Alumni offer undergrads inspiration, practical advice – and reassurance

Michael Mercier sitting at a desk with a younger person wearing a sweatshirt.

Michael Mercier, associate director of undergraduate studies in the School of Earth, Environment and Society, brings in alumni to talk to current students, offering insights, inspiration — and some reassurance that you don't have to have it all figured out in university. (Faculty of Science photo)

Mom and dad may know what’s best, but Michael Mercier knows students want their career advice from someone closer to their own age. Someone like 2015 grad Stephen Erickson. 

Erickson followed his BA in Geography with a diploma from Mohawk College, then started his career with the City of Hamilton’s Planning and Economic Development department. From there, he began working as a CAD designer and urban planning technician at a consulting firm. Erickson is now a senior planning technician with another firm.  

Erickson’s career path caught the attention of Mercier, an assistant professor in the School of Earth, Environment and Society.  

The school’s associate director of undergraduate studies, he encourages undergrads to get on LinkedIn. Recognizing that it’s not the most popular social platform for that demographic, Mercier makes a point of following students who sign up and then follows their careers.  

He draws on those connections to recruit speakers for an annual Alumni Career Lunchtime Speaker Series, which he runs with the school’s undergrad student association. While Mercier fosters the relationships with alumni, and recruits them to back to Mac, the student association takes care of the event logistics.  

“We couldn’t run this series without the students’ help,” Mercier says. 

Erickson is one of 14 alumni who’ve made guest appearances in the past year.  

“My years at McMaster were some of the best of my life, so I jumped at the opportunity to come back to Mac and talk with students,” he says.  

“It was a real honour to be invited. I wanted students to know that a great career is within their reach because of what they’re learning and doing in their programs.” 

If participation marks were handed out at the speaker series, the students at Erickson’s talk would’ve scored perfect grades.  

“They were so engaged and attentive,” he says.  

“I felt like a prof when I heard the students typing after I made a point or put up a PowerPoint slide. And there were a lot of great one-on-one follow-up conversations after the session.” 

It’s no coincidence that all 14 speakers have been mid-career professionals.

“We’ve found that students want to hear from alumni who have around 10 to 15 years of work experience,” says Mercier, a parent himself, with a 22-year-old in university.  

While it’s great to get wisdom and inspiration from alumni at the pinnacle of their careers, Mercier says students are also looking for practical advice from grads who aren’t the same age as their parents.  

The speaker series is also a stress reliever for students. “They feel huge pressure to have their career paths figured out and locked in before graduating,” says Mercier. “It’s a real source of anxiety. The alumni in our speaker series can relate. They felt the same pressure.  

“By talking with our students, they show that career trajectories aren’t straight paths but instead twist, turn and lead to opportunities that you’re not expecting. It’s a reassuring message that students appreciate hearing.” 

Mercier has set his sights on having 10 guest speakers over 10 consecutive days this fall — and it won’t be hard to do, he says.  

“We have so many alumni who are doing amazing things and want to lend a hand.”  

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