Amber Graham has worked in the Greene Center for Career Education at University of Rochester for nearly 20 years in roles ranging from Recruiting and Internship Counselor to Strategic Initiatives Program Director. Now, she serves as the Director of Data and Operations—though her passion for career services began as an undergraduate student.
While working as a Resident Advisor at Binghamton University, Amber had her students take typology tests like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which she then used to group people and connect them to careers. Since then, she’s had the pleasure of supporting students through advising, employer relations, event planning, alumni connections, teaching, operations, data, finance, and leadership positions at Rochester. As an “experience designer at heart,” Amber’s approach to career exploration focuses on creating moments of elevation and pride for all, a concept inspired by “The Power of Moments” by Chip and Dan Heath.
You’ve had quite a journey at University of Rochester—can you tell us more about your current role?
As Director of Data and Operations, I work with a fantastic team on customer experience, technology and services, access, employee resources, finance, and data. A theme in my career has been clearing barriers and getting everyone what they need in order to excel. This can range from a financial grant for a student doing an internship, data visualizations to show top leadership the impact of career education initiatives, budget for a new program or platform, onboarding a new staff member to get them running, or brainstorming some wild ideas that stretch our thinking.
How does Handshake help make your team more successful?
When we implemented Handshake in 2015, we were hoping for a two-way calendar sync and online appointment scheduling. Since then, we've made connections with untold employers, given students the power in scheduling meetings with advisors, created online and kiosk check in across the board, developed specific data metrics for engagement, and built information feeds to surface events, opportunities and content to everyone across and beyond campus. We have also enjoyed the opportunity to bring our thoughts and ideas to multiple betas, and we appreciate that Handshake is always looking forward and trying new ways to solve our pain points. I can't thank Garrett, Christine, Brit, Alex, Erin, and the entire Handshake team for being such great partners.
Taking it one step further, how are you utilizing Handshake data specifically to prove your career team’s value to institutional leadership?
Our team knows my current favorite phrase is "data or it didn't happen”. Handshake is the primary data source for nearly everything we do, though we also merge and analyze data from outside sources as well. This ranges from our publicly available Career Outcomes dashboard data (powered by Handshake First Destination Survey), to internal dashboards our team uses to monitor student, employer, and alumni engagement. Tableau has become my best friend, making our data visible and accessible to our team so they can answer questions from upper administration, faculty, parents, and campus partners and see the impact of our work firsthand.
What is one of your favorite events or programs that you or your team have implemented for students on your campus?
Pre-Covid, we did a Harry Potter-esque House Cup challenge, with each class year representing a house. We created a set of “hour glasses” made from mailing tubes, which we took around campus with instructions on how and why to activate their accounts. We had a ton of fun with it, and the winning class was invited to stop by the career center for a free pair of Handshake gloves. It really impacted the impression of our office on campus!
What are the biggest career-related challenges your students face and how do you and your career team help solve for them?
The first is the sheer quantity of information our students are swimming in every day. There are no filters, just constant information, which is why career education has to support students in curating content and opportunities on a very individualized level. Technology can support this in great ways, and we utilize multiple platforms to ensure our students can access and receive content specifically tailored to them, when and how they want it.
The second challenge for students is around telling their unique and compelling story. In a world where generative AI can create a cover letter or essay, an AI bot may interview them, and an Applicant Tracking System screens thousands and thousands of applications, it's great to understand and leverage these technologies (for employers too!). However, at some point students will need to be uniquely, wonderfully themselves and get that story across to their audience. Self-awareness and confidence are key, and career education is uniquely poised to support the educational outcome of storytelling.
What is one of your favorite student success stories to date?
I love all stories that resulted in someone moving from nerves to confidence. One of my favorites is about a student that used our center to every last drop and came in her senior year nervous about an interview for a prestigious governmental fellowship. We talked about storytelling but also very much about confidence and presence. She pumped herself up before the interview with positivity and her own swagger song (Beyoncé, of course), crushed the interview, and was later offered the fellowship. She was supremely qualified, but wouldn't have stood out from the other candidates without that presence and confidence. (Fun fact: I use a Beyoncé song before my own presentations and interviews, too!).
Anything else you’d like to share?
One of the things that has helped the Greene Center be successful is our focus on partnerships with technology and industry. Every vendor we contract with is a relationship; a give and take around services, ideas, innovations, and feedback. We couldn't do the work we do without our technology partners, and we enjoy engaging in the product development space to build technology that serves all students and universities. We also appreciate partners who look outside the K-Higher Ed space, and are inspired by how people engage with technology across markets. Content recommendations on Netflix, music collections on Spotify, or storytelling on Instagram, we love to look at how our students are already using technology in their lives, and how to adapt to that rather than ask them to adapt to us.
We also have to stay focused on our users—customers, clients, stakeholders, students, alumni, parents, and faculty—rather than our systems or procedures. So many times in higher education we choose to do things because it's always been done that way, because we think we know everything, because it seems the most efficient, or because we're just too tired! Design thinking and human-centered design are critical to making sure our offerings are relevant, timely, and effective. We have to understand the needs and pressures of those we serve—and ask really great questions of them—to turn out high quality services that people actually want. "If you build it, they will come" only works if you're building something people actually enjoy using!
Congratulations to you and your team, Amber!