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Communications alumni discuss value in freelance, part-time work

Four Elon University School of Communications alumni suggested students embrace freelance and part-time work as they begin the process of searching for jobs during a packed panel discussion attended by both undergraduate and graduate students Feb. 14.

Communications alumni from left: Ryan Sweeney '10, Julie Marateck '03, Laura Ward '09 and Eric Hall '05. (Photo courtesy of Eva Hill.)

The panelists were Julie Marateck ’03 (communications coordinator for the High Museum of Art in Atlanta), Eric Hall ’05 (producer for CNN in Atlanta), Laura Ward ’10 (post production coordinator for National Geographic in Washington, D.C.) and Ryan Sweeney ’10 (monitoring and metrics specialist for Ignite Social Media in Cary, N.C.).

The four alumni all agreed that sometimes that first step isn’t as desirable as it’s made out to be. It might mean taking an unpaid internship following graduation, or doing freelance work that doesn’t provide stable pay or benefits, or working part-time for little money. But all those experiences add up and help build connections and experience along the way.

“It’s fun and it’s scary and it’s exciting all at once,” Hall said. “I think a big thing is you have to take risks. They have to be good, calculated risks.”

In fact, Hall began his career with several risks that included freelance gigs with Barbara Walters’ independent production group twice. Soon, he was eventually offered a full-time position at ABC’s “The View,” where he had interned as a student, but turned it down to freelance for CNN because he wanted to learn and experience the cultures of different newsrooms and organizations.

But eventually, he decided he had to find full-time work, and he did, first at CNN Headline News, then at FoxNews and now at CNN in Atlanta.

Marateck’s story follows a couple of the same themes. She said after she graduated she quickly went to work for a documentary production company as a production assistant. But after four years, the company dissolved, and she went jobless for a year.

“I was unemployed for a year, and in that year, it was a big turning point for me,” she said.

She said she wasn’t sure exactly what she wanted to do, but she knew she didn’t want a job in film production anymore. She narrowed her choices down to Turner Broadcasting and the High Museum of Art.

She was offered two positions at the museum: one full-time with good pay and benefits and the other part-time with no benefits and a low salary. She took the part-time job, and now two and a half years later, she’s the communications coordinator—a position that was created specifically for her.

Ward and Sweeney, who are more recent Elon graduates, underwent similar circumstances during college and right after graduation. Ward said her dream was to work for National Geographic, so while she was waiting for a job to open, she did freelance work for the city of Raleigh.

When a job did present itself, Ward was ready because she had been preparing her resume, cover letter and reel for months, tailoring them specifically to National Geographic.

“It was good that I was ready and had planned,” she said.

Sweeney said he spent three and a half years at Elon knowing he wanted to work for a record label. But during his last semester of school he became more interested in technology and research, and he began applying for jobs in that field.

On the Wednesday before his graduation, Ignite called him and offered him a job. Since being hired, Sweeney said he’s been defining a niche for himself in the company, as he continues to make himself valuable to his employers.

“The thing Elon did very well was it taught me how to learn very well,” he said. “(Ignite wasn’t) expecting me to know everything, but my ability to learn helped me. Learning how to carve out my own place in the company saved my position.”

That place he carved out? An expertise in Microsoft Excel software. And Hall echoed that point about being valuable, saying everyone should be prepared to share ideas and offer input because creativity and insightfulness get you noticed.

“Be confident even if you don’t have the experience,” he said. “You can still have ideas. I think ideas go a long way.”

Ideas can lead freelancers and part-timers to full-time opportunities, which should always be the end goal, Marateck said.

“There comes a day when you have to say, ‘I don’t need anymore free experience. I am experienced, and I deserve money and I deserve benefits,’” she said. “You know in your heart when you feel as though you can start making those decisions.”

In the meantime, though, the panelists strongly encouraged students to continue to network and connect with potential sources for future jobs, no matter how frightening it may seem.

“They’re just people,” Ward said. “It’s intimidating, but if you’re professional and pleasant, they’ll want to help you out.”

Hall also added that no one should ever discount the importance of meeting with people face-to-face. The impressions formed during in-person communications are everlasting.

“Facebook and Twitter are great, but we all found our jobs through face-to-face contact,” Hall said. “I never found a job through putting an application on Monster. It’s all been referrals or been through someone I knew. Don’t underestimate the value of face-to-face communication.”

Colin Donohue,
2/16/2011 3:13 PM