If you had asked Sean Sullivan during his first year at Elmhurst what he wanted to do after graduation, he probably would have replied that he hoped for a career in business.
But even Sullivan, a 2013 Elmhurst graduate now working in sales for Hart, Travers and Associates, a manufacturer’s representative for the plumbing industry, admits that, at the time, he had little idea what that meant.
“I was 18 years old, and like most 18-year-olds I didn’t know much about how my interest in business would translate into the real world,” said Sullivan.
Then Sullivan signed up for First Leap, a program of Elmhurst’s Center for Professional Excellence. First Leap aims to give first-year students an early introduction to the world waiting for them beyond graduation. First Leap combines interactive classroom instruction with on-site observations at some of the top corporations, nonprofits and governmental organizations in the Chicago area.
As a first-year student participating in First Leap, Sullivan spent time shadowing executives at pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and at family-owned Blistex, a Chicagoland-based manufacturer of lip-protection products.
“It was so helpful to be able to see two such different companies,” Sullivan said. “I think I came to understand more about the professional world and about my own interests because of First Leap.”
First Leap was launched in 2008 as an opportunity to help students explore their career options and gain exposure to the professional world.
“It’s all about early career preparation and exploration,” said Ingrid Becton, program coordinator at the CPE. “Some of our students come to us absolutely sure about what they want to do. Some have no idea. What we do is help them explore their interests.”
The week-long program, open to all first-year students, takes place each May. Participants hear presentations from visiting professionals and learn about everything from basic professional etiquette to strategies for networking.
“Most of our students have had work experience, but maybe it was at a fast-food place or as a lifeguard. They may not have ever stepped foot in a corporate office,” Becton said. “So we cover how to dress for professional settings, how to shake hands, the importance of staying in contact with the people you meet professionally.”
Becton works to connect students with observation sites that match their professional interests. She arranged for one student who was interested in working in a canine police unit to spend a day in training with a DuPage County police narcotics unit. Theatre majors may find themselves backstage at a performance in the Loop. Accounting majors may have the chance to visit a top auditing firm.
Among the observation sites students have visited are U.S. Foods, the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine, Wolf & Company accounting, the Elmhurst Police Department and the nonprofit aid group Feed My Starving Children.
Becton said that the ultra-competitive job market has made it even more important for students to begin their professional preparation early in their college careers.
“By the time they are juniors, many students have had one or two internships already. If you’re just starting to think about careers then, you’re really a couple years behind,” Becton said. “The first year is a great time to start exploring, even if you’re not sure what you want to do.”
Becton said that some students have landed internship opportunities and job offers as a result of their First Leap experiences. Others benefit by learning that a field they thought was right for them might not be a good match, after all. But Sullivan said that, more than anything else, First Leap gave him confidence in his ability to thrive in the professional world.
“College is supposed to be about getting to understand yourself, and exploring your strengths and weaknesses,” he said. “That’s what happens in First Leap. You see that, ‘Yes, I’d be good at that.’ And you start to paint a picture, in broad strokes, of what your future could be. That way, by the time you graduate, you have a much more complete picture.”