The look on Tess Gordon’s face said it all: fierce determination.
Wearing a gray blazer and matching striped skirt, Gordon’s loose ponytail swayed as she sauntered with purpose towards the Lake-Sumter State College employer’s table at the Lake County Career Fair. She browsed marketing collateral, eyed the giveaways, and then sat and took out a pen, notepad, and laptop and got down to business.
Gordon, a human services major, handed her resume to Phoebe Macklin, the college’s Talent Search coordinator, and quizzed her about administrative assistant and other customer-facing job prospects, before completing an online application.
Then, the Beacon College junior surveyed the Venetian Center, targeted another employer table, and pressed repeat.
For Gordon and other Beacon students at the Lake County Career Fair, the experience provided an opportunity to learn about potential career options and also practice the battery of interviews and one-on-one interaction they’ll endure once they enter the job market.
The Lake County Career Fair was just the first of two off-campus career exploration opportunities that Beacon students enjoyed in September. In partnership with CareerSource Central Florida and the Central Florida Employment Council, the Jones Center for Career Preparation also participated in the 23rd Governor’s Central Florida Job Fair at the Orlando Fairgrounds Expo.
Off-campus career fairs offer students a gumbo of exposure, discovery, vulnerability, empowerment, and information, believes Melissa Bradley, director of the Jones Center for Career Preparation.
“These are just a few of the key benefits for neurodivergent students with a great return on taking such a risk,” she said. “Walking into any new environment can be challenging especially one outside of their comfort zone — which is the Beacon campus. The career center wants to develop a culture of planning and preparedness for life’s chapters — those you plan and those you can’t. To do this, students must come from a place of curiosity and inquiry because the needs of the workforce are rapidly evolving as are the skills needed to be a member of it. We want to be sure our students are understanding those needs in real-time in ways that model industry expectations through experiential learning.”
An off-campus career fair was a new experience for Gordon. Her mom encouraged her to sign up — and she was glad she did.
“One of the things I discovered today is that there’s always many career paths and you want to have options,” she said. “For me, I like to always have choice. It’s all about what job you want to be taking. You have to find something that makes you happy. One lesson I learned from my parents growing up is that you have to find something that actually makes you happy. You don’t want to go to a job and then you’re miserable, and you really don’t like it. You have to be happy about the job.”
That was one of many lessons career center advisors hope students learn. One of the chief lessons for neurodivergent jobseekers is becoming comfortable outside your comfort zone.
“Job fairs can be intimidating for anyone,” said Jennifer Turton, a Beacon career advisor. “Having to talk to strangers and be vulnerable can be difficult. Add on sensory difficulties and social anxiety and it can be overwhelming. Our students worry about being outed for their learning differences and losing opportunities. Having to meet recruiters face-to-face in a very stimulating environment certainly adds to their concerns.”
This is where the Jones Center for Career Preparation earns its name.
Before students ever set foot into the job fair, they must provide their career advisors a resume for review and feedback on industry best practices. Career advisors encourage students to practice their “elevator speeches” — a brief way of introducing/selling themselves — and participate in mock interviews to help them feel more prepared. Students also receive tips on what to expect, dressing for success, and professional etiquette.Though Samuel Underwood was at first rocked by the size of the career fair, he settled in, found his bearings, and began barnstorming exhibit tables.
“I must say it [the in-person job fair] makes it easier than going on LinkedIn looking for jobs,” said Underwood, a junior web and digital media major. “You’re talking to a person and not just applying for stuff on a computer. Trying to find a job on any technology is just a stressful pain. This has made it a little bit easier for me.”
For students for whom leaving their comfort zones is more of a struggle, Beacon career advisors will ride shotgun with them to career fairs. Think coach not chaperone.
“Our high-touch model doesn’t end when we leave Beacon property,” said Chealsie Curts, coordinator of career advisement at Beacon. “Often times, students don’t know how to get the conversation started because they’ve never gone to a networking event or job fair before, and that’s where we come in. We offer to introduce ourselves first to let the student get a feel of what it’s like. Other times, we break the ice and introduce the student ourselves to give them that push. Some students want a little more guidance than others, but our goal is not to be with the same student the entire time — again teaching self-advocacy, initiative, and empowerment.”
Turton stood by as Lucia Peraza explored opportunities with Worker Bee’s Staffing.
“It’s important for students to check out these special events to see the specific kinds of jobs out there, especially with what they’re studying,” said Peraza, a senior majoring in human services, who was ready with her elevator pitch. “If I were to get interviewed, I would say that I’m self-motivated, self-reliant and competent.”
Not that all employers believe that is possible with job candidates who learn and think differently. Because of that, many jobseekers often struggle with the biggest question since Hamlet pondered his eternal muse: to disclose or not to disclose.
As Lake-Sumter’s Macklin, who is neurodivergent, sees it, unmasking comes “down to the individual. If they want to disclose it, it’s up to them. If they don’t, then that is also up to them. If they need special accommodations to do their job properly, then I would recommend them to disclose anything we can do to help them when they start work. But if it’s not something they’re comfortable with, maybe that’s a conversation we’d need to have once they are hired.”
As the year goes on, Beacon plans more opportunities for students to test their skills and test the workforce waters.
“Students will often hear me say, ‘it’s never too early to lean, listen and learn’,” Bradley said. “Attending professional events like these is evidence of just that.”