Plugging Into the Switchboard

Reed Switchboard connects students to alumni for career advice.

By Randall S. Barton | December 1, 2012

Reed students have always focused like lasers on what they know. Now a grass-roots alumni initiative is helping them think about who they know.

The Reed Switchboard is the brainchild of a network of alumni of the Greg Borenstein Anarchist Collective, a Reed house that flourished circa 2000–04. Last year, freelance reporter Mara Zepeda ’02 and New York University researcher Greg Borenstein ’02 began strategizing how they might begin sharing their career advice and their contacts with Reed students and recent graduates, and how to help students overcome the shyness they feel about contacting alumni.

Greg came up with the idea of small incentives. Switchboard members donate $40 to Reed every time they hear from a new Reed student. So far, 19 other alumni have joined Greg and Mara as mentors, each pledging to give up to $200 a year over the next five years.

“We are most inclined to give when we hear the voice of someone 10 years younger than us who is about to embark on the journey that we embarked on and is asking us to light the path,” Mara says. “The Switchboard allows us to support someone with a name, a story, and a struggle—someone who will call on us for years.”

The Switchboard operates on the principle that relationships are the foundation of a successful career. Students browse areas of interest on the Switchboard’s website (built by Sean Lerner ’10), which provides contact information and lists cities where members are willing to host students. [Member profiles include lists of “awesome Reedies” they know.] After contact is established by phone or by email, students can pose questions ranging from what to ask in an interview to where to walk a dog in the city they have moved to.

The system works. Karen Silbert ’13 wanted to explore a career in the film industry when she happened to run into Mara, who was on the Reed campus in February to promote the Switchboard. Mara put Karen in contact with freelance television producer Sonya Masinovsky ’04. During their first conversation—which lasted an hour and a half—Sonya helped Karen formulate a plan for getting a foothold in Hollywood. That plan eventually led to a summer internship for Karen at a Los Angeles film-production company. “Karen was passionate, organized, and respectful, and did all the work,” Sonya says. “But I was able to make an introduction.”

Last summer the Switchboard created the Summer Money Scholarship, which allowed one student to take advantage of an unpaid internship by giving him $2,000. Two other students received $150 towards their internships. In one week, 17 students completed the simple application process.

Alumni are invited to participate by posting under “Other Alumni Offers” or guest-tweeting on the Switchboard’s Twitter account. For example, Thomas Burns ’98 is on the Fulbright committee and has offered to help shepherd Reedies through the foundation’s application process.

Walking the Talk

“Reedies are strong, capable people, but it is hard to market those skills when you’re trying to find a job,” says Alex Arpaia ’14, who was hired to answer students’ questions about how the Switchboard works. “Contacting people who have already had that experience makes it seem less intimidating. You get your foot in the door and a feel for what’s out there.”

She posts student interests and passions on the Switchboard’s social media platforms and says students are surprised to discover the process is quick, even if results aren’t immediate.

Alumni who graduated more than 15 years ago may have conceptions of job and career that are nearly irrelevant in today’s market, Mara says. Career paths are not as clear for today’s graduates, who are likely to hold more jobs than their predecessors.

“The average life of a career for a male is now 4.4 years,” Paul Messick ’15 says. “In 1986, it was 10 years. Many people on the Switchboard have had two or three successful careers and they’re only 30. That’s a nugget of hope for a lot of people who come to Reed and who like a lot of things, but don’t know what to do with them.”

After graduation, many Reedies take time to travel and explore their options. Switchboard member Noah Rindos ’02 spent two years traveling, working construction, fixing up an old house in the Bay Area, and applying to medical schools. Now an ob-gyn resident in his fourth year at Boston University, Noah thinks that the interim experience was valuable. Speaking of his time at Reed, he says, “they were some of the greatest years of my life, but it’s not the real world. Going out and seeing other parts of the world is really valuable. A lot of people took time off in our core group of friends, and almost all of them returned to academics and obtained the highest degrees available in their fields.”

However, there is the danger that one year will lead to five, Mara says, languishing in menial, dead-end jobs. Switchboard’s goal is to create a breadcrumb trail that connects a student’s passions to an eventual career.

“When a physics major calls me and says, ‘I’m interested in photography, but I also enjoy sci-fi and really want to make a film using Claymation,’ I don’t think he’s crazy,” Mara says. “I totally get it and can give him resources for every one of those interests.”

Partnering with Career Services 

The Switchboard complements the work of Reed’s career services office, which maintains an alumni directory within the IRIS portal that provides contacts for students interested in career networking. Career Services also works with students to craft resumes and cover letters, connects them with internships and job openings, and hones their interview skills.

Paul, who is considering a major in political science, established connections with several alumni through IRIS that helped him sort out ideas about his future. He thinks students can benefit from both Reed Career Services and the Switchboard. “Switchboard is definitely filling a significant gap,” he says.

Kieran Hanrahan ’15 was hired to coordinate the Switchboard’s social media and post informal offers from alumni.

“The Switchboard offers a social network that makes a site like LinkedIn seem pretty sterile in comparison,” he says. “We rely almost entirely on our website, Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr to connect with students.”

Switchboard members agree that Reed is an amazing place that changed their lives, and they feel a responsibility to give back and to support the institution on an individual level. More than anything, they enjoy talking with younger versions of themselves.

“The young alumni on the Switchboard don’t have a lot of money,” says Noah, “but we do have a lot of interesting experiences that we want to share with those students who are coming up behind us.”

Regardless of age, Reedies have much in common. By sharing stories, they open not only doors, but also the minds of those who are considering their next steps into a brave new world.



Center for Life Beyond Reed

Volunteer for the Reed Career Network

Tony Fisher Charm School for Future Professionals

Tags: Alumni, Cool Projects, Life Beyond Reed, Students