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College seniors try to network with the unemployed

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The Wharton Club of New York, which hosts networking events at the Penn Club of New York, is urging its members to "take the call" from fellow alumni and Wharton undergraduates. The club is increasing its efforts to help both Wharton students and alumni navigate the tough job market, including new initiatives for Wharton alumni in transition. (Yoree Koh/CNS)

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Haverford College and Bryn Mawr College alumni attend a networking event in Washington, D.C., in April 2008. The colleges are holding more such events in recent months because of the faltering economy. (Courtesy of Kirin Kalia)

Nicholas Cisneros didn’t have to read the newspaper to know the economy was in trouble.

The Davidson College senior was nervously waiting to hear about a possible job offer from Wachovia Securities in Charlottesville, N.C., where he was an investment-banking intern last summer. He had been contacting former coworkers and supervisors since August, and with the fall semester winding down, he was anxious to know whether he was in or out. But as the stock market continued to tumble and Wells Fargo bought Wachovia in early October 2008, Cisneros’ phone calls were forwarded to voicemail and his e-mails went unanswered.

By Christmas break, feeling he had reached a dead end, Cisneros finally stopped pressing “send.”

“I didn’t want to keep on pushing the e-mails because I had no clue what the situation was like over there,” said Cisneros, an economics major at Davidson, a small liberal arts college in Davidson, N.C. “It has become a very delicate situation in terms of the e-mail sending and the networking.”

Cisneros later learned that some of the contacts he had been looking to at Wachovia had been laid off.

The tough job market has prompted career services centers across the country to advise students to be more proactive about looking for work and to use both old and new contacts. But amid the massive layoffs, some students like Cisneros are finding their pool of contacts is shrinking. More than three million jobs have been lost over the last six months in the U.S., according to a report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in early March. This has raised the unemployment rate to 8.1 percent, its highest level in 25 years.

As they reach out to alumni and former mentors, students are discovering large chunks of these networks are vanishing. E-mail addresses have become invalid, phones ring in empty cubicles and names have dropped from company directories.

Jenny Depper, a journalism major at the University of Colorado in Boulder, says she thought she was poised for a job as an editorial assistant at a top-tier magazine after she graduates in May. But then she saw her former boss’s name vanish from the masthead of the magazine where she interned last summer in Manhattan. Another group of contacts scattered when “Cosmo Girl,” a magazine where she had freelanced for several years, folded in December.

Such is the frustrating reality for students who thought they were on the right path, bulking up résumés with good grades and summer internships and carefully building a network of relationships.

“I was very proactive; I had all these great internships and did all the right things,” said Cisneros, who has interned at Merrill Lynch and is co-president of the Davidson Investment Financial Association, a student-run club that manages $200,000 of the college endowment. “But then the crisis came, and now I’m sitting in my room without a job.”

But with few industries safe from massive job cuts in this recession, the strength of traditionally reliable alumni networks appears to be waning. For some alumni who no longer bear impressive job titles and are more preoccupied with making their next mortgage payment, helping undergraduate job seekers may no longer be a priority, says Diana Herrmann, co-president of the alumni chapter of Colby College in New York.

“Their concern is mostly with finding a job,” says Herrmann a 1980 graduate of Colby and president and chief executive officer of the Aquila Group of Funds, a finance firm that manages mutual funds. “It’s a major transition in their life, and there can be the depression and the panic,” she said.

The ability to help out students is a challenging prospect even for those who are still employed but who are responsible for more tasks with a smaller staff. They, too, are worried about being the next to be handed a pink slip. In the past, Brian De Palma, a senior at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., who had dreams of working on Wall Street, relied on his network of fraternity brothers. Alumni were happy to pass his résumé along and set him up with interviews, a valuable asset in a competitive field like financial services. Yet, he says his résumé was received with more hesitation when it came to looking for a job this year. He says he didn’t receive an offer from Goldman Sachs, where he interned last summer, because of downsizing.

“You reach out to guys and they’re like, ‘listen I’ll help you if I can, but I gotta worry about myself first,’” says De Palma, who contacted up to 15 alums for help last semester. “I’ve reached out to people and they said to me, ‘I’ll get back to you in a little while,” and then it turns out a little while later, they’re not working there anymore.”

At Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges in Haverford, Pa., fewer alumni volunteered to sponsor a student for this year’s externship program, an opportunity for students to shadow alums in their workplace over winter and spring break. Liza Bernard, director of the career development office that serves both colleges, estimates that some 10 to 20 percent fewer alumni volunteered for the program this year, which drew 171 alumni sponsors during the 2007-2008 academic year.

Herrmann said, “It’s important for students to bear that in mind if they are contacting people—that there is stress in the workplace and for people whose spouses and peers have already lost jobs, it’s very stressful for those people.”

Some schools are seeing alumni who were previously inactive rise to the occasion during lean times. Several start-up entrepreneurial companies offered entry-level positions for the first time to students at the University of Pennsylvania, according to Barbara Hewitt, associate director of career services. The career center at Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges received multiple phone calls from its alumni suggesting job leads after the office sent out a letter to alumni in early January requesting them to be a resource for current students.

Recalling the job market when they graduated during the last economic slowdown in the early 1990s, several alums from Washington and Lee University, a small liberal arts college in Lexington, Va., are offering plenty of advice, even if they don’t have jobs to give. Some alumni chapters are making efforts to organize more networking events and reminding members not to forget their alma mater during these lean times. The motto of the Wharton Club of New York, “Take the call” is especially meaningful this year, says Kenneth Beck, the club’s co-president.

“It’s about shouldering each other,” says Beck, a1987 alum of the Wharton Graduate School. “We try to emphasize that at the very least, you should take the call when a Wharton graduate calls.”

Although he is currently unemployed after his job at a finance firm was sent overseas, Geronimo Desumala, who graduated from Colby College in 2006, has forwarded résumés to contacts and relayed information about potential job leads back to undergraduates.

“Being unemployed, I’ve signed up for these lists, so I get a bunch of job postings and if it’s not relevant to me I’ll forward it onto them,” says Desumala, who currently volunteers at a nonprofit organization and hopes to make a permanent switch to nonprofit work. “If I can’t use it, then somebody else can. It’s about helping each other out.”

Career services centers are urging students to cast a wider net and not to give up. Nicholas Cisneros, the former investment-banking intern, is only taking three classes in his final semester at Davidson to dedicate more time to his job search, and Depper, the journalism major at Boulder, is tracking down former editors who are slowly re-emerging on other mastheads.

Many career services offices are getting proactive themselves, parachuting into student club meetings and athletic games to motivate students to be more forward-thinking about the job search.

“Some students have become paralyzed,” said Bernard, of Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges. She is afraid some students have become so scared about job prospects they don’t start doing anything to prepare for life after graduation. “Convincing them that this isn’t the worst thing that’s going to happen in their life,” she said, “that is our biggest challenge.”