JobsPLUS Email Activity Helps Students Develop Professional Skills

By Eva Richards


You’ve got mail. We all do, especially Huskie students. 

Now, more than ever, we are depending on digital communications like emails to connect us to one another. But for college students—as the pandemic has made physical distance a must for students and their instructors—this reliance on email communication has uncovered some shortcomings in their professional writing skills.

The NIU University Writing Center (UWC) and the JobsPLUS program have come to the rescue, along with invaluable alumni volunteers. They have teamed up to assist students in developing and using email communications in their coursework and eventual careers.

The virtual experience “Meet the Alumni: Email Communications” was held over two weeks in April, with 19 students and 14 volunteers participating.

“Emailing is a skill not often taught to students and complicated by its use in personal and professional lives,” said UWC Graduate Teaching Assistant Ashley Bartelt, M.A. ’14. “An email to a friend cannot be, but often is, handled the same way as an email to a professor or prospective job employer because the situational demands are different.” 

Bartelt notes that, as texting and other shortcuts like voice-texting have become commonplace, crafting written communications is not practiced. 

“Just like typing, voice-texting can be used to write professional-level sentences, but it has to be done deliberately and with a careful review before hitting send,” Bartelt said. “Otherwise, the typos are humorous at best and insulting at worst.”

Bartelt noted that, after discussing student email etiquette issues with JobsPLUS Director Chad Glover, she and Glover developed the plan for a program that would put students in communication with a friendly group of professionals, made up of NIU alumni volunteers. These interactions would allow students to practice their professional emailing and networking skills. 

Glover then brought in the leadership of enthusiastic instructor Kassandra Kavanaugh, a third-year doctoral student in the Counselor Education and Supervision program who currently teaches COUN 211 (Career Planning). He also partnered with the NIU Alumni Association to coordinate alumni volunteers for the activity. 

As soon as Kavanaugh was asked to participate in the email communications activity, she knew her COUN 211 students would be a great group with whom to pilot the activity.

“Students in my courses range in undergraduate status and enroll to learn about career development and career decision-making skills,” Kavanaugh said. “One main objective in our career-planning course is practicing career-related skills by creating job search documents, such as resumés, cover letters, references pages, and thank you letters after an interview. We also focus on completing mock interviews and reflecting upon job-related content and personal experiences to deepen their understanding of the world of work.”

Students who participated in the activity committed to a two-week experience. During Week 1, they learned about proper email etiquette and style, while Week 2 put them in contact with their assigned alumnus mentor. All communication was conducted online via email. 

"After the NIUAA and Kavanaugh worked to connect the communication partners," Bartelt said, "students were tasked with sending a series of five emails, introducing themselves and then asking for advice about how to accomplish their professional dreams, dealing with negative experiences, asking for recommended resources, and more. The fifth email was a thank you, reminding students that respect and politeness are essential."

Paul Horvath graduated from NIU with a degree in computer science in 1988.  He now works as the director of IT for global pharmaceutical company AbbVie.  A long time donor and volunteer at NIU, Horvath knew he wanted to help students with this activity.

“The level of interest my student demonstrated stuck out. It was engaged and purposeful,” Horvath said. “I recommended that the student build out his network, and I offered to be a part of his.”

Bartelt said this exchange was positive for all involved. Students and volunteers shared LinkedIn handles, resources and recommendations, as well as offers to continue the correspondence if the student needed anything in the future. Beyond practicing their writing, students gained new contacts in the real world.

“Kassi and I monitored the email exchanges throughout the week, sending nudging emails to participants when necessary,” she said. “Overall, the exchanges were earnest and dynamic, and while some students merely completed it as the course assignment it was, others dove into it with brilliant enthusiasm, connecting with their alumni on deep and professional levels.”

“Networking can be a scary and anxiety-producing experience for many people,” Kavanaugh said. “Students may also experience ‘imposter syndrome’ or wonder how their thoughts and ideas could ever compete with the current workforce. The fact of the matter is we need the next generation to contribute their new ideas and bring life into the workforce. Receiving boosts of confidence from current alumni can silence those unhelpful thoughts in students’ minds.” 

These real-life experiences are just as much about building self-assurance as they are about building practical skills.

“The important lesson was for students to recognize their limits and start developing good habits so that future situations, like applying to jobs, go more smoothly,” Bartelt said. “The pilot was a great success, and we plan to host more in the future.”

The collaboration experience with the UWC, JobsPLUS, and the NIU Alumni Association demonstrated NIU’s current commitment to supporting its students by offering relevant and timely programming. 

“Efforts like this one where expertise from different parts of NIU are convened to co-create something new and beneficial for students, showcase the very best NIU has to offer,” said Glover. “This is a formula for success that we are very proud to help initiate and facilitate across our campus.” 

The fruit of this important work is already apparent, showing itself in the relationships made between students and their alumni mentors.

“From this collaboration activity, specifically, students have connected with their assigned alumni partners and other alumni-recommended connections on LinkedIn after the conclusion of the activity,” Kavanaugh said. “Students have reached out to specifically thank me for providing this experience in our section of COUN 211. One student was even offered a job opportunity through the experience and was thrilled to share their excitement with me! As an instructor, this has been a very fulfilling experience with positive outcomes for the students, the alumni who participated, and for me.”