Transcript 48: Recruitment When Your Target Audience is Large and Undefined, with Cynthia Thomson


Intro:

You’re listening to Undeclared, the podcast that provides strategies to overcome the challenges that higher education institutions face. We help colleges and universities attract the right students because we know an educated planet is a better place for everyone. Please welcome your host, Scott Fogleman and Allison Lanier.

Allison Lanier:

Hi, I’m Alison.

Scott Fogleman:

And I’m Scott. And you are listening to Undeclared, a podcast for higher education problem solvers, where we discuss all things higher ed with university and college professionals, as well as industry experts.

Allison Lanier:

It’s one thing to have a broad target market and figure out ways to hone in on who the right student is. Now imagine that you have a program that is so specific, you have to look under rocks to find that student. This is definitely a unique opportunity that a lot of you are faced with on a daily basis. And what I mean by this is that it is one thing to market towards a degree in business admin, per se, but it’s a whole nother thing when you have to market to a master’s in climate and society.

Scott Fogleman:

Absolutely. And many of you face that challenge regularly as understanding, okay, how can I actually define my target? But, as we’re seeing an influx in online programs, new course offerings, and even more specializations, excuse me, in degrees than ever before, it’s becoming even more of a challenge to truly identify who that target really is, especially when your programs are brand new.

Scott Fogleman:

So a lot of you we know are starting up more diversified programs so you’re having the challenge of understanding who really is my target. So we’re excited to speak through some of that today, but beyond that too, we know that you guys wear many hats. So we’re going to be talking through managing a program. It’s larger than just identifying the target audience. It’s speaking to them and speaking to your alumni, it’s managing development and making sure that fundraising is happening, all of those things and more so our guest today will surely be able to give her experiences on that and much more.

Allison Lanier:

So we are so excited to introduce to you our guest, Cynthia Thompson. Cynthia is the associate director of Columbia University’s master’s program in climate and society, where she manages the day to day administration of the program, including recruitment, student and alumni affairs, budget and admissions. She also spearheads strategic planning for the program through curriculum development and extracurricular activities. So Cynthia, we are so excited to have you. So I’m going to go ahead and open it up to you if you want to go ahead and introduce yourself to our audience.

Cynthia Thomson:

Yeah. Hi. I’m glad to be here. So I’m Cynthia, I’m the associate director of the MA program in climate and society, as you mentioned. I’ve been an interdisciplinarian my whole career. So my undergraduate degree was in geography and then I did a masters in climate and society, and now I’m running the show.

Scott Fogleman:

That’s awesome. Well, Cynthia, thanks so much for joining us today. Is there anything else you’d want to share with our listeners about you and your background before we dive into some questions?

Cynthia Thomson:

No, I think that pretty much covers it.

Scott Fogleman:

Okay, great. So we really want to speak with you about a lot of the hats that you wear because as Allison mentioned in your bio, you’re doing a lot. You’re not just managing this program, you’re also even going into extracurricular activities and understanding what event planning can look like. So we’re going to go down those rabbit holes with you, but before we do that, can you just share a little bit with our listeners about what makes you most passionate about your role within higher ed and specifically what you do at Columbia?

Cynthia Thomson:

Yeah. So it’s funny. I came to this position from the climate side. So a lot of my colleagues are from a higher education management side and I came more from the climate side and what’s really made me fall in love with the job is having that direct impact. So we talk a lot about this in climate. How do you know that what you’re doing is having an impact. And for me, it’s like two steps removed or we’re educating the future climate change actors in the space.

Cynthia Thomson:

So knowing you’re directly impacting those 40 students that are in your program that year to set them off and be change makers. And then through that, I’ve come around to the higher education side of things and how important that education is particularly in… Well, maybe not particularly, but in climate, really making sure we have people who are out there who understand the science when they’re making decisions. So really providing that solid foundation that they can build off of when they’re out there in their careers.

Scott Fogleman:

Absolutely. And I also want to ask you this because a lot of our listeners will probably find it as fascinating, as interesting as I do. Can you tell us a little bit about this program and how it came to be? So it’s the marriage of climate and the science of it and then society, the psychology of it and how is climate change going to impact us culturally and beyond. So can you just tell about where the program got started? A little bit about its mission?

Cynthia Thomson:

Sure. Yeah. So we’re about to graduate our 15th class. So 2004, 2005 was our first year, which at a time climate change wasn’t really being spoken about beyond the scientific community. And it was developed as a one year professional program with the idea that we would get professionals who wanted to come and learn about climate and maybe reorient their careers towards climate. So finance person who would still want to stay in finance, but with climate in mind.

Cynthia Thomson:

And then as climate change got into popular discussion a little bit more, we started seeing more students who wanted to come just because they were interested in climate. So we’ve evolved over time. And basically where the program started was Mark Cain, who is the founder, his major accomplishments among many was this being able to predict El Nino and La Nina, which are climate phenomenons in the Pacific.

Cynthia Thomson:

During an El Nino parts of the world get warmer or colder or drier or wetter and La Nina as well. And so they have these very really well understood impacts. And his thought process was if we know La Nina and El Nino was coming and we know what the impacts are, we can prepare people. And then he realized that maybe scientists weren’t the best equipped for that.

Cynthia Thomson:

So really I always say we’re educating communicators, maybe not so much in the traditional sense, but people who understand the science and are able to take that science and give it to decision makers who are making decisions. Some of our students also become those decision makers, but really that’s how the program was born. And I think it’s still very much what it does to this day.

Allison Lanier:

That’s really cool. I just love that example and how you were able to break it down, because I think that that was one of my questions is like, what does all of this mean?

Scott Fogleman:

What does it do?

Allison Lanier:

And so, that’s great because it takes all kinds, right? Like you have to have the science focus people, and then you have to have the people that can clearly articulate what the goal and the mission is to make sure that there is actual change occurring.

Cynthia Thomson:

And we’ve seen a pretty historical shift too. I mean, I’ve been with the program for… I did the program longer ago than I would like to admit, 11 years ago. And I’ve been working with it for almost nine years and we’ve seen the shift, just my own evidence of students who are coming because they really, really wanted to understand the science, to now people coming because they want to understand the impact of that science.

Cynthia Thomson:

And I think that just like, I have a couple of theories about that. None of which are proven, but we’re a culture that emphasize STEM so much for the past 10 years that I think there’s students that are coming to this and saying, “I get that part, but I don’t get the other part.” And then I also just think the urgency of the issue now. This year’s application, we’ve seen a lot of people who feel morally obliged to do something now versus the academic side, which it comes with its own challenges. But I think it’s really interesting. I mean aside from it being a dire topic, it’s interesting to see these changes and who’s coming and why they’re coming.

Scott Fogleman:

That’s a very interesting thing. And that’s what’s fun about looking back at data over the years and measuring what those students look like and how they changed throughout and how your program evolves along with that too.

Cynthia Thomson:

Yeah, for sure. It’s really cool.

Allison Lanier:

So obviously you’re seeing a lot of challenges and one of them is going to be how you clearly define your target audience because it is such a niche market. So what are some things that you guys are doing, or even talk about best practices or challenges that you’re faced with on a daily basis to make sure that you are attracting and retaining more of the right students?

Cynthia Thomson:

Yeah, I would say up until last year, it was a huge challenge. And it’s funny because it is niche, but in the sense we don’t have any prerequisites or we’re also attracting everyone in a weird way. And so I think where the challenge lies for us is because we do have quite a bit of like the core curriculum is pretty science heavy. So trying to decipher who’s coming in without that background, but can still succeed. And so that’s a little bit of a challenge for us as far as like, once they’ve applied.

Cynthia Thomson:

But getting students to apply, I think the biggest challenge for our program is… Because you’ve mentioned earlier, it’s got this unique name and there’s no predefined field so how you find those people. And I do a lot of onsite recruiting at recruiting fairs, but honestly not to be too much of a plug here, but Up&Up is really what helps us on the digital side, grab those students who are searching for a program like this.

Cynthia Thomson:

My own story coming to this program was when I was graduated from undergrad, I was feeling a little lost. Didn’t know what to do, had had this epiphany in undergrad about climate change. I couldn’t believe that this was happening around us and not everybody knew about it and not everybody [inaudible 00:09:40] concerns.

Cynthia Thomson:

So I was looking at masters in Canada, which were more traditional, where you do a thesis and all this research and a friend of mine just offhandedly was like, “You should look at Columbia University, they have a great geography department,” and it turns out they have no geography department. But I saw this name, climate and society, and it encapsulated everything I wanted to learn. And so that’s why I ended up coming. And so I think for our challenges, students know they want this program without knowing this program exists and without knowing what it’s called.

Scott Fogleman:

So know that broader piece?

Cynthia Thomson:

Yeah. So for us, it’s a lot of guessing what they’re searching and that it means our program, but I leave that all in the hands of Up&Up because it’s just beyond my comprehension.

Allison Lanier:

And like you said, we’re literally not trying to make this a plug, but I think it is the best practice. And we actually talk about this as a case study a lot of times, because I think one of the initial issues that we ran into and you can totally correct me if I’m wrong, is that whenever you are trying to target or use keywords such as climate and society, you’re getting such a broad scope. And so having to try to figure out how you narrow that down to say, “No, this is actually a program, like a master’s degree.” And not just you’re helping the climate. So what was your experience around that?

Cynthia Thomson:

Yeah, it’s really tough. There’s a lot of tough things around it. The name, the fact that it’s an MA, so a lot of people think there isn’t a science or rigorous science component. There’s also the next step, which is moving a little away from your question. But once people are interested, the next thing they say is, “What do your alumni do?” And that presents a whole other challenge because we’re accepting students that are from such a wide variety of backgrounds, they then go off and do a large amount of things.

Cynthia Thomson:

So we don’t have that concise narrative of like, this is your typical student, because a typical student just doesn’t exist. I think there’s some strengths to that. But I do think… I always prepare students and let them know that their career is going to be a little bit of them trailblazing. Like there isn’t these steps that you take to have a successful career and you have to trailblaze a little bit, but our students find a way to do that. It’s an interdisciplinary program. So they’re pretty used to finding their way and figuring out what it is they want to do.

Cynthia Thomson:

I also think it opens the door to plenty of possibilities. If people come in and are interested in private sector, that path is there. If they’re interested in nonprofit, that path is there. So yeah, it’s a lot of challenge. I think that this past year has erased that a little bit, at least for the time being, because people are so interested in climate and they now understand there is this direct impact between the climate and the world we live in. And so it’s become a little bit easier. I don’t know, I’m not running the campaign, but-

Allison Lanier:

Yeah. [inaudible 00:12:23].

Cynthia Thomson:

On my end it seems a little bit easier. And this year has been incredibly busy on that front and people just interested in… And this year it’s been hairdressers and actors and makeup artists, and then your environmental scientists and your engineers, it’s just been a wider audience than we have ever seen before.

Scott Fogleman:

Having that, we know that content is always going to be a key part of the nurture efforts. So once you’ve got at least an interested party or a potential lead or potential applicant, content that is going to be specific to their needs is often what is really vital in getting them to enroll. So how are you managing having such a broad audience, and they can be coming from many walks of life, looking for different outcomes, how are you managing your nurture efforts to make sure that the content you’re providing is going to be meaningful to each of those individual?

Cynthia Thomson:

Yeah. So we have a really unique curriculum where we have a set of electives that students have to take. So they have to take at a minimum four electives. So we’re giving them our core curriculum, which is all climate science based, mostly science. We have one social science course. And then the electives is really where the students get to pick the classes they want to take, which it is very unique here at Columbia for our program is any graduate level course counts as an elective for students. They can find the curriculum that they want to take and really make it their own.

Cynthia Thomson:

I think very seldomly, but it does happen, it’s almost like too many options or too hard [crosstalk 00:13:56] and we try to help by having these tracks that they can take. So if they’re interested in this topic, they might want to take these classes, but that’s really… It’s super cheesy, but I often tell students that we’re giving you the climate and giving you the ability to pick what part of society you want to focus on. And we have some students who take super specific electives, like all around energy. And then we have some students who take a little bit of everything and both paths are great and lead to, I think, a really good experience for the student.

Scott Fogleman:

That’s awesome. So you give them a lot of options. I like the idea of choosing your track and customizing a little bit to what you need. That’s great. So, knowing that the program has been around for a decent amount of time now, how have you taken the learnings and the different makeups of each class year and how have you applied that into the work that you do on a daily basis?

Cynthia Thomson:

I will say it’s tricky because we’re a 12 month program. So we’re pretty nimble. We have a pretty small staff. In fact, I’m the only full time staff member, so we can make changes pretty quickly, but you’re always working off of a class that’s no longer there. So sometimes we’ll get a class that absolutely hated this class and so we retool it and then the next year they dislike it for another reason and whatever [inaudible 00:15:10].

Cynthia Thomson:

So that’s really tricky and we haven’t come up with a great answer yet. I think for me every year I get more efficient and learn things. The reason we started these tracks, I mean, they’re not official tracks, basically when I send the list of electives to students, I categorize them for them is because some students in the past were like, “We felt a drift and [crosstalk 00:00:15:32], things like that.

Cynthia Thomson:

About, I don’t know, five years now we developed a professional development course because students felt like there wasn’t enough guidance about what they could do. And we had to retool that many times because you’d had students who didn’t want to learn how to write a resume. They felt like already knew how to do that. So every year we’re adapting and changing based on what the previous classes said with the caveat that we still have a curriculum we need to provide students.

Cynthia Thomson:

I’m a firm believer that we should give students what they want, but also sometimes you have to stick your [inaudible 00:16:08] or put your foot down and say, “These are things you need, whether you realize that right now.” But yeah, it’s a very fluid… And right now, particularly with the shift towards, I would say more of this climate justice focus in the space and much needed.

Cynthia Thomson:

So we’re looking at developing new courses around that. When you talk about it being a unique topic, it’s also an evolving topic. And so you have to make sure the courses evolve with that. And I think that’s really important. I feel very adamant that students should enter the climate field with the most updated information on what’s happening. So we try to inject that into the program when we can.

Scott Fogleman:

That’s great. And then it just keeps it so relevant.

Cynthia Thomson:

Yeah.

Allison Lanier:

So how do you go about making sure that all of your program messaging truly aligns to really the institutional message as a whole, as a part of Columbia University?

Cynthia Thomson:

That’s an interesting one. We’re this little tiny program or at least we were for the longest time. I’m pretty… We have guidelines we obviously have to follow. Columbia is obviously a really well-known and really well respected institution for obvious reasons. It’s also the birth place of climate. So we’re pretty lucky in that sense. So it’s almost like our program already aligned with their values that they have going.

Cynthia Thomson:

So I like to have fun where I can, because it can be really hard institutionally to do that. So I’ve used the Twitter feed for the program as our outlet to be a little bit more entertaining, a little bit more fun while still aligning, most of it still stays on message. All of it, I guess, still stays on message. So that’s where I found a little bit more flexibility, but otherwise this program is in Columbia for a reason and staying on brand that way. I’m not sure if that answers your question.

Allison Lanier:

Yeah.

Scott Fogleman:

It does. Yeah, totally. So when you are also operating under a large institution such as Columbia, and you have your unique programs, how are their strategic goals message down to your team? And then how are you setting your plans based off of those university initiatives? So that could be enrollment, that could be courses, that could be program alterations. How are you taking again, that larger university initiative and implementing that within your program itself?

Cynthia Thomson:

I think that most of that probably came during the creation of the program. I know there was a lot of back and forth making sure the rigor was there. Our curriculum has changed slightly since we’ve started, but it’s mostly been additional classes not taking away. So we’ve always been on that path. I would say that right now at Columbia climate is a huge priority and they’ve announced a school of climate. There’s no details beyond announcing that, but certainly climate is now something they’re really excited about in like, this is a problem and we need to fix it kind of way. Excited is a weird [crosstalk 00:19:03].

Scott Fogleman:

Excited that they could be the resolution to the problem.

Cynthia Thomson:

Yeah, exactly. And so we’ll certainly be more in communication with them about how that goal and our goals are aligned and how we get there. And I think just going back to the fact that the first person to coin global warming, [Wiley Broker 00:00:19:23], was a Columbia scientist. So Columbia is very proud of that and really relies on that as why we should be the home of these programs and this stuff.

Cynthia Thomson:

We also have quite a few other sustainability minded programs at Columbia and I work closely with them. So just making sure that we’re giving students the best possible experience around sustainability and climate while they’re here. So a lot of our making sure we’re aligning institutionally is those programs, making sure we’re similar enough that students can take classes from each program, but different enough that a student can identify what program they would belong in versus another.

Scott Fogleman:

That makes sense. That’s great.

Allison Lanier:

I know that y’alls location obviously plays a big role in being able to offer a program like this. So how have you been able to play up on your location versus a little school in Kansas where there’s probably very minimal pollution or whatnot, or just thoughts about it. So could you expand on that a little?

Cynthia Thomson:

Yeah. I used to wonder if it actually wasn’t a deterrent because you get all these students who are really into the outdoors and you trapped them in this concrete jungle. I think the one year duration is really good because a lot of students can envision themselves being in New York for a year. How many times do you come to New York and you’re like, “Wow, I could really live here for a year.” And so the fact that it’s quick is good.

Cynthia Thomson:

I also like the resources, not to be too climate focused, but New York City is really ahead of the game on climate as far as a city government. We have the UN, the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies has an office here. A lot of nonprofits, a lot of big green nonprofits have a big office if not their headquarter here. So there’s a lot of that that’s beneficial.

Cynthia Thomson:

I think just being around the Columbia community, we talked a little bit earlier, about how New York can be crazy, but Columbia has what one of the co-directors of the program calls it like an oasis in the city. So you can be in the city and deal with the crazy of the city and then you can come to Columbia and get away from that. So I think that’s really helpful.

Cynthia Thomson:

I will say to be perfectly honest about some of the downfalls, like finding an apartment in New York is really challenging for students and Columbia just doesn’t have enough housing stock because it’s New York. So that can be really stressful for students. And then also the students who are used to their weekend hikes and things like that, I think they can get a little bit stir-crazy here, but for the most part, I would think it’s a huge benefit. And just having all of those networks.

Cynthia Thomson:

The other thing too that we can’t ignore is because Columbia is this Ivy League institution. There’s a lot of prominent speakers that visit too. So I think that’s also a difference between a rural campus or campus in the middle of the country that may not draw as much on that. And I think like myself working at Columbia, I sometimes take that for granted. And every September when my students come, I have to remind them that like, no, this is actually a crazy experience and one to take advantage of. I often say with our students that we’re giving them the bare minimum in the curriculum and they can really add to it by going to these events and networking and talking to all these professionals that are coming to Columbia.

Scott Fogleman:

That’s great. So one of the things that I would ask is, since you do have your prerequisites are a little bit more loose than what you would think would be probably established for an Ivy, do you have challenges where students are maybe not up to par in terms of the coursework and then how do you offer support to make sure that they are getting the most out of it and that they aren’t going to fall behind? Or I guess it goes back to the question, how are you truly qualifying your candidates before you enroll them?

Cynthia Thomson:

I would say the electives is where I have the least concern because students tend to gravitate towards electives they’re either really interested in or already have a background in. And sometimes that interest is just enough to push them through even if it’s hard. Our core courses can be difficult, particularly in the beginning for students who don’t have any calculus, physics or stats background.

Cynthia Thomson:

The biggest challenge we have as a program as far as the curriculum is we need to educate students who have that background and educate students who don’t. So it has to be rigorous enough to still challenge the students who have that background, but also allow the students who don’t have that background to stay on track. And that’s just like a delicate balance. I think for us, a lot of it is just like trusting in the applicant when they apply there.

Cynthia Thomson:

Sometimes you can just tell on an application that this person doesn’t have the background, but they are so interested in this that they’ll be motivated enough to succeed. As far as the support, I always say the biggest asset of our program are our classmates. So it’s all very cooperative. We have a lot of group projects, we encourage students to help each other work together. So you have students who have more of that natural science background, helping the students from the humanities or the social sciences, and then vice versa.

Cynthia Thomson:

Then the second best asset in our program is our faculty. We have a super great faculty and all of our courses are co-taught. So we have a cohort of about 40 students and we have 10 to 12 faculty members each year. So that ratio is really good. And then each class has two TAs. So we’re trying to provide as much support as possible for the students through TAs, professors, their classmates, and that just that amount of support, I’m not going to lie, it’s challenging for some students as they go through it, but I also think it’s incredibly rewarding. It’s crazy to come into a program and know nothing about climate and come out arguably an expert in it.

Scott Fogleman:

That’s awesome.

Allison Lanier:

How do y’all handle your marketing? Are you guys centralized or decentralized from the university? Because it sounds like in order to really get the right students, it has to do a lot with your messaging up front to clearly articulate if you are a good fit or what it would be like or what the experience is like. So how are you guys going about your marketing for the program?

Cynthia Thomson:

It’s completely decentralized. So we’re in charge of our own marketing. We’re tied to the budget we have. And so we most of it is tied to what Up&Up is doing through internet searching and things like that. Like I said, we do a little bit of recruitment in person although I feel like that is slowly phasing out, I would think. And that’s basically it. Like I said, we’re a pretty small program, we don’t have a huge budget, so we just try to make the most of what we have.

Scott Fogleman:

That makes sense. So with that in being decentralized, you still want to have metrics and you still want to set goals for yourself. So even though you’re not reporting to maybe a larger marketing team, how is your team? And I guess you particularly, how are you setting your goals and how are you measuring success?

Cynthia Thomson:

Okay. So for us, in our current iteration, we don’t want to have a group of students that’s larger than a classroom. So we don’t have an interest in splitting it up into two cohorts. So our recruitment goals are honestly strictly tied to classroom capacity. And as you can imagine, space on Columbia’s campus is at a premium. So it’s not just the classroom size. We also don’t want like 70 students sitting in a classroom together. So our recruitment goals tend to stray around that. So right now it’s somewhere between 45 and 50 students would be our goal.

Cynthia Thomson:

But we also still want to have like a high quality student and applicant. So we don’t jeopardize the quality of students just to fill a classroom. So we have the ability to be a little lenient there and the applications are tricky every year when we add someone to our review committee, they’re like, “But how do you know who to admit?” Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but some of it comes down to just like, you read the application and what does your gut tell you? Does it tell you-

Scott Fogleman:

[inaudible 00:27:30].

Cynthia Thomson:

Yeah, exactly. We don’t require the GRE. So we have so few numerical metrics to look at for students that you just have to trust your instinct and know that even if a student comes in and struggles that you can help them get through it. And I think that’s huge for us as providing that support. And as a small program, I like to think, and I hope students would feel this too, that there is that support. There is that feeling that you’re not in this alone, like we’re going to get through it.

Allison Lanier:

So if you do have any students that end up turning, do you guys have an exit interview process so you can maybe learn from that since you do have such a small student base?

Cynthia Thomson:

In my eight years, I’ve had two students leave.

Allison Lanier:

Oh, cool. So you’re doing it right in [crosstalk 00:28:12].

Cynthia Thomson:

It’s a little difficult. Admittedly, in a one year, three semester program, it’s so short that even after the first semester, you’re a third of the way in. So I think a lot of it is almost just that. If it [inaudible 00:28:26] program, maybe we would get more of that. But we’ve only had two students leave.

Scott Fogleman:

Well, to carry that question a little further, what are you guys using from a tech stack perspective to make sure that you are tracking those leads, that those applicants, you understand what the historicals look like? Are you using a CRM, are you manually doing this? How are you… And because we know again, it’s you with the program. So how do you keep your head on your shoulders?

Cynthia Thomson:

It’s mostly manual tracking and… Well, myself tracking it. And a lot of it is tracking the students who did come versus the students who didn’t come, which is I wouldn’t recommend. But at that point, it’s just a manpower problems. So at least if we know who’s coming, then we know who might come the next year. And that’s all just tracking academic backgrounds, age profiles and keeping an eye on that. But as far as who’s controlling those matrix when we’re advertising, that’s all on Up&Up, I’m so joyfully removed from that experience that it provides you much guidance on that.

Scott Fogleman:

Cool.

Allison Lanier:

Are you able to track, I know we mentioned it a little bit earlier on about the career outcomes and things of that nature, and you said it’s spread throughout, so there’s not too much data, but do you guys send out maybe like surveys to gather some of that data? That way you can tell a little bit more of those success outcome stories, or-

Cynthia Thomson:

That’s really challenging, as I mentioned before. The way we track it when we’re answering that question to prospective students is we zoom out to a sector approach. So we have the on governmental organizations, private, public, and then academia. We try to send out surveys to students.

Cynthia Thomson:

The problem is if you either have the wrong email address or they change email addresses, it’s like virtually impossible [inaudible 00:30:19] up again. And I’m finding this… We used to creep on LinkedIn and find students. I guess LinkedIn is there for that. Some of you [inaudible 00:30:29] but there’s also this turn to deactivate all of these social media and as students don’t sign up for that, it’s becoming even harder. So that is a huge challenge. And one of the things that if we had another person working that would probably be one of the first things we would tighten up a little bit, is really tracking our alumni and seeing what they’re up to, and also providing them support as alumni. We do our best given what we have, but we would really like to be able to step that up a little.

Scott Fogleman:

Yeah. So you’ve been very successful with having very limited bandwidth and manpower. So do you have any tips that you could offer some other listeners that are also tasked with managing a program, being a team of one with the responsibility of many, how have you kept things moving forward? How have you found ways to be successful?

Cynthia Thomson:

I think for me, and this might be unique to me, is like I have really supportive co-directors, so I would call them my bosses, are always there to pick up anything that I need them to pick up and really open to new ideas. I think a lot of it comes with time. So I would argue that my first couple of years in the position, I was just trying to figure out how it all worked and then getting comfortable enough to then make decisions on what would be better and what would help the program progress.

Cynthia Thomson:

To be simplistic and down to like logistics, a lot of Google Docs, a lot of tracking, a lot of Excel sheets. One of the things I started using, which I found to be very helpful is Slack with my current class. And once that’s done is we [inaudible 00:32:04] my inbox. So I know that anything in my inbox is probably from a perspective student, whereas anything on Slack is a current student and that’s just helped me deal with… The Slack is the thing I need to be most attentive to because those are the students we have. And then email is second. And I found that to be really helpful as far as a tool for managing the craziness that is a one person program runner and an inbox that’s exploding all the time.

Scott Fogleman:

What a great tip for… I think we could all do that sometimes to just help us prioritize and have it in two separate channels.

Cynthia Thomson:

And the thing about Slack that I like is it’s conversational. So it’s not like 10 emails back and forth. It’s like five sentences and then you’re done. And it’s particularly right now since we’re all virtual for the rest of the year. I think communication has become even more important than it was, so doing that. We’re obviously living our lives on Zoom for the next [inaudible 00:32:58].

Cynthia Thomson:

And that’s honestly, as far as recruitment, I’ve moved to all online information sessions. So we don’t even have any… I used to have in persons information sessions and would have three people show up. So that’s been incredible tools here in the last couple of years is just I can have them more regularly because I don’t need a room, I just need my computer. I can schedule them anytime in the day for various time zones. So I would also say Zoom has been a game changer or any online platform like that has been a game changer for us too.

Scott Fogleman:

Absolutely.

Allison Lanier:

And those are two of the main platforms that I know we use internally is Zoom for more of our formal meetings with clients and prospects and podcasting and for Slack, I think it’s so great because we’re using that for all of our internal stuff, because it gives you the opportunity to, as you mentioned, just shoot some quick messages, but you can also do quick video calls in there that a lot of people, I don’t think take advantage of.

Scott Fogleman:

Can share docs, you can do everything.

Allison Lanier:

It’s just like [inaudible 00:33:56] for new ways to communicate like you said.

Cynthia Thomson:

And for us it’s basically like a list serve too because you can have a channel with all the students in it. So we’ll have one that’s internship opportunities, events. So just a quick way to blast students without filling their inbox because that’s another challenge we have with students particularly recently is like noticing that a lot of them aren’t great at reading email. So I feel like the more email you send them, the less likely they are to actually read them. So I try to keep only like super important messages that need to be archived to their inbox. And then Slack is more of a like, “Hey, the prime minister of Finland’s coming by next week, you should go check her out.” So that’s been really, really useful. I don’t know if they like it, but I like it/

Scott Fogleman:

It would be interesting to know too. And I mean, I think people will appreciate that because it’s like, thank you for saving me from 48 emails in an hour where I can prioritize two, so I think from the student perspective, hopefully they will appreciate that. I know I would.

Cynthia Thomson:

And we also think of it as a little bit of like, this is what people are using in office spaces [inaudible 00:34:53] .

Allison Lanier:

Yes. That’s exactly what I was going to say, is like it’s that prep without them realizing it.

Scott Fogleman:

Career readiness.

Cynthia Thomson:

Yeah, exactly. And I sometimes not sure they completely grasp that and then they get into the workforce they’re, “Oh, everybody’s using Slack.” So that’s been really cool.

Scott Fogleman:

That’s great. Well, yeah. And you’re definitely preparing them for a real career, so that’s fantastic.

Allison Lanier:

So I feel like we have definitely covered a lot. And so I just wanted to turn it over to you to see if there was anything in particular that we missed that you want to hone in on a little bit more.

Cynthia Thomson:

No. I feel like that was super climate and society specific. I hope you guys got what you needed out of it. It’s just such a weird degree program that can be hard to tie it into other larger messages, but…

Allison Lanier:

We have a lot of our audience that is very program specific. And I think that we don’t have the opportunity to hone in on that enough. So I definitely feel like a lot of people got some key takeaways because there’s people out there in programs where they’re like, “Okay, I’m listening to this overall institutional message, but that doesn’t apply to me,” or whatever the case is. So I think this has been great from our perspective.

Cynthia Thomson:

Yeah, no, I think you covered. I can’t think of anything hanging.

Scott Fogleman:

Awesome.

Allison Lanier:

Well, perfect.

Scott Fogleman:

We have one final question for you if you’re open to it.

Cynthia Thomson:

Sure.

Scott Fogleman:

Cynthia, if you could go back in time and this could be any point in time, what pro tip would you give yourself? That can be professional, that could be personal, but one thing that you think if you knew at a previous time in life, would just make you so much better off today?

Cynthia Thomson:

I think for me, and I tell this to my students all the time, I wish I had taken my opportunity when I was doing my master’s at Columbia to really network more. I think I fell into the trap of like, “Oh, this program is great. I’ll just do this program,” without realizing that you could get so much more added benefit if you went to the events and network with the right people. And it’s so much easier for whatever reason to email someone and say, “I’m really interested in what you’re doing and I’m a student, can we talk?”

Cynthia Thomson:

For some reason that feels far less intimidating than saying, “I’m working professional, can I…” Really wish I had taken advantage of what Columbia had to offer. I feel really lucky that I’ve gotten to do that by working there, but that’s like my biggest tip for 11 year ago Cynthia and also my biggest tip when students come in. Sometimes getting an A on a test is not worth missing the networking opportunity you would have had the night before. And I feel really strongly about that. And I guess that’s what I would tell myself.

Scott Fogleman:

That’s fantastic advice. And I think we could all benefit from that too. Especially from the academic side, you want to have a well rounded experience and it’s not just the academics, but it’s that whole preparation and career readiness that we spoke about that’s going to really make sure that the experience is everything that we need it to be.

Cynthia Thomson:

Right. Exactly. Yeah. I can’t… Between me… And everyone I know they only ever gotten their jobs because of the people they’ve known and it can be frustrating to have that be the case, but your time to build that network is really when you’re a student.

Scott Fogleman:

That’s fantastic.

Allison Lanier:

Well, Cynthia, thank you so much for joining us today. It has been an absolute pleasure to talk to you.

Scott Fogleman:

Thank you.

Cynthia Thomson:

Yeah. Thanks for having me.

Allison Lanier:

All right problem solvers, be sure to subscribe to our show in Apple podcast or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you don’t mind, give us a little rating and review that would be greatly appreciated, and also be sure to check us out at www.theundeclaredpodcast.com. We would love for you to leave us your feedback, send us your questions, or even just check in to see what we’re all about.

Scott Fogleman:

All right, until next time, continue the great work out there, solving the problems of higher ed. And remember, as Cynthia mentioned, our biggest assets can often be our classmates in which the same can be said about our teams. So make sure you know who they are, network with them and use your network to your advantage.

Outro:

Thank you for listening to this episode of Undeclared, the podcast that guides colleges and universities through their greatest challenges. Please leave us a rating and review and go to www.theundeclaredpodcast.com to tell us how we can help your college or university succeed. And remember, an educated planet is a better place for everyone.