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Columbia Engineering and Career Education Build Bridges to World of Work
The blockbuster career education event exceeded expectations.

Fierce competition for jobs still looms as the nation emerges from a recession. Compounding this are quick changes in technology, dictating a changing set of skills. Columbia recognizes these realities and is assisting its students before they graduate. Most recently, the Center for Career Education and The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) banded together to create a blockbuster career education opportunity for engineering students like never before seen on campus.

"The event exceeded everybody's expectations," said SEAS Dean Zvi Galil . "Everyone was happy -- students, employers, career education staffers. There was excitement and energy in the air."

The two-day event, composed of a dinner, networking reception and career fair, was the brainchild of Christopher Pratt , dean of the Center for Career Education. His staff organized the event in collaboration with SEAS.

"It was a team effort and a clear example of both the interest in and drawing power of New York City and Columbia University of which we can all be very proud," said Pratt.

Long lines of suit-clad students spilled outside Low Library waiting for access to the Rotunda, where 72 receptive, pre-eminent employers from around the world had gathered. Besides attracting 600 of Columbia's own, the event drew students from 54 other top engineering schools across the northeast as well, among them Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Rensselaer, Rutgers, McGill, Yale, University of Michigan, Tufts and Stony Brook. Total student attendance exceeded 1,400. Organizers are planning a repeat performance next fall.

Student to employer, faculty to employer, researcher to researcher -- the Rotunda hummed with networking: making contacts, exchanging research ideas and resumes, and sharing information about the changing needs of the workforce.

Columbia senior Kathleen Clarkson, majoring in civil engineering with a focus on water resources and environmental engineering, was not disappointed as she pursued job leads.

"I'm pleasantly surprised by the number of environmental and civil firms that are here," she said. "In fact, there are almost too many for me to talk to."

Columbia engineering freshman Alexander Brown showed up ready to network as well, even though graduation is still several years away. "I've gotten a lot of information that I intend to take back home and research more -- and look into possible summer internships, even possible future careers maybe."

Xiaofei Wang, a Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering at Cornell, traveled to New York to attend the fair. He had his eye on companies that did not attend Cornell's job fair. He also cited the significant number of company engineers represented at the booths, not just human resources representatives.

Three seniors from Lehigh University, Adrienne Panos, Ryan Haworth and Carolyn Sneeringer, had been waiting 15 minutes and were near the end of the line to get in after traveling an hour and a half. All three were interested in the New York area employers that did not attend their own school's job fair. Haworth added: "Our career fair was for the whole school. So you talk to companies, and they might send finance people there, and they don't know about the engineering aspects of the place."

Employers were pleased as well. "To see an event this crowded with this much diversity just in the representation of universities and [fields of] engineers, it's amazing," said Trina Medley, a Boeing human resources representative. "To have so many schools in one place where we can bring everybody, instead of having to go to 30 different schools."

Mahendra Shah, of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said his organization was on the lookout for 113 new engineers it plans to hire starting next June. "We are looking for somebody who, of course, has a good academic preparation, but who also has leadership potential, so they can take over some of the things in the future. A lot of our people are retiring, so we are looking for some strengths where leadership is evident."

Employers' communicating such needs was also a priority the evening before, when they dined with faculty and career education staff at Faculty House. That night, students got a head start at a networking reception with employers after the dinner. Employers and faculty also seized the opportunity to connect. Faculty shared information about their research, and employers had the opportunity to convey their changing needs.

"At my table, [electrical engineering] faculty member Kenneth Shepard was sharing information about his field of research with a representative of Conexant [semiconductor/broadband communications company], and the Conexant representative was sharing much about his hiring needs in terms of designers including their skill sets," said Laura Hoffman , director of employer and alumni relations at the Center for Career Education. "I expect that many more of these types of conversations were happening as well."

Though everyone was excited about the event's enormous success, it comes as no surprise that SEAS would forge ties between the world of work and academia. Real-world experience is built into the SEAS curriculum.

For example, a class called the Gateway course is a one-semester four-credit class required of all engineering freshmen. The thrust is community service learning -- learning design by solving real technical problems for community-based organizations. Students interact with dozens of local community groups. Teams of five are given real-life clients in the community. Students meet with them, assess their needs, design the project, and make a presentation to the client -- virtually all aspects of a real-world project, except they charge no fee. Clients, in turn, provide feedback to the students as to the effectiveness of their designs.

Students are making a significant contribution in the community. They have designed features for New York City zoos and public school playgrounds to enhance enjoyment by the disabled, Web sites for senior citizen groups in the community, a computer lab for Harlem residents and provided training for the residents in using the equipment.

A second feature that makes SEAS students attractive to employers is its broad curriculum. Students emerging from the SEAS are able to see the many career paths available to them. In addition to their multidisciplinary core studies, they can also choose from 15 minors, such as education, religion and political science, to name a few. One-third of Columbia engineering students minor in economics. This opens the door to a wide horizon of possible jobs. On the eve of the fair, Dean Galil addressed dinner attendees about the broad curriculum.

"Breadth is the most unique part," Galil said. "We believe in the broad engineer, or the broad technologies. So [ Columbia engineers] have a very extensive liberal arts education through the core curriculum."

Galil also listed other important qualities that distinguish Columbia engineering, including cutting-edge research, how engineering and business intersect in the curriculum, and the long history of engineering excellence at the university.

"The package is unique," he said. " Columbia engineering is now leading the way at Columbia in four multidisciplinary mega centers -- biomedical engineering, genomics, materials and nanotechnology. These are collaborations with the sciences, with the medical school, with other parts of Columbia . Doctoral students, master's and undergrads all have the opportunity to participate in research."

Through extensive opportunities in research, service learning, the SEAS broad curriculum, and a faculty tuned into the latest technological advances, Columbia engineering graduates gain a significant advantage so they can hit the ground running when they enter the workforce.

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Published: Dec 14, 2004
Last modified: Jan 10, 2005

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