How an Association Job Fair Became Much More

By: Julie Shoop

The Thurgood Marshall College Fund learned that it had to do more than place students in jobs: It had to help them cope with a workplace culture different from the world they came from. And so its annual Leadership Institute was born.

Although associations typically steer clear of the matchmaking business, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF) has established an impressive track record of setting up happy, productive relationships—in the workplace.

Its annual Leadership Institute is something like a professional version of blind dating, but with better results. Each year, the program—winner of a Summit Award in ASAE's 2013 Power of A competition—brings employers together with about 500 high-achieving students who have been hand-picked by TMCF from 47 member schools, all historically black public colleges and universities.

"I generally describe it as for employers and the best students," says CEO Johnny Taylor Jr.

The Leadership Institute began as a garden-variety job fair, but along the way TMCF discovered a different need: Although academically accomplished, many students who participated in the fair were unprepared for the cultural realities of the workplace.

"Here's the catch," Taylor says. "So many of our students come out of black communities, black churches, black K–12 programs, and then they went to black colleges. You had students who were really bright, but who just didn't understand the norms, the mores, the rules of the corporate environment. They didn't know how to cope in the diverse environment where everyone didn't look like them."

TMCF's solution was to transform the event into a full-fledged career conference, where students spend several days learning from volunteer faculty who come from business, government, and postgraduate education. Students choose a curriculum related to their career interests and attend small-group sessions exposing them to the demands and culture of the field they hope to enter after graduation.

The job fair remains on the agenda, and more than half of students leave the conference with an offer of an internship or full-time position, Taylor says. Many others pass an initial screening and are invited for interviews later.

For employers, the event provides an opportunity to act on their diversity commitments. And the volunteer faculty feel good about helping promising students get a leg up on a career. "It really has turned out to be a windfall for everyone," Taylor says.

Julie Shoop is VP/editor-in-chief of Associations Now in Washington, DC. Email: [email protected]

[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "Making Matches That Work."]

Julie Shoop

Julie Shoop

Julie Shoop is editor-in-chief of Associations Now in Washington, DC.