During the Career Development Center’s Senior Kickoff few weeks ago, Jeanne-Marie Ryan stood on the stage of Duke Family Performance hall and issued a challenge to the Pre-Law Society. “Last year,” she said, “We had sixty law schools and sixty-one students at our law school fair.” She told the group that if they got two hundred students to the fair this fall, she would buy their e-board dinner at Kindred. “Or wherever you want,” she said “I’ve just heard Kindred is the most expensive.” Ryan is Davidson’s new Executive Director of Career Development. Her first challenge, she says, is increasing engagement with the Career Center. A big part of that is just getting people to show up.
Ms. Ryan speaks with a clipped and cultured Irish accent, evidence of where she was born and raised. Her words are deliberate and measured; they line up in orderly rows like train cars. On the day of this interview, she wore a white skirt, a black shirt, white pearls, and white and black checkered shoes. Her office is impeccably neat, lit by floor lamps, and complete with a bouquet of flowers behind her computer. Everything about her exudes intentionality.
Unsurprisingly, Ryan’s arrival in Davidson was no accident. She and her husband had reached what she called “an inflection point” where they could choose their next move. She had just finished a nine year stint in human resources and talent development at finance titan State Street Corporation, where she rose to the level of vice president. Before that she worked for Investors Bank and Trust, and before that she worked for the Wine Development Board of Ireland. Ryan has lived and worked in Ireland, Luxembourg, Milan, Poland, and Boston at various points in her career.
But it was time to settle somewhere. She and her husband wanted to live somewhere warm, socially progressive, close to an international airport, and high on livability indexes. Davidson checked all the boxes.
Ryan was offered several corporate jobs in the Charlotte area. But when the executive director’s position at Career Services opened up, she jumped on it. “My role in talent development has been with early career millenials, and I’m passionate about that,” she says. “I’m passionate about what our generation has to offer.”
Ryan started work at Davidson on July 1. The first thing she did was go on a listening tour. She met with students, called alumni via phone, contacted employers, spoke with parents, and talked to trustees. Ryan wanted to know what the Center did well and what they could do better. She heard that the career counselors at the center were incredibly helpful and supportive, both during students’ time at Davidson and even afterwards.
But changes did need to be made. The biggest problem was that about twenty-five percent of students didn’t set foot in the Center until junior year. So Ms. Ryan and the staff at the Center set out a strategic plan to get students to engage with the Center from day one. They designed roadmaps for each year detailing the steps students should take to explore and develop career options.
“The first year you’re assessing,” she says. “The second year you’re exploring; the third year you’re clarifying; and the fourth year is your launch year.” Every first year student got the first year roadmap in the mail on the first day of school, and she spoke to all their families during orientation.
Other changes were smaller. The Center now sends out just one email a week, a digest of job openings, companies coming to campus, and other events. Families now get these emails too. Food will be served at all events, so students don’t have to miss dinner to meet employers or graduate school representatives. Business attire is still suggested for employer information sessions but not required, a change aimed at athletes coming from practice or other students coming from extracurriculars. Walk-in office hours at the Center have been expanded. The blinds and the doors of the Center are always open. A bowl of granola bars sits on the table by the entrance. The message is clear: Show up.
Ryan’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. Aly Bryan ’17, the president of the Pre-Business Society, has worked with Ryan several times; they collaborated on organizing last Saturday’s junior and senior boot camp. Bryan says Ryan’s work experience gives her an “outside the bubble” perspective, and her attention to detail has created a more cohesive narrative for the Center. So many students came to the first boot camp that the Center hosted another one. Hundreds of parents and alumni have joined the Center’s network so they can help students launch careers.
Ryan doesn’t like looking at careers as ladders. They’re more like lattices, she says “a series of interconnected moves that each build a narrative.” This is especially true of millenials, most of whom will have had nine different jobs by the time they retire. She also knows that millenials want meaningful work. It’s not enough to put food on the table; we want careers that fulfill us.
Ryan wants to help Davidson students find those sorts of careers, but says they need to be realistic. Not every part of every job will be amazing and meaningful from the first day. “In a career that’s going to start at twenty-two and probably end in your mid-seventies, you don’t start at the pinnacle,” Ms. Ryan says. “Because otherwise that’d be a pretty disappointing downhill journey. Let’s look at this as a lattice, a series of milestones, and move through it with excitement and intentionality, but realize that the best is always yet to come.”