It was snowing in Chicago on a Friday morning when Gerardo Rodriguez ’22 jumped on a Zoom call as he started his lunch hour. A litigation analyst at the law firm Goldberg Kohn, where his mentor is a fellow Sagehen, Rodriguez was eager to talk to current Pomona students about how Pomona College helped him get on the path to a law career.
“My background is first generation, low-income,” remarks Rodriguez, who is from Miami. “Coming to Pomona was a big culture shock.” Fellow students “were talking about internships for the summer, and that was kind of scary, because I had never done an internship,” he says. In fact, he didn’t know even how to do an interview—until he joined Smart Start in 2019.
Launched in 2017, the Smart Start Career Fellows Program provides career development opportunities for Pomona sophomores who identify as first-generation college students and/or low-income. Seed funding was made possible by grants from Accenture and from alumnus and trustee John Gingrich ’91, and the program, run by the Career Development Office (CDO), is now fully supported by alumni and family donations.
This academic year's Smart Start Fellows have career aspirations ranging from behavioral economics to creative writing. Selected through an application process early in fall semester, the dozen fellows participated in a curriculum that included assignments and seminars. They used the Clifton Strengths self-assessment tool to better understand their individual talents, and they learned networking skills. One-to-one sessions with CDO advisers are continuing into the spring semester as the fellows aim to land a summer opportunity.
The program culminated in a three-day career trek in early January to give the students an inside look at a variety of workplaces and to meet Pomona alumni and industry leaders in the San Francisco Bay area. At a dinner hosted by a Pomona trustee, the fellows had an opportunity to interact and network with alumni of the college.
“I loved the San Francisco trip!” says Giuliano Richetta ’25, a molecular biology major. “Some of my favorite highlights included the dinner events with professionals and fellow Sagehen alumni, visiting a diverse array of industries and workplaces and connecting with people in the workforce who warmly welcomed us and made life after college seem less scary.”
Smart Start provided a stipend to prepare for the trip which included funds to help purchase business attire. “We showed them what the clothing could look like through pictures and explained differences in styles like business casual and formal business attire,” says Wanda Gibson, assistant dean and deputy director of the Career Development Office. She, along with CDO colleagues Chelsea Ahn and Susanne Filback, accompanied the fellows on the career trek, and Jasmine Lockhart provided administrative support.
Verrels Eugeneo ’25 found the stipend “super helpful! It covered the cost of my business suit, which I can always use in the future.” Rodriguez, from an alumni perspective, agrees. “I bought a blue suit, a blue shirt and a red tie,” he recalls, and he still wears them to work. “Not long ago we had a deposition for a case and I wore the red tie,” he says.
Josh Feng ’25 came to Pomona as a transfer student and military veteran thinking about majoring in economics. Smart Start, though, “has kind of changed that,” he says. Feng found the personality assessments intriguing. He had taken a similar assessment a decade ago and through Smart Start discovered that “everything has changed. Some of the careers I used to think I was interested in might not be so appropriate for me.” He is now weighing a future in teaching.
Eugeneo, a computer science major, says that Smart Start is “an opportunity for us to explore careers that we’ve never really thought of.” Before the San Francisco trip, consulting was not on his career radar screen. But, he says, “when we visited AlphaSights and Accenture, it showed me what I can do with my Pomona education.”
Reflecting on his experience in Smart Start, Richetta says the program “helped me become more confident in my own skills and abilities, prepared me for different scenarios such as job interviews or networking and taught me valuable lessons that I will apply towards my career in the future.”
Back in Chicago, Rodriguez is getting valuable legal experience as he prepares to apply to law schools. He credits Smart Start with an opportunity to learn networking and communication skills—“how to properly present myself for opportunities that I might want to jump on in the future and making those connections.” Rodriguez recalls the advice given by an executive during his Smart Start career trek. “Whenever you speak,” she said, “speak confidently and look people in the eyes.” And when you are meeting someone, “just make sure they understand you’re in the room and feel your presence.”
Rodriguez applied that advice he learned in Smart Start when he moved across the country from Pomona to begin his first job. And for those in the program today, he shares his own perspective. “It’s very important to be confident in yourself,” he says. “Even if you make mistakes. Learn from them because that’s how you move forward.”