State of the Planet

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Alumni Panel Discusses Jobs and Networking in the Age of COVID

headshots of panel participants
Six of the panel participants. Top row, from left to right: Edanur Hardal, Kathy Zhang, Max Zimberg. Bottom row: Juan José Guzmán, Annie Block, Alan Blaesser.

On November 10, Kathy Zhang joined the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development to moderate a panel of six recent graduates as they offered advice to current students in the program. Kathy is an alum of the program herself, having graduated from Columbia in 2013. Currently she is leading operations for the online publishing platform, Substack, and before the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, she was a global manager for Jump, which is owned by Uber and deals in the rental of electric bikes.

Along with Kathy, panel consisted of four graduates of the Sustainable Development Class of 2019 and two graduates from the Class of 2020. Juan Jose Guzman (‘19) works in NYC, but focuses on the structuring of vehicles for sustainable agriculture. Max Rose Zimberg (‘19) called in from Boston, where she works as the Community-building and Outreach Coordinator at the Planetary Health Alliance, based at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Annie Block (‘19) is currently working as a consultant at a NYC engineering firm. Finishing out the cohort from the Class of 2019, Alan Blaesser is currently based in D.C. and works at the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, where his current project with the Army Office of Energy Initiatives involves completing large-scale renewable energy projects for army installations nationwide. The two 2020 graduates were Edanur Hardal and Max Goodman. Hardal is currently interning at the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, and Goodman is a junior remote sensing scientist at Cloud to Street. They are both currently based in NYC.

For the first hour, the panel answered a series of questions posed by moderator Kathy Zhang, including topics such as important classes to take, ways to expand a professional network, and the impact of COVID-19. The first question to the panel concerned the impact that the coronavirus has had on the panelists’ work environment and projects. For Juan Jose Guzman, the transition to a virtual working world has actually been beneficial for the purposes of his work in the developing countries of Latin America. The disruption of the standard working procedures has prompted a long overdue update to stagnant working practices, in that the virtual world has expanded through COVID and allowed him to get further into the offices of public officials. This increased access has provided more opportunity to create relationships and gather information necessary to provide relief. Max Rose Zimberg also reflected that the impact of COVID was initially viewed as an opportunity as opposed to a hurdle, as people were trying to see it as an opportunity for an awakening or healthy recovery. In both cases, the transition to a virtual working world served as an equalizer because of each company’s dealings with global organizations, which had always been virtual. Of course, there have been negative impacts as well. In addition to working at the Planetary Health Alliance, Zimberg also works on the Massachusetts Healthy School Food Coalition, which was disrupted as the schools shut down in March.

Next, Zhang asked about where Columbia students should direct their attention in order to invest in the current pockets of opportunity. Edanur Hardal’s advice encouraged a virtual searching process within this current virtual working world. She recommended monitoring Columbia Handshake and LinkedIn and notifying friends in other areas about the job search. By having information about opportunities available in other areas and capitalizing on the accessibility of information online, it is possible to create a much more expansive network than just the NYC area. Alan Blaesser took this advice: while living in NYC, he found a job in Washington D.C. over 200 miles away. He also recommends removing any self-imposed restrictions, though his advice concerns career path more than career location. His job as a consultant has a loosely defined definition, so he has a lot of opportunities to expand — which is why he recommends not limiting opportunities to only those that have energy or sustainability aspects. He suggested finding a way into the company at any base-level position, and then to form connections with other employees with whom it is possible to network.

Logically, this question preceded an inquiry about the practicalities of networking. COVID-19 has had an impact on networking success, especially for recent graduates who never had a chance to work at the company in person before starting virtually.  Annie Block did have several months of in-person working before the shutdown, but has still felt the effects of the transition to a virtual world and has had to put in extra effort to maintain connections with her coworkers. Because she can no longer walk over to people’s desks, she has been calling people instead of sending emails, because she knows that making the direct contact and establishing a connection makes a huge difference, especially in her work as a consultant, where she is interacting with people across a lot of disciplines. Juan Jose Guzman also extols the importance of networking, as he says it is what ultimately provided him with his job. As early as his junior year, he reached out to people whose work he had come across and found interesting and he maintained that connection throughout his junior and senior years — even when he wasn’t actively searching for a job. Zhang concluded that a lot of the job search is about timing, and therefore it is important to maintain these connections so that if an opportunity arises, they have ideas on who to consider.

Finally, the panel was asked about what classes were helpful in their job search. Although the specifics for each panelist varied, they recommended trying as much as possible as early as possible. In their opinion, eliminating possibilities is as important as identifying new ones, so in the event that the class or subject is uninteresting, it can still be utilized as a learning opportunity. Max Goodman suggested taking skills classes, and Annie Block recommended having a concrete project or research that will present well in interviews.

In the last hour of the event, the six panelists separated into two breakout rooms, where the attending students cycled through two networking sessions where they could participate in smaller, more interpersonal discussions. Although networking has been made harder during the pandemic, there are still opportunities that arise, and Columbia’s Undergraduate program in Sustainable Development is working wherever possible to give its students the opportunities they need to be successful.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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