Reed College alumni are paying – yes, paying -- for the privilege of connecting their younger counterparts with jobs.
Take Sonya Masinovsky, who, since graduating with a psychology degree in 2004, has helped found a nonprofit and worked on the production crew for the ABC show “Lost,” and is now a freelance producer and writer working on a series for History Channel 2.
She is one of 17 individual alumni and alumni couples who graduated between 2000 and 2004 and have found success in their fields, but are worried today’s economy puts recent Reed graduates at a disadvantage. Case in point: the alumni magazine reported 22 percent of last year’s graduates were still looking for work at commencement time.
The alumni are so eager to help their fellow Reedies that they’ll donate $40 to the college each time a current Reed student or recent graduate reaches out, up to $200 every year for five years. That’s up to $17,000 in possible donations to Reed, a number that could grow if more alumni pledge their time and money. While it might not be enough to endow a new biology lab, it's real money coming from young alumni in a sort of pledging program that many colleges aren't able to sell to younger potential donors.
Since the Reed Alumni Switchboard launched in earnest last month, Masinovsky has spoken with three current students or recent graduates seeking advice. She helped one young woman, also a psychology major looking to make a career in film, develop a career plan as she hunts for internships.
Those connections are valuable, Masinovsky said, especially in a notoriously tough-to-break-into industry such as hers, where some directors may not have heard of the 1,400-student liberal arts college in Portland, Ore. “For the most part, when I go to an interview, very few people know about Reed," she said. "The ones who do are incredibly enthusiastic and responsive. It doesn’t have the cachet of Harvard and Yale, but it is arguably an equally fine education.”
That’s where an alumni connection becomes valuable.
“The possession of an alumni referral is a big one,” Masinovsky said. “If a Reedie comes to me looking for an internship, I’m going to want to hire them. We have a common background and work ethic.”
Freshman Paul Messick is starting to see that firsthand. After months of hunting for an internship, he was frustrated to see that most opportunities in public policy were for upperclassmen with research experience. In the first 36 hours after he reached out over the switchboard, Messick said, five alumni contacted him with advice or offers to get him in contact with hiring managers.
“With the switchboard and these personal connections,” he said, “it’s become clear that if you know people, a lot of those restrictions about being a sophomore or a junior go away.”
That shared ethos – wherein graduates will rally around a promising freshman they’ve never met – is what makes the switchboard work, Masinovsky said.
“Reed has a sort of tribal feel to it,” she said. “We’re Reedies. I’ve really always felt since being there that if I met anyone from Reed, there’s this instant kinship.”
Those bonds led Greg Borenstein, a 2002 art history graduate who now works in computer programming, to start the switchboard with some of his college housemates. Since its launch last month, current students and recent graduates have contacted Borenstein and others looking for job advice, a place to crash when traveling and internship ideas. Each time they do, a switchboard member donates $40 to Reed.
But why pay to do a good deed?
“It’s such a powerfully satisfying thing for an alumnus to be in touch with students that way and to be able to help,” Borenstein said. “That moment when they’re talking to us about their hopes and dreams is the moment we’re most interested in donating to the college.”
While the site is administered separately from the college, officials at Reed aren’t complaining. The college has even used social media to point current students toward the switchboard.
“We think it’s a good idea,” Reed spokesman Kevin Myers said. “We’re all doing the same work. We all want to see the happily employed segment of that poll increase significantly.”
Building professional connections is especially important at a liberal arts college, Borenstein said, where students are likely to have several deep interests but perhaps not a single vocational focus.
In addition to offering students advice in their own professional fields, the switchboard includes a section in which members list other exceptional graduates they keep in touch with. If a student wanted to be introduced to a Montessori teacher in Canada, a public defender in Africa or a vinegar maker, a switchboard member could make that happen.
The response was slow at first, but has taken off in recent weeks as alumni promoted their efforts on campus and asked their former professors to spread the word. The site now has two student employees who help manage day-to-day operations. Borenstein thinks the idea could be replicated at other institutions, and might be most effective at tight-knit places like Reed.
“The heart of this idea is that alumni relations is career services,” he said. “Alumni being in touch with each other leads to jobs in a way no other intentional activity ever really can.”