Alumni connections help EMS students gain employment edge

David Kubarek
May 18, 2021

Hannah Perrelli knows exactly what drew her to the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS). It was the camaraderie between students and the engagement with faculty, staff and alumni who frequented the University Park campus.

It wasn’t even the major, geography, that drew her in. She found that later.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she thought “why should things be any different?”

So the junior and vice president of EMS student council got to work with Jeffrey Swab, member of the Graduate of Earth and Mineral Sciences (GEMS) board of directors, to create an experience where students could reach out and connect with EMS alumni. The result, a biweekly virtual coffee chat, has spawned dozens of interactions between students and GEMS board members. It’s led to career advice, professional connections and interpersonal interactions for students.

“We really wanted to maintain student engagement throughout the pandemic,” Perrelli said. “Obviously, there’s a lot going on in our students’ lives that are really challenging. But we wanted to make sure they were getting the full EMS experience. And our alums play a huge role in that.”

Perrelli said talks often went longer than the scheduled 15 minutes — a sign that the interactions were engaging — and said many students returned to meet new alumni each time. Students sought career advice, tips for applying for jobs during a pandemic or just wanted to make connections. Positive survey results from participating students confirmed her assumptions that the talks were a success.

Perrelli already has plans for graduate school in geographic information systems (GIS). She also has a summer research project lined up. She’ll be working with Penn State Brandywine researchers to look at the impacts of racial stereotyping on children and adolescents throughout different geographical regions in the United States. So, she mostly wasn’t looking for career advice. But, in these trying times, she was just looking for someone to talk with.

“It’s great to talk with people who are already in the field and are so accomplished and find out that they’re in the same boat as we are,” Perrelli said. “This is a very human experience we’re going through. If they’re making it through it, and they’re very accomplished in their field, it makes me feel a lot better. So, it has been very reassuring.”

Kevin Cei

Kevin Cei

IMAGE: Photo provided

Changing landscape for careers

In coffee chats, one thing Kevin Cei tells students is that employers are looking for graduates with a broad set of skills who are also great communicators.

That’s great advice that the 2007 meteorology and atmospheric science graduate learned through experience. His degree — and experiences through clubs and campus activities — gave him a solid background in science backed up with the ability to communicate complex concepts to those outside of his field.

That led to a diverse career in areas beyond typical meteorology roles. Cei helped businesses manage risk to natural and manmade catastrophes. Later, he helped companies assess risks related to climate change. Now, as director of QualRisk, he helps insurance and financial companies build better data strategies.

“Meteorology prepares you for so much because you’re able to talk with technical teams and really understand deep technical complex methodologies,” Cei said. “But you also have the ability to communicate and summarize this messaging to pretty senior people.”

Cei tells students to get involved on campus and sharpen their communications skills. A well-rounded college experience can prepare them for careers they never imagined.

As someone who is frequently on hiring teams, he tells students that the pool of applicants for jobs has greatly increased because of the ability to work remotely. However, that means graduates no longer need to limit themselves to one geographic region.

Luke Winand

Luke Winand

IMAGE: Photo provided

Getting career advice

Advice like this is one reason that prompted Luke Winand to take advantage of the chats. He’s a sophomore majoring in meteorology and atmospheric science.

He fell in love with weather at an early age and a tornado that touched down near his school while he was in second grade really stirred up his enthusiasm.

He originally wanted to be an on-air talent but the science behind forecasting intrigued him. He’s thinking about careers in the National Weather Service or conducting research, so a chance to talk with others in the field, he said, is going to help him decide.

Wendy Zeller Zigaitis

Wendy Zeller Zigaitis

IMAGE: Photo provided

EMS family ties

Wendy Zeller Zigaitis has a lot she can offer to students. She’s one herself.

Twenty years after earning her undergraduate degree in geography from Penn State, she returned to earn a doctorate in geography. In 2019, Zeller Zigaitis took a sabbatical from her employer, the U.S. Department of Defense, and she and two of the family dogs moved to State College for her collegiate home. By March of the following year, her husband drove out to help her return to Illinois after it became clear her studies would shift to remote learning.

In her career with the DoD, the expert in GIS watched as the technology advanced from film strips to computer chips. She was deployed eight times to war zones. So, she has a lot to offer students, particularly those thinking about entering the government sector.

Early on in the pandemic a lot of students were feeling isolated. I knew what they were going through,” Zeller Zigaitis said.

Students have asked her for advice for areas such as internships, graduate school and applying for jobs, all things she’s acutely familiar with. She’s even taken a look at a couple resumes and made connections through LinkedIn.

Emily Connor

Emily Connor

IMAGE: Photo provided

Emily Connor, who graduated in 2012 with a degree in geography, is there to help students who are seeking to navigate both career and research opportunities. She’s project manager at the Yale Carbon Containment Lab and has dedicated her career to climate solutions, including managing more than $500 million in renewable energy asset acquisitions with the startup CleanCapital.

Connor said students are coming to her with concerns about earning relevant experience before they graduate. Due to the pandemic, research projects and internships dried up. This isn’t an uncommon problem, she tells students. Globally, many are grappling with the same issues.

She said students need to get creative with the opportunities they have. They can seek out available research opportunities and internships — even if they’re out of their comfort zone — and also parlay class projects or independent research studies into something that stands out on a résumé.

Echoing many of the GEMS mentors, Connor said she signed up to meet with students because she remembers professionals doing the same for her while she attended Penn State.

“I felt very supported when I was in EMS,” Connor said. “For me, having that close knit community was really helpful. I remember some of the advice I received, particularly my senior year, and it was very helpful and instrumental in helping me find a job. It was something I found very valuable as a student. So, to the extent that I can, I want to pay that back.”

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Last Updated May 25, 2021