At the start of the Spring 2019 semester, the Hall Associates Career Center at Virginia Western Community College welcomed a new manager.
Although Shonny Cooke’s title is new, she is already well-acquainted with the Career Center. She first joined Virginia Western in 2012, where she managed internship programs and acted as an employment relations specialist. In 2015, Cooke left to pursue another opportunity, but it wasn’t long before she was back on campus.
“The Career Center is that place where you see the impact that happens when the right education and career training meet opportunity,” Cooke said. “I love hearing from students who come back and tell you how this changed their life. You really do know you’ve made a difference.”
The Hall Associates Career Center is a free service that can be accessed by any Virginia Western student or alumnus. It is located on the second floor of Virginia Western’s Student Life Center, which underwent a significant renovation in 2014 including the addition of a fitness center and student activities space. The Career Center is named for Hall Associates, the Roanoke-based real estate management firm founded by Edwin C. Hall, a longtime member of the Virginia Western Community College Educational Foundation Board of Directors.
While career services divisions are common at four-year colleges and universities, they remain a rarity at community colleges. But they can play a critical role in students’ success, Hall said. “With the help of the Career Center staff’s professional guidance, students can have a means to immediately seek employment after graduation.”
Providing real-time information on the regional market is a key. Career Center staff study labor market data and talk with local employers, Cooke said. “We are constantly asking, ‘what are the jobs, who’s hiring, what are the requirements and how can we help our students compete for those opportunities?’” she said. The Career Center offers three primary types of services to current students and alumni: Career planning: this includes a career assessment and one-on-one advising that focuses more on a student’s professional path that aligns with his or her academic plan. “We ask, ‘what do you really want to do? What are your interests and strengths? Do you have a certain passion or purpose that can lead to a profession?’ ” Cooke said.
Career preparation: “We connect what you’re learning in the classroom to employment.” Free workshops focus on how to write your resume for today’s HR managers, how to prepare for an interview and how to communicate the skills you possess to employers.
Career opportunities: Through its online job bank, career fairs, job shadowing opportunities and supervised internships, the Career Center helps students gain professional connections and relevant work experience. “We want to make sure we guide you toward employers that are hiring in that field – that we are opening up pipelines of opportunities for our students and alumni.”
Cooke earned her bachelor’s degree in anthropology and African-American studies from the University of Virginia at a time when college officials at many schools told students “what you majored in didn’t matter, just that you had the degree,” she said. “I found out the hard way how important it is for your educational path to align with your career goal.”
After graduation, Cooke experienced a few false starts before landing a position as a training coordinator for at-risk youth. That job ignited her passion for career services. “What really interests me is trying to help others figure out the best pathway and being able to witness someone set a career goal, commit to the education and training it takes to get there, and land that opportunity,” she said.
Over two decades, Cooke has used her expertise in career education training and services to help students and companies alike. She’s developed and led training sessions for IT professionals, as well as workers in other industries. Cooke has created courses that help the unemployed gain the skills and knowledge they need to navigate the job market. She’s also passionate about helping business owners and other employers learn how Virginia Western students and alumni can meet their needs.
The Career Center invites employers to visit campus, interview students and make them aware of job openings. But before that happens, Career Center employees assess students’ abilities and help them fill in knowledge or experience gaps. “We need to know what our local employers are looking for but also make sure our students are prepared, so they can meet those expectations.”
The Career Center also aims to serve as a key conduit for employers who want to connect with the College in ways outside of direct hiring. Through its Workforce Solutions Division, for example, the College can develop customized training for employees in on-site classes that can cover leadership, team training, OSHA-mandated education or be built around a new initiative, such as a software launch.
“The Career Center will be responsive to what we’re hearing from employers and communicate it back to the College,” Cooke said. “We want to be a key connection point for business and industry, regardless of what their needs are.”
For more information on the Hall Associates Career Center, go to www.virginiawestern.edu/careercenter.