03/03/2011 01:29 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Benefits of a Pioneering Alumni Career Program

Everyone needs supportive communities, but finding a safe one to catapult your career success can be a search in itself. Thankfully, such communities exist because of pioneers like James Stofan, Associate Vice-President of Vanderbilt University, who recognized a critical need and offered it to alumni in selected cities. I have been privileged to join forces with Vanderbilt's Career Moves Program and bring my career strategies experience to these seminars -- in Los Angeles, Berkeley, Houston and upcoming ones in Dallas, Boston, and Seattle -- offered to alumni from any year or discipline -- engineering, business, liberal arts, law and medicine.

Alumni attend because they feel stuck in positions or careers chosen in their late teens or early twenties that no longer interests them. They come because they need better jobs -- or just any job. They come because they are searching for something far more satisfying. They come because they need more training as they progress. They come for all the right reasons.

But they confess that they don't like coming, not at first. It takes such courage. So, I get to hear from a few that they won't be able to stay the day, that they have other appointments made. Yet no one leaves early. Not when they realize how transforming it is to seriously take stock and begin to dream out loud and make plans for its actualization.

In one seminar, an accountant admitted to yearning to become an actuary, a profession that demands a six-month course for certification. But that course was not offered in her city. She has postponed her dream job for all the understandable reasons -- how to afford the program in another city; how to convince her high school children to switch schools for a semester upsetting their lives and complicating hers supervising their studies; how to cope with the sacrifices without having a job in hand after the course. Over the day's exercises, of what if's, how to's, and realizing the cost and benefits of change, she herself changed. She answered my challenge of what will she feel by the end of the year if she takes the program or if she doesn't.

How then can she realize her goal? By the end of the day, she tweaked her plan and was suddenly ecstatic. She announced that she will apply and go. She can afford six month's tuition and a rented room of her own. She will ask her ex-husband to take care of the kids so they don't have to change schools. And, in the doing, she has given herself the gift of freedom to study without distraction, and make new friends and mentors in the actuarial field. The alumni group spontaneously applauded her courage. And right then and there, she became a role-model for all of us, and for her children, her witnesses.

Vanderbilt's alumni seminars offer more than the expected resume and cover letter writing exercises and interviewing techniques. They go far beyond. They offer coached rehearsals of self-discovery and self-presentation along with a set of pragmatic skills for success that advance alumni from being passive "good" students in life to pro-active achievers. Career strategies support groups are recommended with a set of instructions for alumni to continue to meet during the year to work toward success. It doesn't come easily, but nothing will happen if you don't make it happen.

College and universities should follow suit and extend themselves to their alumni separate from social events. Strapped by budget restrictions, they will be relieved to know that such a program doesn't cost much. They can even charge alumni a fee to offset expenses and might get a lot more back through grateful alumni's donations. After all, college rankings consider the percentage of alumni who give, not the dollar amount written on the checks. It's a win-win for higher education and for graduates -- just now when we need it most.

Make your luck happen.