Alumni tells UNC what to expect when entering the workplace as People of Color

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UNC alumni at the “Alumni Discussion with Someone Who Looks Like Me” event in honor of Black History Month. Left to Right: Zeah Edmonds, Courtney Empson-Whaley, Edward N. Ross- man, Jasmine Jones, Carolyn “CJ” Renaud, Dr. Chad J. Nash and Aturuchiuka Nwankwo. Photo courtesy of Jovana Caicedo.

During this time of the year, students are completing their last semester. Future undergraduates and graduates are stressed about finding jobs and wondering how they will be received in the workplace. 

With such worries in mind, Zeah Edmonds, the cultural activities coordinator at the Marcus Garvey Cultural Center, partnered with the Alumni Association and the Center for Career Readiness, to organize a panel of alumni to speak with students about their experiences after college. 

The event title is, “Alumni Discussion with Someone Who Looks Like Me,” in honor of Black History Month. The panel consisted of five alumni, Courtney Empson-Whaley, Edward N. Rossman, Jasmine Jones, Carolyn “CJ” Renaud, Dr. Chad J. Nash, and Aturuchiuka Nwankwo, all of whom identify as African American. Edmonds discussion questions centered around the different experiences of the alumni. Students with similar backgrounds found themselves relating to the alumni’s own life and work experiences.

“I don’t think we have many conversations about what it is like to be a person of color in a predominantly white space,” Edmonds said. 

The Center for Career Readiness helps students with the job application and interest. Likewise, the Alumni Association helps to pair up undergraduates with alumni in similar fields to connect students with the job field they are interested in. 

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The panelists talked with students about their experiences in college and their experience in the workplace by answering a set of prepared questions.

Many of the panelists saw their experiences at predominantly white institutions and fields as a positive thing. 

“It allowed me to learn how to stand up for myself,” Courtney Empson, the Flexible Families Program Manager and Placement Supervisor at Adoption Option, told students, “I had to learn how to deal with white folks.” 

The recent graduates agreed with her point of view. 

“It was a culture shock,” Jasmine Jones, the staff accountant at Wipfli LLP, said. “I had to learn to code-switch,” she said, agreeing with Empson. However, she also highlighted the hardships of being the only black woman in her office. 

According to britannica.com, an online encyclopedia, code switching is the process of shifting from one language or dialect to another, depending on the social context or conversational setting. This act is done either unconsciously or consciously by minority groups to protect themselves from prejudice ideas. 

In the United States, the more ‘white’ a person sounds, the better the person is seen and treated in various settings. According to britannica, code switching can cause harmful expectations for minority groups with different dialects or accents because of negative claims of “broken english” or “bad grammar.”  

After the conversation on code-switching, the next subject on physical features affecting the way a minority is seen in the workplace became the topic of discussion. 

Jones shared a story about a Mexican woman who wore her naturally curly hair and colleagues tried to touch her hair without asking. This incident was the talk of the office, the big event of the day. 

“I can’t truly be myself, wear my real hair,” Jones said. “I don’t want to go there and have that conversation and have people trying to touch my hair.” 

When asked how college prepared them for the world, recent graduates had a different view than older graduates. Alumni like Rossman and Jones had positive things to say about how UNC helped prepare them for life after college. They said college helped them develop networks and the skills to network with other people. 

Renaud had a different experience as a graduate from UNC in the year 1991. She stated that there was a generational gap between her graduate year and the recent graduates, and that UNC did nothing for her. Shad to learn how to network and navigate the professional sphere on her own. 

The panelist gave several good points of advice for students about to graduate.

“Never go to a place with a ceiling,” Renaud advised, as students want opportunities for growth. 

Empson advised students to ask companies about what their values are in the interview process. She claims it is really easy to tell when the employers are being genuine about the values of the company. Dr. Nash and Empson suggested students ask the companies and the employees about their values.

Panelists spoke of having to compromise their own values in the workplace. Renaud stated that she had to give up some of her values in order to make a livelihood for her family. She told students that there was no shame in trying to make a living for yourself. 

“You’re going to need the money, so take the job,” Aturuchiuka Nwankwo, the security analyst at Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing, spoke candidly, in support of Renaud. 

The panelist repeatedly gave this advice to students:

  1. Network – Make a LinkedIn account to connect with other alumni
  2. Take care of your mental health
  3. Enjoy this time before you have to start adulting.

“College is ending but it’s not the end,” Renaud said.  

For more information on future events the Center for Career Readiness’s Instagram is @unc_career. The Alumni Association’s Instagram is @uncbearsalumni. The Marcus Garvey Cultural Center is @mggcunco.

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