Catawba Graduate Gives Students Advice during Center’s Anniversary Celebration

11/28/11 by Kathy Chaffin

Catawba College graduate Ben Prater gave students advice on marketing themselves November 29 as part of the Center for the Environment’s 15th anniversary celebration.

As associate executive director of the Wild South conservation group, Prater works in seven states with initiatives and events to inspire people to value, protect and enjoy the wild character and natural legacy of the South.

That job puts him on the hiring side of the interview desk. But it was only a few years ago when Prater said he was sitting on the other side trying to market himself to employers – the same position seniors at his undergraduate alma mater will find themselves in a few months from now.

Prater offered the students advice, assuring them that they have a leg up on other jobseekers in that they will be graduating from a really good college.

“I take a lot of pride in having graduated from here,” he said. Prater earned an environmental science degree from Catawba in 2002.

The job market then was similar to the way it is now, he said, creating a lot of stress for him the last semester. Prater was considering becoming a teacher when the dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University came to speak to Catawba's environmental students.

The idea of going to graduate school had never even crossed his mind. In fact, he said he was shocked when the dean said, “Oh yeah, you graduate from Catawba, we'd love to have you at our grad school.”

“This was Duke – big, bad Duke,” Prater said. “I never ever thought this was somewhere that I could end up.” Prater, who lives in Asheville with his wife and two small children, went on to earn a master's in environmental management from the university.

Among the tips Prater offered to students were:

  • Good communication skills are crucial. Prater said he discovered early on in his career the importance of skills learned in English classes – including how to be persuasive in his writing. “In the environmental field,” he said, “99 percent of what I do is working with people convincing them to change behaviors ... shift their points of view or their thinking ... and engage community efforts to make change happen.”
  • Get comfortable with public speaking. “Now is the time that you get the benefit of trial and error,” Prater said. When giving PowerPoint presentations, for example, he encouraged students to ask professors and fellow classmates for feedback.
  • Get your voice out there. “How many of you have ever googled yourself?” Prater asked, assuring them that potential employers will. “I google them,” he said. “I go on Facebook and see what kind of digital persona they're putting out there in the world.” Prater encouraged students to generate a positive voice by writing articles for the Center and college websites and publications. It was because of an article about a project that he and his friend, John Gust – another Catawba graduate who went on to earn a master's at Duke – did at the college that two students at the university approached them about helping to develop a greening plan now used as a model for all new buildings on campus.
  • Network. “I'm talking about handshakes,” Prater said, “eye contact, getting to meet people and talking to them.” Talk to speakers who come to the Center, and take advantage of travel opportunities. Prater said he was too scared to talk to renowned conservationist Dave Foreman the first time he heard thim but mustered up the courage to do it the second time around. “You've got to take those chances,” he said, “because the worst thing that could happen is he's not going to remember you. The best thing that can happen is he might remember you ....” It was educational trips, including a Grand Canyon Semester in which he participated, that Prater said helped form his “worldview” and ultimately changed his career path from being an environmental scientist to an advocate.
  • Get involved in clubs and service projects, focusing on what interests you most. When potential employers look at resumes, Prater said they look not only at a student's grade-point average, for example, but whether that student was able to maintain that GPA while participating in other activities.
  • Consider going to graduate school to increase skills and expand opportunities. Apply for internships. Prater said he only got the internship that led to his job because the interviewer's top choice never responded. “Now I am Officer No. 2 at my company,” he said, “but the old joke has always been calling me 'No. 2' because I was their second choice.”
  • Resumes should not just list information, but offer specifics on accomplishments. Cover letters should explain to the employer what about the job excites you. Always thank the potential employer for interviewing you. “It's just good manners,” Prater said, “and I tell you, if you don't send me a thank-you note – you may be my top choice – I do not hire you.”
  • Find a job you're passionate about. Prater said he found his passion on his Grand Canyon Semester, “came back, made it happen, and I'm still chasing that every day.”
  • Even when you find a job, never stop looking for the next one. In today's job world, Prater said anyone can be out of a job. “So just always be ready,” he said. Maintaining professional relationships with professors and colleagues and networking at conferences and through professional organizations “could also be your link to your next career or your next step in your career.”

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