With two days left in the spring semester, four people from different places and different stages in their lives met in a conference room at the Career Services offices at Eckerd College to enjoy some Thai food, share some stories, and laugh.
Two of them have established careers in marine science; the other two are just starting out in the field. Most of them had met before but only remotely.
What binds them together, hopefully for years to come, is the Eckerd College Career Mentor Program.
The program pairs current students and recent graduates with alumni who provide guidance in the transition from college to life after Eckerd. Each month, student/young-alum mentees and alumni mentors communicate via email, phone, Zoom or in person. Career mentors support mentees by providing positive feedback, offering new career-related experiences such as internships, finding them resources, polishing their career strategies, and connecting them with the mentors’ professional colleagues.
A classic example of how this works is the story of career mentor Chris Flight ’15 and his mentees, Aiden Rooney ’23 and Seisho Song, along with the fourth member of the group, William Szelistowski, Ph.D., associate professor of biology and marine science at Eckerd. He was a faculty mentor to Chris and Aiden while they were at Eckerd and is currently Seisho’s mentor.
But Chris is the person in the middle. A former Ford Scholar, he graduated from Eckerd in 2015 with a degree in marine science. He spent six years at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, Alabama’s primary marine education and research center, and now he works as the professional development and aquaculture education coordinator for Maryland Sea Grant, which is part of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
Chris’s mentee Aiden graduated from Eckerd this spring with a degree in marine science. She is a former Ford Scholar from Durham, North Carolina, who had originally been paired with Sue Kilham ’65, Ph.D., a retired Drexel University marine science professor who was a member of what was then Florida Presbyterian College’s (now Eckerd’s) second graduating class. Sue passed away in April 2022 at age 79.
For her final year at Eckerd, Aiden was paired with Chris, who admits it was daunting. “I was nervous to step in as Aiden’s next career mentor since she had such a close relationship with Sue,” Chris explains.
That anxiety didn’t last long. Chris recalls when he and Aiden were discussing what she wanted to get out of the program and her goals for the year, “she asked me to keep her accountable for applying to internships and jobs. She wrote out that specific goal in all caps in an email with later clarification that she wasn’t yelling at me, but instead was trying to emphasize the importance of this program.
“After that, I made sure to send reminder emails, written in all caps of course, to keep her focused on deadlines for jobs that she shared with me. We found that sort of joking, sarcastic, fun dynamic worked for us pretty quickly. We’ve also been able to connect over our collections of marine critters.
“Aiden sheepishly showed me some specimens that were going to be discarded from FWC [Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission], and she was allowed to take them. She said something along the lines of ‘Don’t judge me for being weird and keeping dead stuff in jars.’
“I had to pick up my laptop from my desk and give her a tour of my house. It has all of the specimens that I prepared as a teacher in Alabama, six years’ worth of critters in jars. Almost a mini museum. I told her not to worry, that she was weird, but it was a very good kind of weird, and she was in good company.”
Chris’s other mentee, Seisho, is a rising senior environmental studies student from Urayasu, Japan, who has been collecting shark skulls for several years. He prepares and preserves the skulls, and keeps most of them at Szelistowski’s lab at the Galbraith Marine Science Laboratory.
“The research Seisho does and the skull and musculature preparation skills he has are incredible,” Chris says. “I was so impressed when he began showing me his work. Then it seemed like every call he had, he’d show me an email from someone and ask if I thought this response was okay.
“As I looked at the names of these people he was talking to, I realized that Seisho is connected to some of the biggest names in the shark world. World-class researchers, TV personalities, his own TV appearances in Japan. It’s incredible. And here he was asking me for advice on how to talk to these people.”
Seisho is equally impressed. “Chris is so friendly, so easy to talk with,” he says. “We talk on Zoom about our hobbies, fishing, and he’s definitely knowledgeable about places to look for jobs. I can’t thank him enough. Even after I graduate, I’ll keep talking with Chris.”
The Career Mentor Program, Chris says, is his best chance at giving back to the College. “I had fabulous professors and experiences while at Eckerd and throughout my professional career and personal life, and I have reached back out to those faculty for help and advice. I would not be where I am today if I didn’t have those mentors.”
“The Career Mentor Program allows students to not only learn about what it takes for their next professional step, but it allows them to become more connected to Eckerd by learning what it was like when their mentor was here,” explains Maddy Gumprecht ’21, employer relations and internships coordinator at Eckerd. “This program is a great spot for alumni to get involved with the campus and students in a different way.”
More than 130 such mentorships have been completed since 2018. “And more and more students continue through the program for a second or even third year,” Gumprecht adds. “Students rave about [it], telling me that the only thing that they would change would be to have even more students in the program. 92% of students said that they would recommend the program to a friend.”