BUFFALO, N.Y. - Special emphasis programs are sometimes celebrated with food tastings, exhibits and presentations. This year, however, Laura Ortiz, Hispanic Program Manager for Buffalo District, and Judy Phillips, Equal Employment Opportunity Officer, decided to try something different and do something off of the reservation to honor Hispanic Heritage Month.
“We agreed we wanted to do something that would have a positive impact on Hispanic students in the community while utilizing the experience and skills of the District’s employees,” said Ortiz.
“We needed to find a source to provide us with students, so we contacted Buffalo State College’s Career Development Center to see if they would partner with us on a program for the campus Latino student association,” explained Phillips. “We knew we wanted to do something hands-on that could really help this group with their job search skills, because they tend not to do well with on-campus interviewing and job searching. Together, we came up with an idea for a program that would allow the students to practice their communication skills in a safe environment, without the pressure that comes with a real interview situation.”
The group came up with an idea for a program that neither the Corps nor the Career Development Center had ever tried: several themed stations, each manned by a Corps employee, to provide the students with an opportunity to network and learn about the employment opportunities in the federal government. Each station would have a job-related theme and allow students to receive hands-on tips and get feedback. Ortiz and Phillips quickly recruited George Cotroneo, chief of the Lower Great Lakes Hydraulics and Hydrology Branch, Kathy Fulle, chief of Resource Management, Hydraulic Engineer Waleska Echevarria, Environmental Engineer Neil Miller Engineer and Public Affairs Specialist Andy Kornacki.
On Oct. 23, 2012, Corps employees met with the students from Buffalo State’s Adelante Estudiantes Latino (AEL) and the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) for several lively rounds of networking. During each round, students moved to a new station to focus on job-related topics including: job searching in the federal government; effective interview skills; perfecting your elevator speech; and portraying yourself through a resume.
“It was important that we were able to quickly draw students out of their comfort zones and into interacting with each of us so we could practicing different skills and techniques, ” said Phillips, who manned the resume writing station. “For example, we knew these kids were going to be pros at social networking sites. So Waleska discussed how to utilize social networking sites to find out about jobs and employers, and we all hit home the message that good communication skills are essential to the job search. By the time the program was over, the students understood that you don’t just walk into a job interview – you have to practice and prepare for it.”
Students moved in groups from table to table, receiving a quick, intense lesson. They eagerly soaked in the information and techniques that the team was providing. The effect the team had on each of the students was apparent as was their determination to learn as much as they could during the program.
Kathy Fulle worked with each student on initial impressions, that is, the importance of striking up a conversation with people you do not know. You never can tell who they are or whether your “elevator speech,” might lead to a job opportunity.
Phillips commented, “Kathy also taught them that first impressions are important. One student had poor eye contact and a limp handshake when she arrived at Kathy’s table. By the time she got around to my table, it was a completely different student – visibly confident, making eye contact and a very firm handshake.”
“Over the hour, I watched the students’ ability to talk, interact and network with the Corps employees grow. It was quite remarkable,” said Ortiz. “George Cotroneo had students so engaged in practicing interview questions at his table that we were afraid they would not circulate to other tables at the end of each round!”
”We definitely made an impact on this group of students.” Phillips said. “I hope that we have the opportunity to partner with more colleges on programs that allow our employees to share their knowledge in a way that will help someone just starting out in a career.”