Ambassador program helps students put their best feet forward

Author: Kevin Smith
After completing her PhD this December, Cathy Strickland will join her husband in Los Angeles, where she hopes to launch a biomedical company and teach at a nearby university. Yet while electrical and computer engineering courses have provided her with a solid educational background for succeeding in these fields, it’s the ECE Ambassador program that is helping her with soft skills like making job contacts.

Daniel Aguiar“I never realized how important networking was until we had alumni come in and discuss its role in job success,” says Strickland, who was recently elected the program’s second president. “I’m a rather introverted person, so being an ambassador has forced me to put myself out there, taking me out of my comfort zone.”

The ECE Ambassador program was launched last fall to provide a core group of students who could interact with prospective students, families, alumni, and industry visitors. For years, the department had recruited volunteers to give tours and staff tables at Spring Fest and other events. “Now, we have a larger pool of undergraduate and graduate students to work with, plus we have the added dimension of a formal training program,” says Michael Melloch, professor and associate head of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

This August, ambassadors will sport their official black and gold polo shirts as they represent the department at a back-to-school fair. The event, which organizers expect will draw about 500 visitors, will showcase department and campus resources, from student organizations to counseling and psychological services. “Until now, we’ve never had enough manpower to put on an event like this,” Strickland says.

Officers also are scheduling three ambassador training events for the fall. One is on how to explain electrical and computer engineering to visitors; one is on the role of ambassadors in development efforts; and one is on business etiquette and professional presence. As part of that last seminar, ambassadors will learn the polite way to excuse themselves from complicated situations.

Cathy Strickland“We’re thinking of things that may not necessarily come up while someone is on duty as an ambassador, but that could reflect poorly on the person or the department,” Strickland says. “For instance, suppose you’re at a restaurant that serves alcoholic beverages, and you’re not 21 but some of your friends are pressuring you to order a drink. Ambassadors need to know how to respond in order to maintain a professional presence.”

Those skills are important not only for success as an ambassador, but also for success after graduation. “Students nowadays recognize they can’t just be one-dimensional in terms of their professional development; it’s not enough to simply study,” says Jeffery Gray, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. “Just as with any other student organization, such as the Solar Racing Club, student ambassadors hone skills by recruiting members, conducting meetings, assigning tasks, and succeeding in difficult situations.”

That’s why ambassadors are chosen partly for their enthusiasm and maturity. “When students represent the department well, that helps to enhance our reputation, ultimately increasing the value of their degree. Those opportunities also help students build their own networks,” says Mark Johnson, lab manager for Digital and Systems Laboratories at Purdue.

In fact, says Gray, “Meeting those captains of industry is something they’d probably not have an opportunity to do otherwise.”