Leveling the Career Playing Field: Lessons in Practical Skills

For 150 high-achieving students from low-income families, The Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America Career Institute at Brown University meant a chance to convene with prospective employers for four days of intensive career development.

These students arrived at Brown for a crash course in career preparation, learning from the likes of employers Bloomberg, Goldman Sachs, Google and more. Hosted by the nonprofit Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA), the four-day career institute kicked off on Thursday, Aug. 10. The students—rising sophomores from selective universities across the U.S.—receive career coaching from seasoned professionals, learn about career opportunities in a broad range of industries and enhance the skills needed to navigate the job search process.

Many of the attendees are part of the LEDA Scholars Program. With the ultimate goal of diversifying professional and civic leadership in the U.S., the initiative assists high-achieving students from low-income and underrepresented backgrounds in gaining admission to selective colleges and supports them while enrolled.

Bridging the Career Information Gap for Low-Income Students

Beth Breger, a Brown Class of 1991 graduate and LEDA’s executive director, said that the institute focuses on bridging the career information gap faced by low-income students, many of whom come to college without the same access to social capital, professional development opportunities and career support as more affluent peers.

“This event provides participants with the requisite resources and support to empower them to explore the broad range of career options available to them,” she said, “and to successfully navigate professional opportunities that will position them as future leaders in their fields. At the same time, partnering with LEDA offers employers access to diverse talent that will enhance the impact and effectiveness of their business.”

From IBM to Creative Artists Agency to Bank of America, more than 20 employers are taking part in the event. Representatives meet with students, run workshops and offer advice on everything from resume-building and demystifying banking to tackling imposter syndrome and assessing career fit.

Interviewing Tips from Talented CEOs

At a Friday morning session devoted to job interviews, Steve D’Antonio, a retired global chief operating officer for Morgan Stanley, laid out a nuts-and-bolts strategy for acing a job interview. Tips included mastering a firm handshake, practicing answers to common questions in advance (such as the dreaded open-ended “Tell me about yourself…”) and giving specific anecdotes to demonstrate skills.

AJ Clifforde S. Alcover, a Brown student and LEDA scholar, said the interviewing session gave him a tip that he could immediately put into practice: reframing a common interview question so that it reflects your specific, authentic skills rather than answering in a generic way. In general, he said, the career institute has been useful for garnering practical skills like this, as well as giving him an opportunity to learn more about employers in a broad range of career fields. “I am getting a better sense of what employers want, but also how to be authentic and strategic in achieving my career goals,” Alcover said.

Professional Mentors as Advocates

Laura Muñoz, another Brown student and attendee, said that career-focused events and resources like this for low-income and underrepresented students serve another important role beyond offering practical tips. “When students don’t have a family network to help them figure out what to do after graduation, having a group of professionals and mentors to advocate for them and offer moral support is incredibly important,” she said.

For Brown student Peter Simpson, the conference helped him think more broadly about what it means to be successful and how that success could help others. A remark by keynote speaker and career coach Angelina Darrisaw stood out to him in particular. “She said that career advancement is a social justice issue,” he said. “When we advance our own careers, the more other people starting out who have the same identities as us will be represented and supported in the future.”

Diversifying the Nation’s Leadership

Nine Brown students attended the most recent career institute, and 24 LEDA Scholars have enrolled at Brown since the program began in 2003. LEDA’s mission to diversify the nation’s leadership pipeline aligns with the University’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, Breger said, making the University an ideal site for this event, a pilot that she hopes will expand in future years.

“With the Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion plan and initiatives like the First Generation College and Low-Income Student Center, Brown has shown a great commitment to both increasing the diversity of its student body and to supporting the success of all students who enroll,” she said. “There is no question that the economic prosperity of our nation is dependent on our ability to draw upon the valuable knowledge and perspectives of students from underrepresented and low-income backgrounds, who so deeply enrich our college campuses and our workforce.”

About the Author
O'rya Hyde-Keller is a writer and content strategist for Brown University’s Office of University Communications.