Interview with Lee Svete, Director, van Vlissingen Center for Career & Professional Development at Emory and Henry College
GradLeaders recently interviewed Lee Svete, the Director at the Career and Professional Development Center at Emory and Henry College. We wanted to check in with Lee to better understand how he's building a career center at this liberal arts school. Lee Svete graciously shared his educational and professional background, gave valuable advice to job seeking students, and gave great insight into the problems and solutions of career centers today!
Emily: So How long have you worked for Emory and Henry College?
Lee: Since July 1st of this year, just recently joined this liberal arts college in south West Virginia.
Emily: Nice. Can you talk a little bit about what your position is and describe a little bit about your role?
Lee: Yes. I’m the director of the new center for career and professional development. I’ll be able to share some slides with you that write all of that out. I was at Wake Forest, I was in my fourth year, I still live there it’s about two hours away and I’m able to work here about four days on the ground and then at home during the weekends. So yeah, it’s been a fast ride, a very exciting place to be. We received Emily, a $5 million endowment, from a Dutch family, he’s not an alum but he’s friends with the president. He had two things in mind; start a school business which we’re doing and hire me to build a team and a career center.
Emily: That’s awesome. So, can you share a little bit of an overview of who Emory and Henry College is and what it is that defines your school and makes it unique?
Lee: Yeah, that’s a great question and that’s the whole reason I decided to come here. It’s a liberal arts school with about 1,100 students with a very strong pre-health program, I know a lot about that with my daughter in med-school. We have an incredible pre-health program and about 25% of our students go into pre-health and we’re training them to be PA’s and PT’s and OT’s and med-school. It’s a great group. Then we have a strong arts and humanities background which is typical of liberal arts schools like where I went to school at the College of Wooster, it reminds me of Dennison if you know Dennison, Otterbein, those types of schools. So, we’re starting to have a footprint there. Because we’re in south West Virginia we have a very strong environmental studies program with outdoor education and an equestrian team which is really interesting. 40% of our student body are athletes. We play in division 3 ODET conferences, although confidentially we think we will move up to division 2, we’ll see. The other thing I will say is historically we’ve been a school with strong endowment, and it's been an Appalachian school let me describe that. We draw a lot of our students from West Virginia down into south West Virginia, northern North Carolina, Nashville area, eastern Tennessee, so it’s the Appalachian trail really when you start to think about it. First gens came here to make a difference in student’s lives. I know this is a long answer to your question but there's a lot of first gens, unmarginalized students and they don’t have parents that went to college for the most part. It’s kind of that blue collar work ethic type of school, it’s beautiful and we’ve got great leadership. We also started a school of business because we’ve got a strategic campaign called “pivot towards the future” which is integrating connected learning to the world of work. I’m going to show you some stuff that’s pretty cool.
Emily: Well, that was very interesting. That was a great overview thank you. So, what would you say that you love most about your job today?
Lee: I’m building a program from scratch. They did not have a career center here six months ago. They had one person and they didn’t use the word career. They called it the ampersand center it’s like career education and life. So, I came in and started a career and life ready campaign and I was able to build a team. Wait till I tell you about my team. I came in from Wake Forest, 30 years of experience and I could’ve stayed at Wake Forest power five conference, I was at Notre Dame for 18 years before that and got plenty of awards. We did a lot with diversity too. But I like to build, and I really enjoy being creative to come up with a simplistic way, especially during COVID and the changes in the political environment, to give students simplistic yet thorough in multifaceted career and life ready campaign. I’m building and creating.
Emily: That’s awesome it sounds like you’re going to be making a huge difference.
Lee: Some days it’s like “Oh can I do this?” But I was able to recruit some talent. I didn’t think I was going to be able to bring in people from the outside because we don’t have a stoplight here. We have a train, but not a stoplight. To recruit people here was challenging but I got some rock stars.
Emily: Well good because that’s a big job. So, can you explain a little bit about your educational background and your previous work experiences and how that led you to where you are now?
Lee: Yeah, and I’ll try to be concise with this. College of Wooster undergrad like I said, liberal arts guy, history in economics. Both of my kids play D1 basketball and I was going to coach basketball at the college level, but it didn’t replace conference competing and it didn’t replace the kind of joy I had when helping people succeed so I became a career coach, and I met my wife at Bowling Green State. She was in admissions at the time and we took off for Northern New York and worked for Clarkson University which is an engineering school and on to Saint Lawrence. I was 28 years old when I got my first director’s job. For a director at Saint Lawrence University which is a small liberal arts school in New York, I’d say that’s a pretty big deal. Then I went to Colgate from there which helped me tie in New York Wall-street careers, consulting, the arts, media, retail, I really learned a lot. I was going to be a Colgate for a while but then Notre Dame called me and said, “would you build a career center in Southbend Indiana.” I was like holy smokes, this is 1999 right, and I did, and we came in and built one career center, renovated a dorm, and I was there for 18 years like I said. Then before I left, I raised $20 million to build a new career center from taxes from the Notre Dame football stadium. And we did it. We had a little too much of a fundraiser which led me to Wake Forest. The provost at Notre Dame, Nathan Hatch, became president at Wake Forest several years before I left Notre Dame. He called me and he called me and said, “hey come down and start a career life ready program and career education from classes.” I did that, he decided to retire, and simultaneously Emory and Henry had this $1 million grant. I thought “am I going to make a bigger impact at Wake Forest where there’s lots of money and students come from educated families, or do I use my knowledge and experience in business, engineering, liberal arts, and communications to do something special here. Heather and I talked about this she said, “I can’t believe you left Wake Forest” and a lot of people couldn’t believe it, but I did, and it’s been exciting, exhilarating and lots of fun.
Emily: That’s awesome, it sounds like you have done a lot of great work. That’s a good question to ask yourself, where are you going to be of the most use, where can you help out the most. That’s awesome. So, after working with Colgate and Notre Dame, Wake Forest and now Emory and Henry College, have you noticed any similarities and differences between the career centers and how their students interact with them and what it’s been like to build them up?
Lee: That’s a great question. Any place I’ve gone, the challenge is student engagement. It’s having students use the career center. Wherever I’ve been it was underutilized, the facilities were terrible, they weren’t using technology and I was able to come in and do a couple different things; both infrastructure student engagement and buy-in from faculty, there’s similarities there. Simultaneously I created an extensive employer relations campaign and was out in the front to find those opportunities for students. A lot of career centers don’t believe in that, I call it push and pull. A lot of the time you just pull jobs from the internet and have alumni post jobs. My philosophy is much different than that. Yeah, I’ll take the pull, I can find some great jobs at Morgan Stanley and those types of companies, but what if I did a push campaign and really went out and developed relationships with employers all over the world. And we did that. You have the student body in one hand that need to be engaged and educated because there are many times that they’re unaware of how to write resumes and cover letters. To think that you and I are sitting here in 2020 and we still get bad resumes and we still get students that can’t interview and that’s the people piece. The other thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of the faculty where I’ve been is “stay away from me, I’m teaching the courses, I’ll do my own thing,” and my strategy is more integration. We can work into their major in history, art, those kinds of things. So, you have to build this infrastructure and you have to build good teams. Wherever I’ve gone they haven’t had the right staff and that’s the team you’re going to play with every week. If you can’t block and tackle and be creative and be successful, you’re not going to be where you want to be. Here’s the other thing that I think is interesting. Looking at 30 years and all of this technology and you can do it all with your computers and recruiting systems, look we’re sitting here on camera right now, but there’s the people, and the soft skills. You can know Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, but if you can’t talk to people and work in teams and have finesse and business savvy, then you’re going to have a problem there. So, it’s the blend of a touch in technology and people touch or personalization and helping students get career and life ready and letting them follow their passions of what they’re good at. We’re in a peer influence culture right now, there’s a lot of influencers out there and everything. I think we hold steady on making students think that they can compete in the world of work. But to lead a horse to water you can’t make him drink it and I think some of those analogies hold true in what we’re doing. It’s a long answer to your question.
Emily: No that’s a great answer and you’ve touched on this through that answer but what would you say is the main area that career centers are lacking on or they need to improve on and what advice would you give them to help them grow and allow them to better engage with their students?
Lee: I think it certainly is leveraging technology but also your alumni networks and the engagement piece of connecting the alums to the students and there’s creative ways to do that. I think career centers for the most part engage 15 to 20% of the population. I’ll give you one example because this is data proven. At Wake Forest we said our goal is to get 80% of our students to have a profile. My Codirector of business and I had a staff of 44 people. Our best engagement rate was 73%. That is incredible. Most career centers are 20% engagement of students, they’re missing a boat load of students who are unengaged. So that’s what we’re doing at Emory and Henry, by hiring staff where we had one person and they had 42 appointments last year, this year alone we’ve had 278 right now as we speak.
Emily: Good for you that’s a huge difference.
Lee: And there’s the career education piece too, we’re teaching courses for credit and we’re offering internships for credit. A lot of programs don’t offer credit bearing opportunities for career. I think you have to do that in the world of war. We’re in a credential society, you have to have credits and you have to have requirements. So, if you build in some of those opportunities where students say “I can get 3 credits this semester for doing an internship with a faculty member? Check.” I can’t wait to show you my career and life ready graphic because it will become very clear of what we’re doing differently than other schools.
Emily: So, from a student perspective, what’s one thing you wish that they knew about their career centers?
Lee: That’s a great question. I wish that they knew how much knowledge that we have to get them ready to compete to be successful. Students many times think, let's say your peers in Ohio University, I look at all my peers and think this is my competition for jobs. But it’s not. For you it's Ohio State, it's Miami of Ohio and the list goes on, it depends where you want to live. I think it’s really important that students understand that there’s a resource there available to them, but they have to buy in though. They have to buy in to actually participating in the process. But for career centers, it’s on us to be able to demonstrate value of why you should do that. That’s the other thing, career centers throw up a web page and they have social media, and they think “check, we’ll wait to see the students that are coming in.” No. You have to build alliances. Are you a member of any clubs?
Emily: I’m in the Ralph and Luci Schey Sales Center if you’re familiar with that.
Lee: Yes, and how many members do you have?
Emily: I believe over 500.
Lee: Oh my gosh, that’s huge. One of my strategies is to go to student organizations, the leadership groups, and engage the stakeholders who are leading captains of sports teams, president of debate clubs I just met with. He said “hey would you come in and talk to my debate club and do a career preparation for them? I really would like to set that up.” Yes. So, I went from one student to 52 and I did it in one hour. You scale the engagement. Then you go to Greek life because they have to do educational programs, right? They have to do it to show there’s value in the actual organization. So, I think that’s a big piece.
Emily: Yeah, I agree. So, do you have any advice on how colleges and universities can keep their students engaged and motivated to find a full-time job during this time when it’s definitely a struggle and people are probably not as motivated to find a full-time job when they think that the opportunities are more limited?
Lee: Yeah, and I’m going to give you a specific example. So, I’m at Wake Forest and we’re working with students, engaging them and here’s where I think many times career centers miss it. Let’s say you come in, I’m working with you, we go through the resume, what are your goals, what kind of companies do you want to work with and good luck. Let me know how it goes. That’s where you miss it. Rather, I have students coming in that are prepared with their resumes. Then I say, “let’s connect you to HR managers that I know and alumni that can help you get interviews.” And they’ll say, “oh you can do that?” Yes, let’s try. So Peloton, I don’t know if you’re a Peloton fan or not, I am. I have three students who were all interested in health and wellness, exercise and sports. I said, “hey did you know that Peloton has these internship programs? They have 25 openings.” So, these three students who were all women, all three landed in Peloton. I kept them engaged by showing them the possibilities of their engagement and connected it to real opportunities. Along the way we had some we missed but they were interviewing. “Hey, I just got a call for digital marketing in New York City and I didn’t even know they existed until I met you.” I have a whiteboard in my office so when they come in, whether it’s public policy in Washington D.C. or it’s Peloton, we have a list of companies and organizations and sometimes grad schools that they're going to target. So, I think you have to give students lists and real time opportunities to say what are the possibilities. All three of those women at Peloton killed it. They loved them and they’re going back next summer.
Emily: Good that’s awesome. That’s great advice. So, focusing more on you, if you were to look back on your college self and know everything that you know now, what advice would you give about college, finding your first job, finding a career, anything?
Lee: Alright, can I share my screen?
Lee: Alright here we go, I want to show you something. This is the advice I would give them. I’m going to show you a graphic. This is what I showed Heather that she really liked. To the left, I always like to develop a plan. Gen Z’s like plans. So, what do I have to do, how do I get there, and what is the plan? Then you put it into action. So, you write your resumes, you target your companies, you look at geographics, you get your alumni base and then you go into action. That’s applying, interviewing, and then we’re going to succeed. We’re going to succeed 99% of the time even in COVID. Then if I plan and put it in action, how do I become successful? Well then you go to the right and this is what I’m doing. I’m learning new skills inside and outside the classroom. For example, I have a student who is interested in Spectrum and she’s teaching herself Illustrator because they haven’t taught it yet. She’s learning skills inside and outside the classroom. We’re in a skill-based economy right now. Number two, work. You’re doing an internship; check. You’re going to have a great resume, maybe you have two work experiences. And then a lot of career centers say, “okay we’re done,” no. You have to lead. You have to be a leader in an organization, in your church, in the athletic area, you need to find where you can lead or do public speaking like debate team. Then, I don’t stop there. You have to give back. What’s your community involvement? What have you done for social change? What have you done to make your city better? What are you doing for the boys and girls club? So, you put that on your resume, and you connect it to opportunities. This is my strategy I have going forward.
Emily: I think that’s a great strategy and I think every student should see this.
Lee: And it’s not complicated.
Emily: No, you made that so simple.
Lee: I’ll tell you, if you bring me a resume with the four wheels, I can connect you. One example, major league baseball, a student wants to do an internship in MLB. We’re in West Virginia he wants to be in New Jersey and the world series is over, he did all those four wheels and I connected him to Joe Rubondo, vice president of MLB who’s going to connect him with the HR director for an interview. Boom, check. So that’s what I wanted to show you there.
Emily: That was awesome that was well said. Thank you.
Lee: Thank you, I tested it with Heather, you know here I am with 30 years of experience and I’ve known Heather for so long I said, “I don’t know if I should show you yet.” But I showed it to her, and she was like “oh yeah you have to show Emily that next week.”
Emily: Yeah, you got my mind working. I’m thinking about my resume and thinking okay, I have to touch it up. That was awesome. Well, that was pretty much all the questions I had for you, did you have anything else that you wanted to share about Emory and Henry College, any advice, anything about GradLeaders or anything at all?
Lee: I’ll say this about the small liberal arts schools like us in COVID, there’s challenges. I didn’t mention that we are hybrid. We have 1,100 students, luckily, we have this pre-health program, we have Marion campus and it’s very social distancing but then the rest of our campus is only about 30% full in the dorms so we can spread the students out. I say this because the schools of our size are struggling financially. And schools like Ohio State have these big endowments, but they’re even starting to look at possible layoffs. Thank God for the vaccine, we’re going to get through it. I’ll say this; Emory and Henry College is just a beautiful place. This picture behind me is staged but when I walk out of my office, that’s my view. It reminds me a little bit of Athens.
Emily: I was thinking the same thing.
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