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March 12, 2014

Hokie student-athletes get jumpstart on professional development

By: Reyna Gilbert-Lowry

On a cold, snowy evening in late January, 34 Hokie student-athletes filled the west side of Lane Stadium. They weren’t there to watch film or run stadium steps. Instead, they exchanged their jerseys for business suits, as they participated in the 2014 Student-Athlete Career Jumpstart. This annual event, put on by the Office of Student Life, focuses on helping junior and senior student-athletes enhance their professional development.

The evening began with the student-athlete career fair, which was designed to assist student-athletes in preparing for career fairs and interviews by providing networking opportunities with professionals on local and national levels. Representatives from Kohl’s, PepsiCo, Northwestern Mutual, First Bank & Trust Company, the United States Marine Corps, the Peace Corps, Southern Teachers Agency and Enterprise Rent-A-Car were in attendance. Virginia Tech Career Services staff members John Gray Williams and Johanna Smith were also on hand to provide information about programs and services offered by their office. This year, department photographer Dave Knachel provided LinkedIn profile photos, which allows for the promotion of professional development through social media.

"Any time you can create a professional environment that places student-athletes who are ready, willing and able alongside organizations seeking interns and employees, you've created an opportunity for development and success, " said Chris Helms, Tech’s associate AD for Olympic sports. “The athletics Office of Student Life and their Career Jumpstart program did exactly that, and those who participated came away with an enhanced awareness, new connections and potential career directions."

One of the goals of this event was to create an intimate setting for students to help enhance their confidence before attending larger campus career fairs. The timing of the event was essential since the spring Business Horizons career fair was held two days later. Prior to the event, students were given a networking pre-test that assessed their knowledge of and confidence level regarding networking. Seventy-eight percent strongly agreed that networking was important before attending the event, and this number increased to 83 percent following the event. The pre-test results also revealed that 15 percent of those in attendance knew several people with whom they should network. This number doubled to 31 percent after the career fair.

Following the career fair, participants took a short walk to a new location for the networking etiquette dinner. This portion of the evening provided an opportunity for students to interact with employers while also learning proper dining and conversation etiquette in a professional setting. In the past, many student-athletes expressed interest in learning more about athletics administration, and for that reason, several staff members from the athletics department were invited to the dinner to serve as table hosts and to help facilitate conversation. Helms and associate ADs Tom Gabbard and Jon Jaudon were in attendance, as well as clinical psychologist Dr. Gary Bennett, sports nutritionist Jennie Zabinsky, and J.C. Whidden and Grant Duncan from the sports marketing department. Terry Bolt, Hokie Club Director of Development for Special Gifts, was also in attendance and was instrumental in encouraging several Hokie Club members to attend the event.

One of the main attractions of the evening was the suit contest. Students who attended the Career Jumpstart were automatically entered into a drawing to win a complimentary business suit. This year, football student-athletes Nick Bush and Darius Redman were selected as well as Becca Niles from the lacrosse team and cross country and track student Sarah Rapp. These students recently spent time at Garrett’s Menswear Depot and Meg’s Specialty Womenswear in Radford, Va., and Ross Dress for Less in Christiansburg, Va., and had the chance to pick out their business suits.

“The Career Jumpstart provided me with valuable information that I can carry into a professional setting,” Bush said. “Not only did I get practice in communicating with professional employers, but I also got to experience proper etiquette when dining. The fact that I was able to win a suit during the drawing made it even more phenomenal, and I would like to thank Garrett's in Radford for providing our suits.”

Virginia Tech student-athletes know firsthand the significance of practicing to develop their athletics skills. They also know how important it is to take advantage of opportunities to enhance their professional development and how persistence in both areas can pay dividends toward their future success.