Wisconsin native and St. Thomas junior Maggie LoCoco looked back at her own face as a timer at the bottom of the screen counted down.

10, 9, 8…

A few minutes earlier LoCoco had watched a man named Kyle give her specific instructions on what she should do now that she was sitting in front of a computer camera in professional attire.

“Hello, and thank you for interviewing with Kohl’s,” he had said. “We’re going to give you a series of five questions and you will have four minutes to answer each of them.”

7, 6, 5…

Her practice run behind her LoCoco would now record her answer to each of “Kohl’s” five questions, with 30 seconds to prep her response before each one. The first question had to do with how LoCoco viewed team success, but in these final seconds she was experiencing a familiar feeling for first interviews: being quite alone.

4, 3, 2, 1…

“I submitted my responses and thought, ‘Where is this video going?’ Now it’s just out there; that’s so embarrassing!” LoCoco said. “I’m the kind of person in a professional environment that will try to interact and crack jokes, so it was very hard to just say, ‘I think the team is about x, y, z.’ I tried to show my personality, but I think it was more about showing you’re a competent, intelligent interviewee.”

It turned out Kohl’s thought LoCoco was plenty competent and intelligent; the company soon brought her down to Milwaukee for three more rounds of interviews, including a group case study scenario where she and fellow prospective employees had 15 minutes to prepare a presentation.

All of this experience led to the result LoCoco was looking for: Kohl’s offered her a paid internship for this coming summer.

“It was nice to have that set,” she said.

LoCoco’s employment story is one of thousands with as much variety that play out constantly for St. Thomas students: a senior forgoing immediate employment and looking forward to graduate school in California; a freshman returning to his hometown and working at the local golf course; a sophomore sacrificing regular sleep patterns while working through a spring semester with an unpaid internship and washing dishes in the school cafeteria; a junior tending bar at two different restaurants all summer, anticipating the dent those tips will make in her loan bills.

It’s a process that plays out independently for most; it is difficult to pinpoint a commonality across St. Thomas when it comes to employment preparation and experience. The closest someone can come to finding that shared point is on the first floor of Murray-Herrick Campus Center (MHC), at a destination dedicated to helping students make sense of what is often a difficult journey to what they want to do for work. For decades the Career Development Center (CDC) has been a hub for students seeking assistance with their future, and – in a landscape of increased competitiveness and expectations for career readiness – their services are as vital as ever.

“We’re always educating students that there is a process to all this they need to look at and think about,” CDC director Diane Crist said. “There are always steps they can take in their career development, so whenever we can we’re trying to help them identify what their next step is.”

Moving on down, to the south side

Arguably the biggest step recently for the CDC has been a literal one, with a move two years ago from the north side of the third floor of MHC to the south side of the first floor.

“We had a great facility, very nice, but it was pretty tucked away,” Crist said. “We did all kinds of things to get students up there but it was always a struggle. I had one student come up and say, ‘Oh, I thought this was a fire escape.’ That was our main stairway.”

There is no such confusion now, with January marking two years for the CDC on the much heavier-trafficked first floor.

“It has really worked out well and as soon as we were in here it was, day in day out from students, ‘This is such a great space; this is so much better than your old space; this is so handy,’” Crist said. “It’s so much better for employers (there to talk with or interview students), too. I believe this has really helped.”

On top of avoiding a physical case of “out of sight, out of mind,” the CDC also has stepped up its efforts to raise student awareness earlier and more often: In recent years CDC’s staff began presenting at freshman orientation, introducing themselves and putting their services on peoples’ radars right when they arrive.

“’We’re here.’ That’s the biggest thing to get across,” said Jennifer Rogers, who heads the CDC’s employer relations. “The needs in the first year of college are mainly, ‘I’m an undecided major and heard you can help me think about what I may want to major in.’ That’s great, because we’re drawing students that want to connect a future career to what they study in college.”

Whether undecided freshman or panicking senior, Crist said the CDC uses individual assessments to figure out what is best for a particular student at a particular time.

“We are always trying to meet students individually wherever they are operating in terms of their career needs, and trying to move them to their next step,” she added. “Self-assessment is always the foundation. We help students get to know themselves, which happens in many ways.”

Much of the CDC’s offerings, from resume help to mock interviews, center on preparing students to be young professionals. Other times it’s pointing students toward both internal and outside resources, from job fairs to networking opportunities to visits with employers. Still other times it’s simply to be in a student’s proverbial corner of the ring.

“It was good to talk to someone who’s on your side and wants you to do well, but actually knows how all this works,” said LoCoco, who worked with Crist throughout her process with Kohl’s. “It was someone who was excited for you and you don’t have to feel guilty about it. It can be hard to talk to other students about this stuff because everyone’s so on edge about their own internships and jobs.”

More expectations and preparation

As the Great Recession continues to recede into the country’s rear-view mirror, current college students are experiencing an interesting intersection. On the one hand there are increasing job prospects compared to the recent past, on the other an ever-widening pool of fellow college students to compete with. The continued emergence of internships as requirements instead of bonuses is a strong marker that companies – while they are hiring more – expect to bring well-prepared graduates into first jobs.

“The expectation for students to have solid, career-related internship experience has ratcheted up a notch or two from the employer perspective,” Rogers said.

“My expectation was that an internship is a requirement to get a job,” said senior Maggie Hom, who credits her several internships, including one with Best Buy, as a chief reason for her full-time offer from Target last fall. “It definitely gave me a step up on everyone else.”

Crist said the CDC even has heard from some employers that they want two career-related internships from prospective employees. Rogers said more freshmen and their parents have asked about internship preparation in recent years, and in 2013 the St. Thomas Post Graduation Survey more than 60 percent of alumni reported having an internship while at St. Thomas, up from 56 percent in 2009.

“There’s definitely pressure,” LoCoco said. “If you don’t have an internship you’re behind.”

With such a premium on experience, the CDC also helps students get the most out of things they’ve done that may not as clearly correlate to a future position. Whether a leadership position on campus or a waitress job from the weekends, anything students are doing outside the classroom can help their future prospects.

“We call it reflecting on skills. It’s not just, ‘This is how you get valuable experiences,’” Rogers said. “We also want them to understand how you unpack any experiences … and figure out what skills you develop out of this and how you use it moving forward.”

“Now, you have to be so much more well-rounded than you used to have to be,” said Rachel Gordon, the Minneapolis market recruiting leader for PriceWaterhouse Coopers, which has recruited out of St. Thomas for years. “Students don’t always realize that. You have a strong GPA, but there’s so much more involved than that.”

Listening and learning

Strong relationships with companies like PriceWaterhouse Coopers are a huge asset to the CDC for many reasons and – under Rogers – the CDC’s staff goes above and beyond to make sure they are maintained. From its policy of taking representatives out to lunch, to the hosting spaces the CDC dedicates for visiting employers, the message is clear: You and your company are welcome here.

“It’s invaluable to talk to live human beings on a daily basis about their hiring needs, who’s qualified and what they’re looking for,” Rogers said. “We all have to be informed about the trends and what employers are looking for. That’s huge because we see students individually so we can then share that perspective.”

Students also have opportunities to gain perspective from employers when they come to St. Thomas for informational visits, mini jobs fairs, or full-blown interviews for internships and job openings.

“It’s all about, for us, building relationships with students,” Gordon said. “You can’t do that effectively without meeting them in person. We much prefer to put on events and meet people to getting a bunch of resumes and trying to cold hire someone.”

Many companies have hired students out of St. Thomas in the past and had successful experiences, which brings them back for more, Crist said.

“Our alumni are very critical pieces of that,” she added. “They go out and perform well and those corporations come back to try to bring in more students. That’s a healthy process.”

Timeless qualities

Between the steady rise of digital tools for professional presentation (LinkedIn, anyone?) and examples like LoCoco’s of once unheard-of interview processes, it’s clear changes will continue to define the employment landscape. Students may also be asked to have more preparation and experiences to speak to. But by all accounts many of the most important things in 2015 are the things that were the most important in 1915 and will likely be most important in 2115.

“At the end of the day your degree and other things matter, but you can train anyone for a job. The big thing is you just need to work hard. If you can show you work hard, and that’s usually through your experience, that’s going to get you the job,” LoCoco said. “The common trend is always going to be work ethic and being a go-getter.”

“Employers have always appreciated that well-rounded student,” Rogers said. “They appreciate students that have been involved in extracurricular activity. That’s nice you have a 3.9 GPA, and that’s important, but what else have you done?”

Helping students navigate the difficult process of making themselves appealing employees is at the core of what the CDC does, and – when it comes to effectiveness at it – the proof is in the hiring: “We know that students who have used our services once, their rate of being employed after graduation goes up by 16 percent,” Crist said. “And if they’ve used us four times their placement is 25 percent higher than a student who hasn’t used us.”

Such numbers should be appealing to any student, regardless of where they are along their own path.

“Really students can come to us about anything, from, ‘What is my mission and calling in life?’ to ‘What am I good at?’ to ‘Can you look at my resume and help me find an internship?’” Rogers said. “It’s a real scale from deeper thinking and identity issues to how you write a good cover letter. Different students need all of that.”

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