College Of Charleston Career Director Interview: Experience Makes Difference In Post-Grad Placement

By Staff

The following is an interview transcript with Denny Ciganovic, Director of the Career Center at the College of Charleston. Mr. Ciganovic "walks the talk" about utilizing transferrable skills, as he started out in Chemistry and then found his niche in Career Counseling. Mr. Ciganovic has a Master's in College Student Personnel from Bowling Green State University and a Certificate in Human Resources Management from Northeastern University in Boston.

The College's Career Center is involved in developing and delivering a variety of services and programs to their students. The key responsibilities of the office include assisting in career decision making and choosing a major, student employment on and off campus, internships and co-operative education, full-time employment and graduate/professional school advising. The office does a great amount of outreach via classes, clubs and campus groups and has a state of the art web-based system for job and internship posting, as well as resume referral.

The College of Charleston is a four-year public institution in an urban setting in downtown Charleston, SC. It was founded in 1770 and is South Carolina's oldest college. There are approximately 10,000 full-time undergraduate students and 1,500 graduate students. The split is approximately 60 percent in-state and 40 percent out-of-state, with students from 49 different states and 75 countries attending.

The College offers 49 different majors in six different Schools: Arts; Business and Economics; Education; Humanities and Social Sciences; Languages, Cultures, and World Affairs; and Sciences and Mathematics. There is also an Honors College.

Interview Transcript

CityTownInfo: What career advice do you offer to someone entering college today?

Denny Ciganovic: Number one is to complete self-assessments and use the guidance office. By self-assessments I mean that I really want students to think seriously about what their skills, values and interests are. The key here is that we don't want anyone going to college without having done some self-reflection. I would also recommend considering a couple of different options. Sometimes people think of a four-year degree as the be all and end all, but in fact it is not right for every student. A post-secondary certificate program might be better for some; it depends on the student. I encourage students to consider pursuing post-secondary education in one way or another, and that could be anything from a two or four-year degree to a certificate program. Some students believe they really need to have a four-year degree because that's where everything in the economy and the world is going, but that's not the case these days.

Another thing I encourage students to consider is volunteering, community service or getting an internship. Anything to help them get hands-on experience and some personal insight is beneficial.

CityTownInfo: What kind of difference do you see between students today versus years past?

Denny Ciganovic: Well, there are a couple of things. One is that I think students today are obviously much more computer savvy; they have grown up with this technology and it's second nature to them. I think that they have a little bit of a shorter attention span because they've grown up multitasking and things like that, so they need to be stimulated in different ways.

Many of them have a lot more experience than before, as a lot of high schools are encouraging their students to volunteer and participate in community service, cooperative education programs and internships. We are seeing an increasing number of students coming to campus who already have hands-on experience, whereas before only the students who went to a certain kind of school had volunteered and done similar activities. I think a lot of students these days are also concerned about the world, the environment and a lot of social issues, and I think it's a very positive thing. It's kind of like going back to the sixties and seventies where people had a consciousness about the world. I find a lot more students are coming to us with an awareness of a lot of social issues that need to be addressed. They are willing to try and help better the world in an altruistic sense, so that is fantastic.

Another difference is that I think students are more self-confident about themselves today because they've experienced so much. They've had a lot of support at home from their parents and also at school, and they are more willing to tackle new things without being afraid of it. They are able to speak about what they have accomplished, and I think that's the self-confidence I find in newer students. They are ready to jump in.

Related Article: Peace Corps Applications On The Rise

By Staff
June 4, 2009

Applications for the Peace Corps have jumped 40 percent over last year, a trend that officials are attributing to the recession and President Obama's call to public service.

"We saw a particular uptick in applications during the inauguration week and just following President Obama's speech, where he called on Americans to serve and engage in international outreach," explained Christine Torres, public affairs specialist with the Peace Corps regional office in Chicago, who was quoted by Wisconsin's The Janesville Gazette.

Others view service in the Peace Corps as a training opportunity. Alexandra Hodgkins, a recent college graduate from New Hampshire now stationed in Panama's Darien jungle helping poor community members, sees it as a stepping-stone for a future career in international development.

"This is a good way to test whether this is what I want to do," she told the Los Angeles Times. "I like the Peace Corps approach of working with communities, not just giving out presents right and left."

Read the complete article.

CityTownInfo: Going back to your comment about students being a little bit more humanitarian than years past, are you seeing more students entering programs like the Peace Corps and Job Force USA upon graduation because they are not able to find traditional jobs right after college?

Denny Ciganovic: Yes, I think there is a slight increase in the number of students who are willing and looking at those kinds of things. Right now, we have AmeriCorps Vista and the National Civilian Community Corps, which are National Service Programs that are very popular among students. I think some students are willing to go the altruistic route after graduation, but I don't necessarily think it's because of the job market. A lot of students think it is wonderful opportunity to give back to the country and do things that would make John Kennedy proud. A lot of people in this generation are asking how they can help the country? I think there is going to be an increase in the number of students who decide to go the altruistic career route, but because it's aligned with who they are and not because of the job market.

CityTownInfo: There are more opportunities and therefore more students going into these programs?

Denny Ciganovic: Right. There is going to be more money, more staffing and more progress. I think the other side of this is that students are starting to think about doing this kind of work earlier in their lives. For example, here at the college we have a very strong civic engagement community service program and a pact with numerous schools statewide. There are schools all over the country that now either require or strongly encourage service learning as a part of their students' academic coursework. Students are getting exposed to the idea, and it helps them feel better about themselves because they are contributing and making the world a better place, as well as building their resumes, so they are open to the idea. I think a lot of students are going to look at the job market and see what's going on, and then decide they'd rather spend some time building a better world, so to speak, than necessarily going into the corporate world right after school. Another positive is that humanitarian work is such a great experience as well. I think we are seeing such a huge increase in the number of students who want to participate because they grew up in an environment that encouraged volunteerism and humanism, so they want to continue with it after they graduate.

CityTownInfo: Because the economy is tough, do you think more universities are opening up to accepting two-plus-two type programs? Are they allowing more credits to be transferred in from community colleges?

Denny Ciganovic: A lot of states now have what are called articulation agreements, where students are guaranteed some automatic benefits. For example, a couple of years ago the State of South Carolina passed a law allowing any graduate from a two-year technical college in the state to enter a four-year college with 60 credit hours. They've basically completed their first two years, and they start off as a junior at any of the public four-year schools. Other states may look at students' transcripts more in terms of individual coursework, and students may not be allowed to come in as full-fledged juniors. It varies from state to state, but I think most states now have articulation agreements like the one we have in place in South Carolina. It usually only applies for public institutions, however, because private schools have to look at individual transcripts and coursework more closely to decide what they can give in terms of credit.

CityTownInfo: You touched earlier on the shorter attention span of today's younger generation. Looking at it from an older, more traditional business model standpoint, do you think students should try to slow down and be a little more focused on their future and career path?

Denny Ciganovic: I think students should try to slow down, just because I think it's a better quality of life. We see students on Twitter and Facebook, and they live with their cell phones in their hands. From a personal standpoint, I think they have no time to be people. Some of that is self-imposed, but with all of the social networking and everything else like it that are available today, life in general has sped up. Some students love it and thrive on it, but I think it would be better for them to say, "I don't have to do all this stuff. I really want to have time to go out and look at a flower, go to the beach, relax and think about who I am and what I want to do with my life." Some students should revisit how busy they "have" to be, because an addiction to technology is almost a compulsion in many cases.

The other side of the question is do companies have to accommodate this mindset in their future employers? I think many of them are doing just that. They've changed their recruiting approach and they are much more tuned into the various generations of students who are entering the job force right now. They know that most people starting out today don't plan to get a job, stay for 40 years, get their gold watch and then retire. They have to set upward mobility programs in place, where the new employees know they are going to be challenged, get more supervision and be given feedback more frequently. This all comes out of management literature that says this is a generation that is used to more feedback more frequently, and they will work like crazy.

There is also the issue of loyalty. The younger generation has seen what has happened to people who have given their life and soul to a company and then get laid off when it's convenient for that company. Students are a little more aware of the fact that longevity doesn't really exist anymore. They are still willing to give a hundred percent within an organization, but how they work, how they are rewarded and how they are treated as an employee is a bit different. I think companies are changing the way they try to retain employees, and some companies are really on the cutting-edge in terms of the whole recruiting process. The way they talk about their companies and the way they put DVDs together, they are selling an opportunity. They know they are going to be hiring different people who have come up in a different generation. They know these employees will have different needs and approaches, and they really value what the employees contribute, so they have to change their recruiting outlook and how they manage people.

CityTownInfo: Can you speak on the new makeup of today's workforce, which is a lot different and more diverse in a lot of ways than it was in the past?

Denny Ciganovic: Four different generations are now working side-by-side. When Baby Boomers are compared to Millennials, and Generation Y versus Generation X, it's very interesting. I have read some books on this topic, and one can go crazy trying to categorize it. Some people only want to be categorized as a conscientious employee, but there is some tension because people have different work styles, especially people from different generations. The newer graduates are so technologically savvy and the older generations have to learn the new technologies, and a lot can be learned from younger generations. There are lot of speakers who are making a lot of money talking about the different generations that are in the workplace together and what organizations need to do so that everyone can work together effectively. There has been a lot of initiative in terms of human resources and organizational development, but the different generations teamwork is a real issue and something that's being discussed and worked on by different levels of many organizations. It's a fact in the work world these days.

CityTownInfo: What are some suggestions you recommend to students to help them standout from other job applicants?

Related Article: How to Write a Student Resume


Here are a few of the useful tips from this article that may help make a student resume stand out in the stack:

  • "Put your education front and center
  • Point out honors and awards
  • Highlight experience gained through classes
  • Include your part-time jobs
  • Sort through your hobbies and volunteer work"

Read the complete article and tip details.

Denny Ciganovic: One is to go beyond the paper credentials. It's easy to send in a standard resume, so students need to go above and beyond in some way. Any prior experience could help a candidate standout. For a student, this means being involved with activities, assuming leadership roles, getting involved in the community and maybe even studying abroad to broaden themselves as people. Liberal arts is a wonderful way for students to broaden their horizons, but I think getting experience is a real key. Reflection is important for students as they go through school to help them standout. Anyone can apply for a bunch of crazy positions, but if students think about what it is they want from their career during the whole process, they can benefit from it greatly. Getting back to the questions asked in "What Color Is Your Parachute": what do the students want to do, where do they want to do it and which organization do they want to do it with? Every student should give those questions some thought prior to initiating and investing effort into their education. That way, students can be more productive in terms of the job search process. Networking, making sure to connect with people face-to-face and thanking people for any kind of assistance they are willing to give are all very important. I also tell students that they have to figure out how to sell their skills in the new market. That means through resumes, cover letters, maybe by doing some mock interviewing and by using technology appropriately and effectively. It is important that they don't use technology for the whole process, because the importance of making connections with people in person is so critical.

CityTownInfo: What are the three most important things that students can do to prepare to find a job?

Denny Ciganovic: One is to make sure to develop a network and take advantage of that. This includes friends, family, the career center, faculty, employers and anyone that a student has developed any kind of relationship with. Another thing is that we want students to think about who they are and what they want, because that dictates to some extent the kind of position they are going to be seeking and what kind of work they will be looking for. I also recommend students research the organizations they are targeting so they know a little bit about them. This way they can figure out how they connect with that organization and this knowledge should come across in their cover letter as well. The key is to research the field and the organization so they can figure out how their particular skill-set fits in with that position. We want our students to go into the interview feeling that they have qualified themselves. They need to make the case as to why they think they'd be a good potential candidate and match for that organization, which companies really value a lot more these days.

CityTownInfo: They basically need to show they understand what the company does and how they will be an asset to the company in the future.

Denny Ciganovic: Yes, making that connection is crucial.

One of the criticisms I've heard is that students go out and say they have a degree in a popular field so they deserve a job, but it doesn't work that way. They have to think about what kind of skills and talents they have, and how their college education transfers into critical thinking and the skills the company is seeking. The key is to learn about the organization and tell the interviewer how they think their particular skill sets and values are going to benefit the company.

CityTownInfo: Do you recommend that students tailor their resume for each position they are applying to?

Denny Ciganovic: I see it as a package deal. Resumes can be typically made for a position or a field, because a lot of graduates can enter into many different sectors. If someone is applying for a position in banking, finance or real estate, they can have a resume for each one of those sectors. To me, the cover letter is absolutely critical. I think it's as important, even more important in many cases, especially if the applicant is looking for a variety of positions. The cover letter is going to really convey to the prospective employer why the applicant is interested in them, how they found out about the opportunity and what unique qualities they have that are appropriate for the organization and the position. Some bigger organizations use resume scanning software to look for certain keywords so the company can quickly see the skill sets of the applicants, and that's okay. Some companies, however, use cover letters to differentiate between candidates that are very comparable in terms of education, skills, GPA and prior experience.

CityTownInfo: What is your opinion on virtual profiles, which are gaining a lot of popularity, especially among employers looking to fill creative positions?

Denny Ciganovic: My sense is that there are some organizations that really value virtual profiles, but I don't think it's the norm these days because it takes so much time to look at applicant's information online. I think at this point a small percentage of employers want an e-portfolio or electronic content, but that may change in the near future because of the direction the world is going.

As far as using references on Facebook and other social networking sites, those things are relatively new, so I don't know what most employers' general feelings on them are. There may be some organizations that think the more information, the better. It's nice for people to know they have three or four people who have provided some very strong recommendations for them, and it's much easier if it's all available online. I don't know enough about it yet at this point and I don't think it's really clear cut as to whether companies will read everything on networking sites. That could be the way of the future, but I don't know how employers are viewing this kind of information yet because it is a relatively new phenomenon in the field. They are so overwhelmed with the technology and applications, and I don't know if it is almost too much information for the process. I doubt employers really have the time to look into an applicant's website and the 585 people who will verify that they are a great person.

CityTownInfo: Maybe at this point it's nice supplementary information, but the information is not something that's being pursued fully yet.

Denny Ciganovic: Exactly. I don't know how effective using sites like Facebook and LinkedIn are going to be because it's such a different way of networking. I think it would be productive for some people, but others may be trying to get as many people in their system as possible. I think it has to be done with a certain degree of caution and quality.

CityTownInfo: Do you have any websites that you recommend to your students from a research or reference point of view?

Denny Ciganovic: I think the Occupational Outlook Handbook and O*Net are good references with a lot of career and occupation related information. In regards to looking at employers, fields and researching, I think WetFeet and Vault are two great sites with a wealth of information. If someone wants to explore all the intricacies and details of a particular field they can perform research for free on these sites.

CityTownInfo: How would you say that the recession is impacting your student enrollment? Is it up because people realize they need more schooling in order to be competitive in this market, up because students are deciding to earn higher degrees now while the job market is not so great, or down because more people can't afford the costs of higher education?

Denny Ciganovic: Our fall enrollment is about the same as we've had in the past. We haven't seen a drop off at this point in time, but we will know for sure come August and September.

I think there are some students who are still going through the application process and even visiting campuses this summer with the hopes they can get the right financial aid package and be able to afford school. For a lot of students, whether or not they go to college is going to come down to what happens in their families over the summer. A lot can change between late spring when they put in their financial aid application and when it's time to enroll in August and September, so there may be a slight drop off in the fall. A lot of that depends on what happens to individual families in terms of their financial situation.

We are also seeing an increase in enrollment in two-year community colleges because they are less expensive and degrees or certificates can be earned in a shorter time. For the people who want to go on to college but can't afford the four-year program, they can go to a two-year college, get their associate degree and then transfer to a four-year institution. I think that's what's going to be happening nationwide because of the economy.

I would not say more people are going on to grad school because the job market is horrible, however. We have found that there are some students who understand the dynamics of the job market and understand that grad school requires a lot of hard work, so they'll look at pursuing grad school, but really consider their options very thoroughly. We are seeing students looking at grad schools as another option, but it is nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, when we talk with students, we encourage them to give a master's degree some serious thought because we didn't want them to go onto grad school simply because it's a tough job market. It's a major investment of time and money, and there needs to be a purpose behind getting a grad degree. It should not be another way of deferring the ultimate decision of going out into the job market.

Every day, we are all hit with how bad this job market is. Some students internalize the information and they get discouraged. Others are aware of the situation, but their main goal is to finish school and earn their degree.

We've been telling students is that it's a tough market, but they need to think about how to market themselves, research, and make sure they have their marketing plan a little more well-organized due to the especially competitive job market. It could take a little longer than usual for students to find their first fulltime professional positions. The average historically is three to six months, but we tell them that it may take a little bit longer, so they have to be prepared for a slower hiring timeline.

We also keep telling students that they can't rely only on computers. A lot of students will spend six to eight hours a day looking at all the major job searching sites, but they forget that they have to also groom relationships with people, whether it's fellow alums, former employers, friends, family, clergy or anyone who could be in a position to help them in terms of their employment. They need to go beyond the internet and use that as only one of many tools. The other thing we tell students is that they may need to consider taking a position that they normally wouldn't. They might feel a little underemployed for a while, but it's the nature of a tough market. The key is finding a position where they can get started, develop a good reputation and give it their all. Ideally, they would stay at that job for about a year until the market starts to move forward. Then they can start to look for other positions that are a little more compatible with what they want to do. Things are going to get better, it may be this fall or it may not be until 2010, but it will get better.

In his book "Real World", Daniel Pink talks about a lot of these corporations that are going to be restructured. There are some positions that we'll lose and may never get back, because some industries, like automotive for example, are never going to be the same. Look at the financial industry as well, it may not come back to the way it was before, which will be a good thing. Graduates are going to have to work within the new market. Even those of us in the career field are not aware of all the changes that are going to transpire in the next couple of years, but that's the nature of the market and the world today.

People are learning to invest and live with less and be comfortable with it. I think we are going to have to look at a new playing field. We are not quite sure what all is going to be out there, but it's going to be different than it was prior to when this whole recessionary period started. It's going to be interesting, and we have to really prepare students to look at how to market themselves to some new opportunities that are out there that didn't exist two years ago.

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