I’d like to begin this article by stating that I am a young African-American woman from middle-of-nowhere Florida, so I tend to appraise my ability to find a successful, well-paying and prestigious job after college as being severely inhibited compared to my wealthy white peers.
This pessimism has come about by the very real effects of differential access to resources and lack of connections to people in the professional world—both of which are direct consequences of my low socioeconomic class. Unfortunately, I have had to come to terms with the fact that I am at a disadvantage in most job markets compared to my more affluent peers. This is in part because I cannot afford many of the resources required to optimize my competency and ability to progress within different fields, such as the expense of books needed to study for the LSAT or MCAT, as well as the tests themselves. I also have had to accept that many of my more affluent peers simply know more people within the various fields they have considered pursuing, resulting in them having more opportunities for networking, internships, job shadowing and career help. Needless to say, the racial and socioeconomic disparities between myself and my peers have been much cause for concern and stress for the success of my future.
Quite unexpectedly, at Washington and Lee, this anxiety is beginning to dissipate. On Nov 12, I had the privilege of attending Washington and Lee’s annual Networking Reception and Etiquette Dinner Workshop. I discovered the opportunity via Campus Notices and immediately latched on, excited by the prospect of possibly learning more about the professional world that I oftentimes feel so removed from. I am so thankful that I RSVP’d yes.
The night began with a bunch of unfamiliar student faces huddled together outside Evans Dining Hall. There was some nervous chatter about the agenda for the night and what we all hoped would come of the workshop. Many desired to learn about how to maximize their networking skills and improve their interactions with professionals, while some expressed concern about not knowing how to eat in professional settings.
Andrea Hilton, the university’s associate director for career planning and professional development, directed everyone to walk into Evans Hall, at which point many important Lexington and Washington and Lee community members seemingly materialized out of nowhere. Ms. Hilton allowed us to stand in line for only five minutes before she waltzed to the front of the room and promptly gave us all our first tip: never stand quietly in a long line at a networking reception—instead, use the wait time to your advantage and strike up conversations with surrounding professionals.
As quickly as the line had formed, it disappeared. All of the students took her words to heart and left the line to begin officially meeting the very important people that were around us: the mayor of Lexington, professors, executive directors and the president of the local Cornerstone Bank.
And with that, the Networking Reception and Etiquette Workshop had officially begun. It was very inspiring to interact with all of the different professionals and to hear about their passions, how they ended up in their career and what important pieces of advice they thought we should remember when pursuing different majors and careers.
Throughout the networking, Ms. Hilton consistently interrupted to offer some additional tips about how we should interact at such events. For example, she told us about the importance of using our cup and plate to our advantage when trying to meet people. We should always have our cup filled only halfway and our plate mostly empty so that it will be easier for us to finish our drink and food and therefore excuse ourselves from conversations as needed. She also told us that it was a good idea to spend about five minutes with each professional so that we would be able to meet everyone and cast our nets as far as possible.
By the end of the reception, I felt like a networking pro—well, almost a pro. Halfway through the workshop, everyone was seated so that we could begin with the dinner portion of the evening. At this point, Tamara Futrell, the dean for diversity, inclusion and student engagement, took over the reins and began introducing us to the importance of utilizing proper etiquette when engaging in plated meal meetings with professionals.
Personally, I had thought the whole table manners thing was overrated and that no one would truly pay attention to what I do when I eat dinner with them. However, Dean Futrell recounted an experience in which her sorority was interviewing potential new members and one of the girls had berated a waiter over an accident that hadn’t even affected her. Dean Futrell had immediately dismissed her after that outrageous display.
Some people can forget the importance of being decent human beings to everyone regardless of occupation and class, and this tends to pop up a lot in the way these people interact with workers in the restaurant industry. After establishing why manners are important, Dean Futrell gave a helpful and comprehensible walkthrough of eating in fancy settings. For example, she explained that when eating, one should begin by using the utensils on the outside of the plate or bowl, and then moving inward.
All in all, the reception and workshop felt very informative and useful. Leaving Evans, I felt myself reflecting over the night and already planning how I would reach out to some of the people I had met to continue my conversations with them and take them up on their eagerly given offers of help. It was truly invigorating to have been able to take hold of the reigns and begin cultivating my professional career by working on the skills I will need to progress and find different opportunities.
Because of the meeting, I even felt encouraged enough to go to the Career and Professional Development Office on campus and take more steps toward preparing myself for life after college by discussing with the advisors how I should go about building my resume, what I can do to optimize my breaks and how to find potential internships and events related to my career.
Taking advantage of the career help Washington and Lee has to offer in the form of the Networking Reception and Etiquette Workshop and the Career advisors has only solidified my sense of purpose, and the initiative I took has definitely improved my outlook on my future. I feel like I can do anything with Washington and Lee in my pocket; I encourage all students to make sure they also take Washington and Lee for all its worth, especially in regards to career and professional development opportunities.