Mentorship and externship in the era of COVID-19

Contact: Stacey Anderson

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—More than 130 pre-business students are about to embark on business externships, despite the challenges COVID-19 presents. Whether those externships are virtual or delayed to later this summer or early fall, they are a key way that students determine if the career pathway they are interested in is right for them.

Arayana Janson

The Business Externship Program, offered through the Zhang Career Center, is a career exploration opportunity, but it is about much more than the connections made with employers in a variety of industries. Students receive intensive coaching on professionalism, informational interviewing, etiquette and more.

Behind the scenes are the staff of the Zhang Career Center, including student peer mentors who have previously completed the program. These students provide one-on-one mentorship to pre-business students progressing through the program. This year, being a peer mentor took an unexpected turn, with mentors helping to provide workshops and preparation events through Elearning and other means.

“We had already been planning to pilot some online components for the Business Externship Program this year,” says Zhang Career Center Director Geralyn Heystek. “We had to rapidly move the program online at the same time that students were adjusting to finishing their semester via distance learning. When we asked whether peer mentors felt they could fulfill their roles as both students and mentors, they answered ‘yes’ with a commitment that was truly impressive.”

James Rubio

Arayana Janson, a junior from Kalamazoo, Michigan, finds that she gets as much out of the experience as the students she is mentoring, “Being a peer mentor is a great experience because the role incorporates servant leadership into our personal pathways to success. We not only get the reward of knowing we’ve reminded other students that they are not alone in their efforts toward building a brighter future for themselves, we also continue to foster our own attitudes of professionalism through reinforcement.”

One way that the program has changed is being “on call” for the business externs at all times. In the past, students attended workshops that were scheduled and had most of their contact with their mentors in-person at scheduled times. “Transitioning how I handled my role as a peer mentor involved much more communication with my group of externs,” says James Rubio, a senior from Canton, Michigan. “I was emailing, calling and sending multiple messages every day. I made my schedule open so I could talk to different students whenever they were available instead of them trying to schedule a meeting in a small window of time I allow. I found that students really responded to the open availability—the ability to talk any time made them feel more comfortable and supported.”

Khansa Shaikh

Organization and balance has helped Khansa Shaikh, a senior from Portage, Michigan, to be both an outstanding student and an outstanding peer mentor. “One of the things that I had to do was get even more organized than I already was. Offering all the workshops and programs remotely becomes challenging with many different demands. I have never used Apple calendar as much as I did in the past two months. There was also the challenge of separating your work and school life from your personal life, which is harder when it all happens in one location. I had dedicated Mondays through Thursdays for only work and school and a long weekend every week to spend time with my family. That way I had the best of the both worlds, and others had the best and most balanced me.”

All three of these peer mentors say they want to stay involved with this program and others in the college—as students and alumni—so that they get the chance to connect with business students and help them on the path to success.

And for the externs about to start these nontraditional, hybrid, fluid externships, they are about to get an experience that will be valuable professionally and personally. “The externs I met through my mentor role are dedicated to making the most of this experience, despite or because of COVID-19,” says Janson. “Companies have reported that they have a high degree of respect for students who stick with a commitment like the Business Externship Program despite uncertainty. Some companies have already indicated greater potential for jobs or internships for candidates who have demonstrated resilience as we emerge from COVID-19. This extern group is actually quite lucky because they may have more one-on-one time with professional mentors at their respective externship companies—extern hosts are really stepping up to provide a world-class experience with even more attention this year. With all of the online pivoting involved, it speaks well for this year’s externs that they adapted and are ready to learn as much as they can through their externships.”

2019-2020 Business Externship Peer Mentors

Rachael Crutchfield
Cooper Frost
Arayana Janson
James Rubio
Khansa Shaikh
Allison Smith
Nick Stamper
Jodi Stoffer
Novena Sutiono

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