Creating a Competitive Edge - Higher Education

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Creating a Competitive Edge

by Black Issues

Creating a Competitive Edge

The “competitive edge” is more than imperative in today’s recruitment climate for full-time, part-time, internship, and co-op positions. Specifically, students of color have to understand that a 3.0 GPA and above, academic honors, and letters of recommendation are not what create the total “competitive edge” when the competition is NOT other people of color.
Setting themselves apart to create a competitive edge can mean the difference between graduate and professional school acceptance, the medical or law school interview process, or the post-doctoral opportunity. 
As a recruiter of students and faculty in the fields of science, engineering, and technology, I have seen students who have gone beyond the extra mile land positions overthose with high GPAs. Why? Because students of color who exemplify the ability to know what it takes to “set themselves apart” have outlined unique opportunities on their resume that indicate a receptivity to new ideas and new ways of thinking. 
To achieve this,  parents, faculty, administrators, and interest organizations that promote the academic and career success of students of color in all fields must have a voice. What can students of color do to “set themselves apart to be competitive in graduate school and the workplace?” Some key suggestions are:
Be prepared to travel for internship and co-op opportunities. The most disheartening aspect of recruitment is to see capable and talented students limit themselves because of distance from their geographical and emotional comfort zone for a summer or semester.
Take advantage of seminars and workshops that offer tips on how to succeed in graduate school and the workplace. This is especially true for those who attend graduate school at a majority institution after completing undergraduate studies at an HBCU or other minority-serving institutions. If these seminars and workshops are not offered through campus Placement Offices, immediate changes should be made to remedy that. Also, some companies in the community may offer such opportunities to learn what the corporate environment expects and needs.
Take advantage of special summer programs offered by many campuses. Such programs include INROADS, Pre-College Engineering Programs or summer computer camps for prospective computer science/engineering majors. Students interested in pharmacy or medicine usually have opportunities to spend summers on campus to be introduced to the field through hands-on experience.
Students in the fields of science, engineering, and technology need to get into research. Such opportunities can be found with professors or research advisors on campus during the academic year and/or summers. Students should be sought out and encouraged to take advantage of this as well. Once faculty learn of their capability, students are likely to be sought aftert for specific fellowship and scholarship opportunities.
Fellowship or scholarship offerings are very unique avenues to explore summer or academic-year opportunities. Some come with commitments to intern or co-op with the sponsoring or funding organization for two summers.
Study abroad,whether for a semester or a full academic year offers extraordinary insights into any field-of-study.  This is a particular enhancement for undergraduate students who plan to pursue graduate study in technology, medicine, political science, business and art.
Students of color also need to realize that participating in summer internships is an excellent opportunity to gain very useful experience toward graduate study and their ultimate career. However, in the fields of science, engineering, and technology, students have a tendency to flock to familiar companies such as: IBM, MERCK, BellSouth, etc. The uniqueness here is to look for the unfamiliar company or organization. Government laboratories offer very unique opportunities to perform research on state-of-the-art equipment and work alongside world-renowned scientists who serve as voluntary mentors.
Working alongside world-renowned scientists may result in letters of recommendation that are directed toward the research field of interest.  Further, hands-on experience within the national laboratory setting can produce unique research that is not typically available on campus.  The opportunity also exists for students to publish research findings with the laboratory mentor. 
It is imperative to encourage students of color to reach beyond the norm. That responsibility first belongs to parents, who are a tremendous influence. The secondary responsibility is on the shoulders of administrators and faculty.
Overall, this responsibility is a great one that rests on the shoulders of everyone interested in the success of students of color in graduate school and the workplace. We all must share responsibity for building the competitiveness of our students of color.
— Pamela A. Bivens, M.A., is the Program Administrator for the HBCU, MCRP, and GEM Programs at Los Alamos National Laboratory in Northern New Mexico.

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