About this series: Building Brilliance With … is a periodic Q&A in which we shine a light on a Lawrence University staff member whose work helps support Lawrence’s students and the university’s mission.
Mike O’Connor arrived at Lawrence University two years ago with a mission to reimagine how the school guides students in planning for the life that awaits after graduation.
He wasted no time after settling in as Lawrence’s first Riaz Waraich Dean for the Career Center & Center for Community Engagement and Social Change. He and his staff have accelerated career conversations for all Lawrence students, beginning with first-year students arriving for Welcome Week. They’ve launched the Viking Connect online platform to facilitate interactions between alumni with experience in a particular field and students exploring related opportunities, and they kick-started Career Communities to better organize and deliver information and resources for students.
The Life After Lawrence initiative, supported by a $2.5 million gift from J. Thomas Hurvis ’60, was a key component of the recently concluded Be the Light! Campaign.
Have you met Lezlie Weber, director of off-campus programs? We featured her in a Building Brilliance With … profile last month.
O’Connor, director of the Career Discovery Program at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, before coming to Lawrence, said the explosion of activity surrounding career planning, mentoring, and access to experiential learning opportunities has been amazing to watch. We caught up with him to talk about all that and more.
What excites you about the work you do?
Two things come immediately to mind. First, working with our incredible students and alums—Lawrentians are brilliant yet deeply humble people who want to make the world a better place.
Second, our team. Every team member has leaned in to support one another and the broader institutional goals. We’ve grown and leaned on each other so much since COVID hit, and everyone has stepped up, pivoted, and flexed in so many ways. We care deeply about making opportunities more equitable and accessible, and we push one another to make that a reality. Working with them raises my bar and makes me strive to be better.
How have the changes and new initiatives in the Career Center impacted the life after Lawrence conversation for our students?
Great question, and there are so many directions I could go here. But I’d say we’ve made a few changes that have, broadly speaking, made for a better student experience.
First, it’s the focus on early engagement. Last year, we managed to work with 93% of first-year students—not bad, considering they’re not required to work with us. Generally speaking, earlier engagement leads to more focused outcomes, so I’m particularly proud of our efforts there.
I’d also point to Viking Connect. We’ve actualized a group of 900-plus alumni volunteers to act as mentors and connectors to students in career fields of interest. To date, over 3,000 messages have been sent on the platform; a number we hope to increase substantially in the years to come.
Then there’s the funded internships. Thanks to the incredible work of our colleagues in Development/Advancement—most notably Cassie Curry—we’ve been able to fund more student internships than ever before. Our funding sources are quite varied and broad and allow students to access different levels and types of funding to support their living expenses and needs.
And, finally, the Career Communities have changed the conversation. Each of our advisors manages two Career Communities and acts as the advisor/specialist/connector to opportunities within said fields. Students who sign up for a Career Community get a bi-weekly newsletter of internship, service, programmatic, and funding opportunities connected to their fields of interest, along with specialized content, potential alumni advisors, and more. The focus on Career Communities has helped us specialize more deeply, and offer more targeted advice, opportunities, and support.
What work or life experiences led you to this role at Lawrence?
Quite honestly, I never pictured myself living in the Midwest. In fact, I hadn’t stepped foot in Wisconsin prior to my Interview. But, as small worlds go, the recruiter for the Riaz Waraich dean role and I had some mutual friends—so I took his call to learn a bit more about Lawrence. At the time, my wife and I were both happily employed at great schools and expecting our second daughter, and the thought of moving halfway across the country wasn’t on our radar. But when I saw the work Mark Burstein, who I’d heard great things about, the trustees, and the working groups were doing with the Life After Lawrence initiative, I became intrigued. After talking with the search committee, I got really excited.
I tell people all the time, you never know when life-changing opportunities will present themselves, and you have to be ready to respond.
What is one thing you do away from campus that helps you recharge your batteries or otherwise brings you joy?
I’m a big believer in the healing power of nature. Being outdoors and exercise are incredible outlets, and I try to experience both every day.