Catawba College alumnus Ben Prater '02 returned to campus in late November to help mark the 15th anniversary of the Center for the Environment and the 10th anniversary of the building that houses it, and to share some real-world advice about landing a job with current students.
Prater, who earned his master's degree in Environmental Management at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment, makes his home in Asheville where he works as Associate Executive Director of Wild South, a conservation organization serving seven Southern states.
"I take a lot of pride in having graduated from here," Prater explained, noting that he was back on campus to share his story of "the choices and opportunities that came my way and affected the path I took."
Prater said he came from a small town and only one of his parents had graduated from college."I came here with the assumption that college was the door to my future and that with a degree I would have many job opportunities. But then I found myself scrambling in the last semester of my college year."
Graduate school, he continued, had never crossed his mind, until the dean of Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment came to Catawba to speak with students."I applied, was accepted and enrolled. I checked my assumptions at the door and took advantage of opportunities."
Ten years after his graduation from Catawba, Prater now sits "on the other side of the interview desk." In his current capacity, he hires and brings new members onto his team that will affect the success of his organization.
"One of the most important things you can do is to make sure you take time to develop critical skills that you're going to need. Probably the most critical skill is communications. As an undergraduate, I never thought I was going to have to work with people – I thought I was going to work with animals, wildlife and nature."
Prater said his undergraduate thought was soon dispelled. He advised the students to "challenge yourself to speak in public."
"Now is the time to get the benefit of trial and error. Reach out and ask for feedback. Have your voice out there and find your voice. How many of you have ever googled yourself?"
He also cautioned the students to be wary of what they post on Facebook. His rule, he shared, was "whatever I put out there, my grandmother's going to see."
Instead, Prater urged the students to write an article for publication and in doing so to help project their image of "who you are in the world."
He advocated networking – handshakes, eye contact, and conversations – getting to meet people and talk to them."You've got to take a chance to meet people. The worst thing that could happen is that they won't remember you, the best thing is that they will remember you."
Noting the importance of "broadening your world view," Prater cited taking advantage of opportunities to travel, participate in internships and to volunteer as instrumental to his development. He recalled a semester he spent in Arizona near the rim of the Grand Canyon as pivotal to his personal and professional growth. While there, he said he realized that "I wanted to take conservation and that science off the shelf and be an advocate for it."
Employers, he told students, "want to know what experience you have and the results you have produced and how that translates into an asset for their company." Internships can help in this regard, he said, noting that an internship got him the job "that got me where I am today."
"Over-achieve," he said, "but do it to your benefit." He encouraged joining clubs that make a difference in personal development. He said internships can serve the same purpose by "inspiring you to do this for a short time or to help you decide you never want to do it again."
"Life rarely gives us space to experiment with reckless abandon, but I found that the more I explored the world, the more manageable it became. College today has really become that testing ground."
He also advocated focus."Graduate school for me was a time to get focused. I took myself to task on developing skills I would need and developing relationships with professors. When you get to graduate school, it's because you've already achieved something. You get to practice there at being a colleague to your professors and they become an advocate for you."
Finally, Prater shared some resume and interview advice. Use active phrasing in the resume, and in a cover letter, focus on what assets and skills one could bring to a position, he said. If one is fortunate enough to be called for an interview, he said, "Be gracious, and take time after the fact to say thanks and write a thank you note."
Environmental Science and Studies
Center for the Environment
Center for the Environment Celebrates 15th Anniversary
Center for the Environment on Catawba Campus Celebrates 15th Anniversary