing and journalism at Taking the Next Step, she plans to tap into the UChicago network to secure an internship in the creative sector this summer.

“Taking the Next Step helped me feel confident in what the future may hold for me, especially with all the resources available at UChicago that can help me along the way,” Moulton said. “Hearing from the panelists also encouraged me to pursue the things I love most at UChicago and to take advantage of all the opportunities the College offers.”