Chicago Field Day taps the college’s “most valuable asset”—its alumni.
For nearly three decades, Econ Day has been a mainstay for economics majors at Beloit, taking students to Chicago for a day of face-to-face networking with alumni and conversations about life after college.
According to Director of Community-Based Learning Carol Wickersham, such an experience is “too rich an opportunity for only econ students.” With advice and help from Econ Day organizers, and the idea that a Beloit student’s education is made all the richer by direct interaction with alumni, Wickersham set about organizing a parallel event in 2010: Chicago Field Day. It operates on the same premise as Econ Day, but broadens the scope to attract a wider range of students.
While inspired by the success and popularity of Econ Day, there was another driving factor in Wickersham’s decision to create a comparable event for non-econ majors.
“Partly it was seeing the model of Econ Day, and [Allen-Bradley Chair in Economics] Jeff Adams was very generous in helping to shape the day,” she says. “But part of it has been to realize that one of the most valuable assets Beloit College has is its alumni. Alumni are incredibly generous with their time and expertise.”
Organized by the Liberal Arts in Practice Center with help from the Office of Alumni & Parent Relations, the most recent Chicago Field Day took place in November 2012, with 53 students participating. Instead of organizing each Field Day around one department, Wickersham instead aims to focus on a cluster of disciplines; the first year, it was social science, the second, English, education, and psychology. Throughout the day, students do site visits and chat with alumni both formally (panel discussions and presentations) and informally, during a networking event.
With its high concentration of Beloit alumni and close proximity to the college, Chicago is a natural fit for events like Field Day. This year, students visited the Chicago Field Museum for behind-the-scenes tours of the collections and Access Living, a nonprofit organization with a mission of advocating for people with disabilities.
“It’s also really helpful to be in the place,” Wickersham says. “There’s something about being in the bowels of the Field Museum and seeing the collections there that make it seem so real.”
For its part, Access Living is housed in a gold-level LEED-certified building, and that’s something that drew in Fulani Thrasher’12, who encountered the organization on the first Chicago Field Day in 2010. Now she works for Access Living, managing a support and advocacy group called the Empowered FeFes.
Access Living was founded by alumna Marca Bristo’74 and employs Gary Arnold’92 as its director of communications. Thrasher serves as the women and girls community organizer.
At the Field Day’s first iteration, Thrasher was a junior sociology major trying to suss out potential career paths. That day’s visit to Access Living was formative and eye-opening.
“The C.E.O. talked to us about thinking about disability and having conversations about disability. I’d never thought about it before,” Thrasher says. Nor had she heard of a C.E.O. taking the time to talk with a group of college students about career options. “The director of advocacy also talked to us about women and girls with disabilities, and I felt like her speech was very convincing and very shocking—the fact that we sort of isolate women and girls with disabilities. They’re not brought into the discussion of feminism and women’s rights.”
The sessions had such an impact that Thrasher emailed the advocacy director when she returned to Beloit. That connection led to an internship that turned into part-time work, which became a full-time position. Now she’s the one imparting advice to Beloit students as they visit Access Living on Chicago Field Day.
“The advice that I tried to focus on was keeping with it—if you start off as an intern or a volunteer, it can turn into a full-time job,” Thrasher says. “You’re not guaranteed a job or internship or anything like that, but it’s this huge resource, because you have people who have one thing in common, basically: they’re Beloit alums.”
Jamie Kelly’96, anthropology collections manager at the Chicago Field Museum, sees himself as being in the business of making connections via the museum’s exhibits. He was thrilled to share his experiences with Beloit students.
“I saw it as a privilege to connect the students and alumni to the collections by sharing what we do at the museum,” Kelly says. “I had such positive experiences through the wonderful opportunities I had as a student at Beloit that I wanted to share how those experiences made a difference to me personally and discuss with students what can be done with their Beloit College experience.”
He pointed out that all three Beloit alumni at the Field Museum who participated in the Field Day—himself, Christopher Philipp’96, and Tom Skwerski’87—all arrived there from different paths.
“When it came to advising the students, I tried to impress upon them to seek out different experiences, at college and outside of Beloit, that relate to their interests,” Kelly says. “And these experiences and connections could lead to job opportunities.”
Skwerski, the project manager for exhibitions and Kelly’s colleague at the museum, agrees. “My first jobs after college came in Chicago because of internships I had as a Beloit student,” Skwerski says. “This was a place I wanted to work from when I was a kid, and it was my Beloit connections that ultimately got me a job in this great museum.”
If Mia Alcorn’13 is any indication, the advice took hold. The senior double major in dance and math had conversations with alumni about how to start a dance company—something she hopes to do with a fellow Beloiter. She also took note of advice for possible careers for math majors and reached out to follow up with a dancer working at Access Living.
“That led to an informational interview about her careers in the dance world,” Alcorn explains.
It’s indicative of the kind of creative thinking and connections Wickersham wants to foster with Chicago Field Day.
“I want students to understand how limitless their possibilities are with their Beloit educations,” she explains. “I want them to think the sky’s the limit, and that equipped with a Beloit education and a lot of gumption, they can go places and do things.”
Lynn Vollbrecht’06 is the associate editor of Beloit College Magazine.