When asked about her role as coordinator of the Cultural Career Network Program, Pamela Cooper describes it as a “true passion.” In fact, she is responsible for its inception. Employed in the Career Center since 2000, Cooper loves her job as much today as the day she first walked in the door.
It all begin in 2003 when area employers charged the Career Center with making students of diverse backgrounds available to network for internship opportunities. Without hesitation, Cooper responded enthusiastically, “You don’t have to ask me twice.”
With help from then graduate assistant (GA) Angela Winters-Harmon, the pair sprang into action on their first networking event. Teaming up with the Illinois State University Athletics department and Caterpillar, coaches from Remember the Titans were brought to campus to attract both students and area employers. The event was a success and spurred the idea to add a diversity dimension to the Career Center. The Cultural Career Network Program (CCNP) was born. Since then, the program has hosted a similar event each year, and Cooper still looks to her graduate assistants for inspiration.
“I have a GA for diversity initiatives, and I always let that student go for it,” Cooper said. “Last year we did a fashion show. My GA worked part-time at Macy’s, and she asked the store to donate the use of professional attire. The students modeled, and employers were asked to be the judges. It was a fun event, and employers truly enjoy mingling and networking with the students so that makes it all worthwhile.”
Cooper explained that they choose entertainment events because they are more effective, and students prefer the informal atmosphere. This year, they hosted a tailgate party at the first Illinois State football game. A new local business partnered with the group as they handed out over 500 hot dogs. The event was especially significant because it integrated the entire campus and emphasized that diversity is not exclusive, but inclusive.
“Just because an event is labeled ‘diversity’ or ‘Cultural Career Network Program’ does not indicate that all students are not included,” Cooper explained. “So I make sure that CCNP events will further educate about diversity and, at the same time, promote opportunities for career success.”
Part of the CCNP’s mission is to connect students with employers in networking situations. The program includes hosting an annual speed-networking event between employers and students, and an alumni round table event will be held later this month. Recent alumni and employers with an interest in diversity are invited to the event.
One of Cooper’s greatest rewards is witnessing her students’ success. She primarily works with internships and actually sees the growth and professionalism that develop through the experiences. “More employers desire students to have at least two internships before hiring so that tends to be our focus,” Cooper said. “One of our workshops is called ‘Intern Yourself Into Your Career.’ The workshop matches students with peers who have completed internship programs to discuss their experiences. It’s more beneficial for the students to hear it from someone closer to their level.”
Cooper also witnesses success beyond internships and graduation. In fact, many recruiting employers are alumni who once attended CCNPs. In 2005, alumnus and Biaggi’s human resources executive David Morris returned to Illinois State for a College of Business course. He immediately sensed a lack of diversity initiatives and contacted Cooper with his desire to help. They decided to have a dinner and invited employers, local alumni, faculty and students, all sponsored by Morris.
With the rewards also come challenges. Cooper identifies one of her biggest challenges as getting students as excited about the program as she is. While she recognizes that students are busy, she won’t hesitate to playfully confront them on campus and ask, “Why weren’t you at my program?” Such encouragement is yet another sign of Cooper’s passion and dedication to diversity students.