Works and Days

A Conversation with Erik Speckman '91: Mentorship and Alumni Engagement

BH: Erik, you’ve been in the trenches as an alumnus for a long time, trying to come up with great ways to facilitate alumni engagement with students. How do you think we’re doing today?

EAS: It has been about a decade since my own engagement with the alumni association moved beyond organizing chapter social events and my class reunion. That shift was motivated by a personal interest in helping students and alumni with what we’ve come to call “Life Beyond Reed.” Even then, I wasn’t alone in my interest, there were other people, on and off the alumni board, who had their own take on the topic.

We’ve tried lots of things over time, some have been successful in some measure, and others have been almost total failures. What’s really changed though is that the focus on life beyond Reed has moved from being a topic on the fringes to being a core focus. We made it a major focus of the alumni board (alongside reunions and chapter events) coming off the college centennial. Since then we’ve seen some initiatives really blossom, and, concurrently, we’ve seen more and more institutional support from the college.

I think though that there is still a lot of room for improvement, for new ideas, and for engagement. We won’t be done until we’re engaging hundreds of students and alumni every year. I want every student to know that alumni are a valuable resource they can tap into, and I want most of them to do it. I want alumni to have simple, clear ways to engage.

BH: Can you share your perspective on being a mentor to Reed students?

EAS: Well, I am a little uncomfortable with the idea that I am a mentor. I don’t think I’m alone in this either. I’ve talked to a number of alumni over the years about helping students and recent grads. They’ve been almost universally enthusiastic about the idea, but a lot of them have also been quick to disqualify themselves because they feel that they haven’t accomplished enough themselves, or don’t have the influence and connections to help someone find a job or an a good internship.

I’ve certainly felt that way at times, but what I tell people is something I learned myself working with students and recent grads: We do a tremendous amount of learning between the time we are students, or recent graduates, and the time we’ve made a life for ourselves. The students I’ve met are incredibly bright and accomplished, but they are also surprisingly, well, clueless in things that I think anyone who is 5-10 years out of school would take for granted. Or, to put another way, I was a dumbass when I was 22, and I’ve learned a lot since then.

So, even if we can’t offer people a 100% proven plan for the next 5 years, we can share our own stories and those stories provide examples that can help young Reedies imagine and understand their own options, and we can offer support and advice that help people over the issues they are dealing with right now.

Working with young Reedies really gives you a new perspective on your own life. People are drawn to Reed because they want to learn. The conference is a focal point of the learning experience at Reed, but I think the real strength of Reed is in the learning community, in the ethos that pervades the community, and bubbles up as you walk to the library, or strike up a conversation in the mailroom, or when you grab a classmate to compare notes on a difficult concept in philosophy. Those conversations with our peers give us practice. Helping someone else understand something helps clarify it in our own minds. That’s how I learned O-chem, having things explained to me, and explaining things to others.

The dialog we have as a mentor can have a similar dynamic. We’re somewhere between a peer and a teacher (and sometimes, a student). Relating my own experience and understanding of trends in technology, media and business, and other parts of the world to students, to help them understand the currents they have to contend with has really helped me clarify and adjust my own understanding which has been really useful as I consider how to adjust my own path through life looking forward. I’ve also learned about things I knew almost nothing about but am intrigued by, like protein engineering, and bottom-up approaches to improving the financial system.

The other aspect of being a mentor is that it provides a reason to connect with other alumni, which is something I’m looking forward to doing more of.

BH: When a student gets in touch, what makes a positive experience for you?

EAS: It’s a little hard to put my finger on. I like talking to students who have a clear idea of what they want, and can communicate it clearly, because it helps focus the conversation, and makes it easier to figure out if and how I can help them,

That said my main motivation is to help people who aren’t sure what they want. From my point of view, those interactions are most satisfying when the other person has some confidence in their uncertainty. They should be clear up front that they are unsure, and once they initiate contact, they should follow through and do their part to make sure the conversation happens. In the conversations, they should be open to both talking about themselves, and listening. And most of all, they shouldn’t hesitate to follow-up afterwards, once we’ve both had a chance to think about things.

The fact that a student is reaching out is gratifying, because early on I realized that getting more students to understand that they could draw on alumni as a resource was going to be a bigger challenge than finding alumni who’d be willing to help students.

I guess those are the basics.

BH: What else should students have in mind?

EAS: It is good to remember that, as much as I or some other alumni would like to help, this topic is never going to be as important to them as it is to you, which means that you have to take the lead, as uncomfortable as that might be.

You may be juggling classes, and your qual, and finding a place to live next fall, along with finding a summer job and figuring out what to do with the rest of your life. The people you are reaching out to are often just as busy, and if you are slow to follow-up, then you risk signaling to them that they can lower the priority they give you.

Don’t be put off or take offense easily. Stick with the communication. Give people the benefit of the doubt if they don’t do something they said they were going to do.  Don’t worry about getting embarrassed. You’ll get over it and the relationship you’re creating will be the better for it. Be your own best advocate, and don’t be too sensitive about putting people off. You have a generally receptive audience.

That said, whoever you first contact may not end up being a good fit, for whatever reason. We are trying to be good about matching people up, but there will always be times where people don’t quite click. Don’t be put off, keep trying. Don’t stop until you find people you do click with.

One of the things that I, and people I knew, struggled with in my 20s was that I felt like I should be more together more. Because of that, I was pretty hard on myself, and I didn’t do some things that would have helped me figure things out sooner,

I think the final loss of innocence is realizing that your parents, and adults don’t have all the answers, either.

BH: So, you’re saying that we are all ALWAYS figuring things out as we go?

EAS: Yes. The most rewarding experiences I have as a mentor is when I feel like I’m having a real conversation with a student where they’ve gotten past or are able to talk about their uncertainty.

BH: How about advice on things to avoid?

EAS: Don’t be a flake!

Let me soften that, because I don’t want to scare people off. You can be a little flakey, but if you are supposed to meet someone, or talk on the phone, make sure you are on schedule. If something doesn’t work out, take the initiative to reschedule and make sure it doesn’t fall through again.

I think most alumni will be forgiving if you are rough around the edges, but they are also going to be thinking down the road. When someone connects you with a friend or a colleague, respect that. It is much worse to flake on someone you’ve been introduced to than it is to flake on the person who is making the introduction. 

Reputation is REALLY important.

It took me about ten years before I really realized the power of reputation. I was offered a senior position at a startup and learned that I was the only person they’d interviewed to that point because I came well recommended by someone whose recommendation was based primarily on the endorsement of someone else I’d worked for. Realizing that floored me.

When someone makes an introduction, that person is risking some of her/his reputation on your behalf. The least you can do is observe the basic minimum: show up on time; be enthusiastically engaged; thank them for their time. If it doesn’t come to anything more than that, that’s fine. People don’t expect every initial meeting to lead to something else. Maybe one in ten initial meetings comes to something demonstrable.

Your reputation develops over time. There are basic things you can do that will count in your favor: follow up, show up on time. Carry your own weight in the dynamic and help work to arrive at an understanding, which can be as simple as suggesting some times for a phone call is someone asks you to suggest a time rather than responding with “I’m open.”

BH: Closing thoughts?

EAS: Read Cracking the Hidden Job Market by Don Asher ’83. His work is amazing, and whether you are looking for a job today or not, it’s a worthwhile use of your time. I’ve done a lot of hiring in the past, and Asher does a great job of explaining what that process is like and how you can cut through it.

I also hope more Reedies will realize that they can help their own careers by helping other Reedies. Being a resource in your field is a good reason to connect with other Reedies. Help students connect in the work field only helps broaden YOUR horizons.

Tags: alumni, life beyond Reed, Cracking the Hidden Job Market