MIT’s Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program (UPOP) has striven to enhance the effectiveness of MIT students by providing professional development and career education to MIT sophomores since its inception in 2001. This past year, a new student leadership pilot program — the UPOP STARS (Student Taskforce Advancing Retention and Success) — was integrated into all aspects of the yearlong program to provide a fresh perspective and add another layer of community.
“Many of the roughly 600 UPOP graduates who are still juniors and seniors at MIT are fiercely enthusiastic and supportive of the program, so setting up a STARS team seemed like a great opportunity to provide peer education and mentoring to the current class of UPOP sophomores. The pilot year has been extremely successful, and we plan to make the STARS an ongoing component of the UPOP experience,” said Joel Schindall, acting faculty director of UPOP.
After months of planning and design involving a heavy amount of student input and best practices from nationally recognized peer career-advising programs, the UPOP STARS program was born. The inaugural class’s leaders — lovingly nicknamed PopSTARS — were seniors Ryan Koeppen, Jen McDermott, Marissa Steinmetz, Gabe Valdes, and Kim Veldee.
After an intensive training in proper career coaching methods, the STARS immediately were put to task to bring the message of professional development to MIT sophomores by helping to recruit 500-plus students to UPOP’s Class of 2021. After a successful campaign, they jumped into onboarding by assisting with orientation and résumé reviews. Over the course of three months, the STARS were able to review all of the résumés, many of which needed multiple revisions. Altogether, the STARS engaged in more than 650 in-person and email check-ins with the UPOP students.
“It was absolutely incredible to have them be a part of the team. With only five full-time UPOP staff members, it can be quite the undertaking to onboard 500 students every fall, so it was a welcome addition to have these STARS act as a force multiplier to bring an increased amount of support to all of our students,” says Justin Crim, UPOP’s student program administrator.
Résumé reviews were only the tip of the iceberg. The STARS all brought their own unique backgrounds and experiences to mentor other students.
“Over the past semester, I was very stressed about the internship process, especially the interviews. I felt overwhelmed by all of the resources at MIT and on the internet, which only increased my anxiety,” says sophomore Varsha Sridhar, a current UPOP student. “Luckily, I was able to reach out to UPOP and meet Jen, a PopSTAR. Her advice not only prepared me for technical interviews but also helped me calm down and feel more confident in myself. I am also grateful for her empathy and patience throughout our meetings, especially when I asked way too many questions. Overall, the PopSTARS program has been a very valuable resource to me at MIT. Jen’s guidance has helped me through this past semester and will probably be advice I will use in the future as well. I am glad that I was able to consult PopSTARS, because it not only provided me with a new resource, but also a basis for support into the next few years.”
With the fall semester behind them, the STARS pivoted to exploring ways to engage graduates of UPOP, as well as the greater MIT community. After exploring several opportunities, they set out on the path of paving the way for current MIT first-year students to make informed decisions about their major declarations via a new event called the First-Year Major Mixer.
“I struggled a lot with deciding on a major, and ended up not declaring until months into my sophomore year,” said Marissa Steinmetz, a Course 15 (Sloan School of Management) major. “We thought it would be fun and helpful to bring juniors and seniors together to talk to first-years about the experiences they’ve had in their majors.”
Hundreds of Insomnia Cookies were consumed as more than 80 first-year students attended the STARS’ Major Mixer in April. More than 35 UPOP-alum juniors and seniors, spanning the vast majority of majors and minors offered to undergraduates, discussed their majors and the internship opportunities they afforded. The STARS created comprehensive data sheets on all the majors, covering popular classes, average salaries, and relevant student groups, to name a few. The Major Mixer was timed to help first-years make informed decisions before the official major declaration day later that month.
The STARS program will continue next year, and hopefully beyond, to help guide the next classes of UPOP sophomores.
“The STARS have brought considerable passion, energy, and talent to their roles this year, and leave big shoes to fill for next year’s peer career advisors. It will be exciting to see the program continue to grow and innovate how we provide professional development to MIT sophomores,” says Reza Rahaman, director of UPOP.
MIT’s Undergraduate Practice Opportunities is a co-curricular program, and part of the Bernard M. Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program. UPOP is open to MIT sophomores of all majors, and will be accepting applications for the class of 2022 in fall 2019. For more information visit: upop.mit.edu.