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The U.S. economy was in recession when Lucinda Sanders finished school in the early 1980s, but Texas, buoyed by the high price of oil, still had plenty of work for landscape architects. So that’s where many of her classmates went. When the oil boom went bust a few years later, she says, seemingly a whole cohort of young, highly educated and trained landscape architects had to find a new line of work. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic causing a shock to the economy, Sanders, the CEO of OLIN and an adjunct professor of landscape architecture at the Weitzman School, doesn’t want that to happen again.
“Many of my colleagues from school left the profession,” says Sanders. “It is critical, to me, that people stay engaged. There is so much that needs to be done, and this brain trust cannot be lost.”
Starting this month, Sanders, along with Richard Weller, who is professor and chair of landscape architecture, Meyerson Chair of Urbanism, and co-executive director of The McHarg Center, has organized a summer-long series of virtual “conversations about life and landscape architecture” with professionals in the field, designed for students in the Department of Landscape Architecture but open to others. They’re hoping the sessions, presented under the title Mind the Gap, will be of benefit to students who have envisioned a different set of circumstances during their graduating year —a networking opportunity, but also exposure to a range of professional experiences, and hopefully, Sanders says, a sense that “this, too, shall pass.” Weller has also organized a parallel series of virtual talks by faculty called From the Rooftops that also runs through August.
Around the School, professional development and career services for students are being rethought, in response to both the uncertainty in the economy and the need to conduct traditionally in-person meetings from a safe distance. Since mid-March, when campus closed according to public health directives, the School has moved its spring speaker series online, created a Career Ambassadors program pairing students with alumni professionals, and extended free access to skills-building resources like LinkedIn Learning. It has also conducted online panels about career-building during the pandemic.
“It was panic, at first, because nobody knew what was going to happen,” says Kali Meeks, associate director of professional development and leadership at Weitzman.
Shortly after the campus closed to all but life-sustaining activities, the School sent a survey to the employers who attended the annual Weitzman career fair in February to ask what changes they were making in light of the pandemic and economic downturn. Some had started a hiring freeze, some had canceled their summer internships, and some were still hiring but with employees working remotely, Meeks says.
“It’s a real mixed bag with employers, which makes it even more frustrating for students because it’s not one standard answer,” she says.
Meeks and Emily McCully, director of student services at Weitzman, are also making plans for how to host professional development events online in the next academic year, assuming that social-distancing guidelines remain in place.
Penn Career Services has begun building a COVID-19 FAQ page, with some answers to questions about how to handle canceled internships and look for jobs, and resources for learning how to perform well in virtual interviews. Career Services also offers resume-building resources. Every day at 9:15am, Career Services also opens up a schedule with fifteen-minute timeslots for “drop-in” sessions that students can sign up for to receive staff help with resumes, cover letters, and negotiating job offers, says Dianne Hull, the associate director of Career Services who works with Weitzman students. Her office has also been hosting live career Q&A sessions on YouTube and Instagram. Hull says that she’s encouraged students whose internships may have been canceled to find volunteer opportunities in their field or other ways to engage with the type of work they want to do.
“The good news is, if you have a blank spot on your resume for summer 2020, nobody is going to wonder why,” says Hull. “This is your chance to show, how are you resilient? When things didn’t go the way you thought they were going to, how did you turn it around?”
Like the faculty, Career Services was initially concerned about how shifting its work online would go, Hull says. But that transition has turned out to be relatively smooth, she says.
“We have remained very busy. What’s challenging is that a lot of students want to know what’s going to happen to the job market, and I just don’t have a solid answer for that,” she says.
Weitzman departments have been gathering career resources for students as well. Meeks and McCully hosted a professional development panel for students in the Department of City and Regional Planning in April. They also organized a panel for the Master of Fine Arts program called “Advice for Artists During a Time of Uncertainty.” Similar panels are in the works for historic preservation and architecture. The Department of Architecture is co-presenting a summer program with the design publication Surface called Surface Summer School at Penn. The program involves a competition for Weitzman students to design a mobile medical COVID-19 testing unit. Submissions will be judged by a jury that includes Miller Professor and Chair of Architecture Winka Dubbeldam, and the winner will be profiled in Surface magazine and receive an internship with the publication.
PennPraxis is also continuing its Design Fellows program, hiring and training Weitzman students to work on planning and design projects that are “beyond the market” and wouldn’t be possible without PennPraxis offering its services pro bono, says Ellen Neises, the executive director at PennPraxis and an adjunct associate professor of landscape architecture. This year, in an effort to support students who had lost internship opportunities due to the pandemic, PennPraxis raised money to hire more than 70 students to work on a range of contracts. In some cases, Fellows will work with Weitzman faculty members on their own research projects. [The next issue of the Weitzman Summer Update, which goes to subscribers of Design Weekly, will have a story about the Design Fellows program.]
“We’ve really been able to scale it up,” Neises says. “This will be the first year that we have Design Fellows with Integrated Product Design, with Fine Arts, with MUSA, with MEBD—every program in the School.”