After Zack Cuca ’00 saw some of his retiring colleagues in the U.S. Navy struggle to find civilian jobs, he spent more than a year preparing for his own career transition in 2010. Now a contract management specialist for the U.S. Department of Defense, he continues to follow the latest career trends.
Cuca is one of thousands of alumni who are participating in the Northwestern Alumni Association’s career programs, which moved to an all-virtual format after the pandemic began. Amid increasing uncertainty in the job market and high unemployment rates, the NAA offers a range of virtual learning and mentorship programs for alumni at all stages of their careers, whether they are looking for their first job, making a change or seeking professional development.
“I don’t know what the future will bring, and I want to make sure that I’m prepared for whatever happens,” says Cuca, who has logged in to salary negotiation, career counseling and other NAA programs from his Northern Virginia home over the past several months.
“Career planning is not something that you want to do one-and-done or once every five years or when the opportunity comes,” he says.
“You want to be ready all the time.” Several new and ongoing programs are helping alumni advance their careers and well- being as they navigate this challenging time.
In April the NAA joined with Northwestern Career Advancement to promote alumni access to Handshake, an online job search platform for the Northwestern community. Since then, more than 800 alumni job seekers have joined to search for openings, and more than 200 alumni have posted open positions at their organizations.
Launched in May, ’Cats Career and Wellness Chats are online discussions led by alumni in various industries. Career Chats feature alumni experts who give advice on core job search skills, such as interviewing and networking techniques, while Wellness Chats cover topics like nutrition, anxiety and relationships during the pandemic. The NAA also has continued to offer the Northwestern Intersections podcast and career webinars, which provide additional job-related learning opportunities for alumni.
“Career planning is not something that you want to do one-and-done or once every five years or when the opportunity comes. You want to be ready all the time.”
Alumni are continuing to make virtual mentorship connections no matter where they live. Through an online platform, the Northwestern Network Mentorship Program helps foster meaningful relationships between alumni mentors and both alumni and student mentees who are seeking guidance, exploring new career paths or considering graduate school. Mentor circles are small, industry-specific group discussions that allow alumni to learn from experts, serve as peer mentors and connect with other alumni who have similar career interests.
Mentor circles are led by alumni like Sri Kaza ’04 MEM, MBA, president of ForwardLine Financial, a financial technology company in Los Angeles. Before COVID-19 hit, he planned to host “Pursuing Your Entrepreneurial Passion” with five alumni at a local coffee shop but added three times as many people after the circle moved online. Since then, Kaza has met virtually with several participants and reunited the group for another online circle. He has also led mentor circles for the Kellogg Alumni Club of Chicago.
Kaza, who thinks of himself as a personal trainer who helps keep his mentees motivated and on track, finds it invigorating to help people who are taking big risks with their lives by sharing his own lessons learned as an entrepreneur. He has been surprised at his ability to forge strong connections online.
“I connect with people much better in person, but I can still reciprocate somebody’s passion for their idea on Zoom,” Kaza says. “I can see their face, but I can also see their vision for their business.”