University Honors and Alumni Association partner to provide students with externships 

Todd Gilson, director of the University Honors Program, talks with Jessica Gall, a senior honors student studying biology.

In today’s competitive job market, students need to establish contacts in their field and get work experience before they graduate. Students have many opportunities to be mentored on campus, but a new externship program will expose students to the working world while they’re being mentored.

Eleven students from the University Honors Program will be placed in externships this school year and they will be paired with alumni in fields such as law, wealth management, marketing, educational administration and health care during their break in December and January. The students will be required to job-shadow their mentors for 40 hours.

“More important than donating money to institutions like NIU is the ability to provide an opportunity for students to learn more about the real life of business or any other given field that they have an interest in,” said Jeff Yordon (’70), president of Athenex Pharmaceuticals and board chair of the NIU Foundation. “Classes give them a great perspective on many issues, but there is nothing like talking to people who have life experiences that they can share with students.”

Since 2003, Yordon has worked with students on campus to help them in the business world, such as discussing how to interview, draft a résumé and talk with managers. When he has mentored students, he has arranged for them to interact with all the departments that they’re interested in.

“To actually see what happens in real life – to be involved in the action interacting with managers while they are working – has been one of the student’s most important activities, according to the feedback that I get afterward,” he said.

Job shadowing allows the students to experience how their studies relate to daily work in their field, said Todd Gilson, director of the University Honors Program, and it allows students to build professional networks.

“It is the professional connections that allow a student to stand out,” Gilson said.

In addition to developing relationships with alumni, students will have a better idea of what skills they need in the field and whether it’s the right specialty, said Liz McKee, director of alumni volunteer engagement for the NIU Alumni Association.

Before the program begins, students will be required to submit an investigative report about the background of the mentor and his or her company. At the end of the job shadowing, students will complete a self-reflection paper on their experience and will analyze how they have grown professionally.

Alumni will be trained on how to work with the students, McKee said, and the externship is flexible to give alumni the option to assign a work project, introduce students to other departments and make time for one-on-one discussions.

From an alumni perspective, the externship is an opportunity to observe the students’ work ethic and network with potential employees, McKee said, and it’s a great way for alumni to reconnect with the university.

“A lot of alumni have expressed an interest to give back, but they don’t necessarily have an idea of how to do it,” she added. “And this is an opportunity to give back to their alma mater in a way that really is beneficial to the students.”

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