Elizabeth Luke via Zoom for first “Lunch with a Leader” event this Fall.

Virtual career programing connects students and recent alumni with established professionals

At the Aug. 26 virtual Lunch with a Leader event, Elizabeth Luke of Pinterest shared her thoughts on how to keep one’s career fresh and exciting. “Always be interviewing so that you know your own value,” she told an audience of nearly 100 USC Annenberg students and recent alumni via Zoom. “Once I don't feel valued anymore, I just move on to the next opportunity and learn something new.”

Luke, an alumna who graduated in 2008 with a bachelor’s in communication, also emphasized the difficult realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Control is fake anyway,” she said. “It’s not a real thing, it’s contrived. So, just lean into the idea that we’re all in this world together right now, and this is the moment for you to explore things that you wouldn’t have explored before.”

This event, the first Lunch with a Leader gathering of the Fall semester, is the latest example of how USC Annenberg has continued to offer valuable career-focused programming for students and recent graduates through virtual platforms.

“Elizabeth was such an encouraging and motivating speaker,” said Bonnie Robertson, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in communication. “She gave us valuable advice about seeking out opportunities beyond the parameters of your current position.”

When USC shut down in-person instruction in March, USC Annenberg Office of Career Development immediately moved programs like Lunch with a Leader and Career Treks to online formats. At the same time, the Career Development team worked with the office of Development and Alumni Relations to create the Annenberg Connects program — a series of panel discussions where alumni share their experiences in a variety of fields with students.

Also, the Alumni Relations team launched a Class of 2020 mentorship program to provide guidance to recent graduates. Then, in May, Dean Willow Bay founded a new virtual speaker series, Annenberg Intelligence, that allows students to learn from organizational leaders.

These new and updated virtual programs offered some 50 events reaching some 3,000 students and alumni between March and August, helping to create and maintain connections during a time when face-to-face events are not possible. At an institution known for its vast, engaged network of alumni — the Trojan Family — USC Annenberg staff knew they had to continue to deliver a way into that network.

“Our students are craving that sense of community, of being deeply engaged with USC, even if they’re not physically on campus,” said Suzanne Alcantara, assistant dean of student affairs and director of career development. “Even as many companies have paused hiring, we’re still helping them build connections and skills.”

“Our alumni have really answered the call,” said Leticia Lozoya, director of alumni relations. “It’s been so amazing to see our alumni are stepping in to help at a high level.”

Julie Moore, who earned her bachelor’s in communication in 2008 and is now a manager at the consulting firm The Trium Group, helped host a virtual event in May that connected the classes of 2020 and 2008. “I’ve been so impressed at the sheer volume of career programming Annenberg has produced,” Moore said. “The school has found unique ways to support this new class of grads as they enter an unprecedented environment.”

“I put the USC alumni community up against that of any other great university out there, in terms of our willingness to support and engage with students,” said Tal Woliner, who earned her bachelor’s degree in communication in 2005 and is now senior vice president with Direct Impact, the grassroots arm of the public relations agency BCW Global. “It’s really fulfilling to know that you’re helping someone discover what it is they want to do.”

Woliner moderated a virtual session in the Annenberg Connects series for students and recent alumni in May that featured senior leadership from the public relations firm BCW on the role of PR in navigating COVID-19. “I know it helped these students get a sense of the role they can play in public relations and communications during and after this pandemic,” she said.

Ricardo Horna is himself a recent graduate, having earned his master’s in communication management in 2016. Now on the staffing team at YouTube, he said he has been “consistently back to school” as he remained engaged with USC Annenberg’s career programming.

He joined a May 1 Annenberg Connects panel titled “Job Interviews in the Age of Zoom,” offering tips on best practices, from lighting and room staging to Zoom etiquette. He also was an enthusiastic participant in the Class of 2020 mentorship program, which involved one-on-one conversations between mentors and mentees, as well as group Zoom meetings.

“You could feel the energy in every single one of these mentoring sessions,” Horna said. “Alumni, students — there were endless amounts of questions and endless requests for more time, which is not always the case in meetings like this.”

Jamia Pugh, who graduated in May with a master’s in journalism, says that her mentor was extremely helpful to her, even though their conversations were completely virtual.

“My biggest takeaway from the program is, no matter how experienced you might be, there is still so much wisdom to take in,” Pugh said. “I hope I can one day be a mentor and give back what this program and my mentor gave to me.”

As she gave back to the USC Annenberg community during her Lunch with a Leader presentation, Elizabeth Luke exhorted her audience to trust their talent — and trust that hard work would pay off. “Progress and success are step-by-step,” she said. “There's no such thing as an overnight sensation. … So, recognize that it's all a process and that you can make mistakes along the way.”