As Thanksgiving approaches, many of us are pondering how to recreate favorite time-tested holiday recipes to accommodate reduced gatherings due to COVID-19 separation, and how to find meaningful alternative ways to connect with loved ones at a distance.
The City College of New York’s (CCNY) advertising/PR program and our PRSSA Chapter faced a parallel challenge this month in recreating our annual Building Bridges career fair to connect talented ad and PR majors with agency recruiters seeking a pipeline of diverse talent for jobs and internships.
Building on our traditional event, Building Bridges, spearheaded in 2007 by then CCNY PRSSA President Stacy-Ann Edwards Effs, we forged a strong working partnership between student leaders and faculty to network multicultural students to the profession.
What began as an alumni networking event, grew into a fine-tuned recruitment career fair starting in 2015. Last year, our event hosted 21 marketing communications agencies at CCNY’s Harlem campus to connect recruiters with 80 students for a total of 275 one-on-one interviews.
Our PRSSA team created a spreadsheet schedule to deploy five to seven interviews for each of 80 majors among 21 agencies for 10-minute one-on-one interviews over two-and-a-half hours. The event led to students getting competitive internships and entry-level jobs and building their professional networks.
Pivoting to an online-only event
This year, faced with the pandemic, our students and faculty refused to be daunted by social-distancing barriers, so we created an online version of Building Bridges on Zoom.
Based on our long-term relationships and past success, 24 ad/PR and digital agency professionals signed up to interview students one-on-one using breakout rooms to mimic our prior event. Our recruiters included seven CCNY alumni, now professionals at major agencies.
Genesis Flores, our PRSSA Chapter president — with the support of her PRSSA board and Terrell Merritt, a past PRSSA national board vice president-memberships and brand ambassador — created the registration and scheduling structure for students to prebook five virtual agency interviews each, for nine rounds of 10 minutes in separate breakout rooms over two-and-a-half hours.
It was a formidable team effort. Faculty and PRSSA leaders practiced breakout room deployment for weeks in advance. Students and faculty heavily promoted the event to majors and alumni. Led by PRSSA adviser Lynne Scott Jackson, our faculty created virtual workshops on how to develop strategic résumés and shared tip sheets on how to do virtual interviews. Our PRSSA Chapter hosted a practice interview demonstration led by Allyns Melendez, COO at Quinn PR, a longtime agency supporter of our event. (She hired a CCNY alum in 2019 after meeting at last year’s event.)
To maximize interview time, agency recruiters received a schedule of their interviewees and their résumés a week in advance so they could right into their interviews to maximize time.
The event took place on Nov 12. Everyone was ready to go at 6 p.m., with faculty and students in place to monitor the main room and a dedicated war room deployment team that included faculty and family members to assist. While there were early deployment glitches along the way, students and HR recruiters remained at the ready, excited, committed and flexible.
The students who interviewed were the real heroes. They showed up ready to network, dressed for their virtual interviews, primed with their elevator pitch and prepared with savvy questions, having researched the agencies in advance. After an intense two hours and 30 minutes, we wrapped up on time at 8:30 p.m.
Continuing to make connections
While a virtual event was more challenging than an in-person one and had unforeseen execution challenges, it was worth it. These times are limiting, but as faculty, we can’t allow this to be a barrier to connecting our students with professionals for networking and job opportunities.
We found a way to keep building bridges for our majors, even if our virtual Building Bridges was less than perfect. Within 24 hours, students had already scheduled follow-up interviews and started applying for spring and summer internships. Many started networking on LinkedIn for future opportunities.
Beyond helping students find internships or jobs, the event was a huge confidence builder that gave students practice for when the world opens up again. It expanded their professional world and inspired them to imagine a life and career beyond COVID-19 times.
I’m inspired by what’s possible for faculty and professionals to accomplish together — to help students overcome limits by virtually connecting them with industry professionals in a class, in a virtual agency tour or in an online seminar. My experience affirms that professional communicators are happy to do their part if asked.
PRSSA provides a superb platform for talented and dynamic students to do great things for their members and their academic programs. One day, COVID-19 will be behind us. Meanwhile, we are grateful at CCNY to have each other and our industry partners who help us create a productive future for our students.
Lynn Appelbaum, APR, Fellow PRSA, a professor in CCNY’s Advertising/PR program has been on the faculty of The City College of New York since 1993 and is a committed bridge-builder for her students to the PR professions. She is a proud recipient of PRSA’s 2015 Outstanding Educator Award.