DISC: Students connecting for careers and service

About 120 professionally-dressed students gathered in a classroom at the W. P. Carey School one evening last week, waiting to hear alumna Stephanie Gonzales speak about her company, Protiviti — a global business consulting and internal audit firm with an office in Phoenix. It was the third week of classes and the CIS majors were thinking about careers.

The venue was this year's first meeting of DISC — the Department of Information Systems Club. Ask around the department and you'll hear that DISC is arguably the best student organization at the W. P. Carey School, and its leaders were ready to run as soon as classes started. A quick glance at the club's calendar of weekly meetings turns up an impressive list of corporate speakers — many of them CIS alumni — who talk about their companies, their careers and job prospects. Even more impressive, students themselves book the speakers.

But DISC does much more than hold meetings — invaluable as they are. The club builds connections: students with employers via speaker events and job listings; students with each other through social and study opportunities; and students with the community as a result of service projects.

The DISC magic

"DISC is the largest club in the W. P. Carey School," says Lecturer Matt McCarthy, who has been the faculty advisor for eight years. By last week more than 350 students had signed up. The reason is that students need and value those connections and the Department of Information Systems faculty strongly support the club. For example, in CIS 105 — McCarthy's very large lecture class — students get extra credit for going to the meetings. But once students get a taste of the club, they come back for more than just the couple extra points.

"As a first-year student last year, DISC was especially valuable to me as a way to connect to other CIS majors and potential employers," says Tiffany T.J. Wey. "From my fellow CIS majors, I learned what I could expect from my future coursework. From the companies that came to talk to us, I learned what the most desired skills were in my field, allowing me to create a checklist of skills to acquire in the future."

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When senior Katy Golen became president of DISC last year, she set out to make the long-established organization more effective. She worked on assembling a team of officers that included underclassmen who would be around for a year or two after their term was up. They rolled up their sleeves, focusing on making the club more valuable to a wider range of students and making the corporate visits more productive, while at the same time ramping up service projects and social events. Along the way she relied on help from Student Services Specialist Emily Galindo-Elvira, Career Development Specialist Terri Erb and Academic Success Specialist Maria Chomina.

Gonzales was invited to meet with the club early last fall to talk about how to run the organization effectively, and she noticed a change. "The room was so packed that students were lining the doorways out into the hall and stood during our entire presentation," Gonzales said. "I think there must have been 100 students there that night. Instead of the students being dressed for an XBOX session, like the previous semester, about 90 percent of them were dressed in business casual and many of them brought resumes. I was shocked at the transformation."

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The year went so well that the Association of Information Systems, the IS discipline's academic organization, invited a representative from the club to address the annual meeting of its student chapters. DISC was one of the first clubs to become an affiliate when the AIS decided to form a student association a year ago. Golen will travel to Atlanta in October with IS Professor Benjamin Shao where she'll present on the topic "Leadership and the Foundation of Teamwork." And because the ASU chapter is one of the high performers, incoming President David Roman was asked to send a representative to the meeting, to serve on the first-ever AIS student chapter advisory board.

The strategy continues this year, as new President David Roman and his team of officers encourages incoming students to actively participate.

Tiffany T.J. Wey is on board with that. "Like any club, DISC only gives as much to the member as the member is willing or able to invest in club activities," she says. "Simply sitting back as a passive member of the audience does not allow DISC to work its magic in getting you a job. Like always, that responsibility still lies on the student's shoulders."

Connecting to companies

DISC meets every Thursday evening, and most of those evenings include a corporate speaker. "Companies are looking for places to have access to students in our major," Golen explained. The vice president for corporate relations — Brandon Kempf this year — is in charge of contacting the companies. Students are taking these events seriously, bringing resumes and preparing questions.

Companies notice.

"The advice that I give the DISC members every semester is to listen to what Katy (Golen) tells them, because she knows her stuff," Gonzales says. "My company doesn?t sell any goods. Our product is our people. So when I am on campus, I am looking for the most professional, charismatic, determined student that I can find. However you interact with me, I'm going to assume you will interact with my client. So if you come off rude, or uninterested, or even indifferent, it?s not good enough for our firm. We have to have the best people. Because if I?m not impressed with you, I can guarantee that our clients won?t be impressed either."

And students understand that these interactions are an opportunity to demonstrate that they can carry themselves "It's such a direct connection," said David Roman. "The companies get to hang out with students," and students can ease into the nitty gritty — like what it's really like to work in that firm.

Professor McCarthy adds that these corporate visits help students keep current. "Our field changes weekly," McCarthy said, and the speakers bring new information with them to campus as well as providing answers to students' specific questions.

That close tie with companies has paid off. Recruiting turned out to be so productive for Protiviti last year that the Denver, Los Angeles and San Francisco offices have asked Gonzales to look for IT candidates for them this year.

Success might also be measured by the job listings on the DISC website. During the first week of classes there were 19 jobs posted by companies interested in CIS majors. And the site enables companies to enter these opportunities directly.

"DISC really helped me develop in my professional career," said Afifa Tawil. "I know that without the company insight that I got from DISC meetings I would not have been able to get my internship with Intel this summer."

Tiffany Wey added: "The club acts like the middle ground between the professional world and academia, facilitating the process of transitioning from being a student to being an employee."

Student to student

DISC also offers students a place to get to know each other — historically that social element has always been important. Attending meetings helps students find the friendly faces that make classes — especially for first-year students — a little more welcoming. The club's Facebook page announces special events like socials at nearby restaurants, and a trip to Disney World is planned for this fall.

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Every year the faculty join in for the long-standing students vs. faculty volleyball game. According to McCarthy, years ago the department decided to face off on the softball field, but when they got to the Student Recreation Center there were no fields available. The volleyball court was empty, however, and a tradition was born. The travelling trophy — which sports, inexplicably, a brass chinchilla — has resided in McCarthy's office for several years, marking a string of faculty victories.

The relationships formed at these events are helpful for studying, too. Meeting nights when there is no speaker you will find CIS students learning about new IT developments. And on Monday nights DISC organizes study sessions where students help each other with homework and projects.

As Katy Golen will tell the AIS conference in October, it's all about teamwork -- which paid off handsomely for DISC at the Avnet Tech Games last spring, where the DISC team swept the VMware Virtualization Challenge. Excited students are already registering for Avnet's Fall Virtual Games, an expansion of the Avnet Tech Games, which take place in April 2011. CIS students expect to compete then as well. And, the club is gearing up for another competition in Vancouver later this year.

Involved

Valuable as the career and social activities are, DISC at its foundation is also a service club.

One of its oldest projects is a partnership with the Tempe Public Library, where students teach basic computer, Internet, social networking and MS Office skills to residents. All members are required to participate in this program.

"During the summer months I volunteered with DISC in its philanthropic mission of teaching community members about computers," says Afifa Tawil. "It feels really great knowing that I am part of an organization that has an impact in so many aspects."

The club is also working on a Habitat for Humanity house in the Oro Vista neighborhood in Phoenix. The build-date is September 25. By then the club needs to have raised a minimum of $2,500 for the project. David Roman, who is leading the DISC crew, hopes they raise $5,000. On the 25th they'll be working alongside professionals from PricewaterhouseCoopers. Donations are being accepted!

Last March the club initiated a combination food drive and dance party called DISCO to benefit the March of Dimes. Katy Golen, who organized the event, hopes it becomes a tradition.

This year's executive team includes the following:

  • President — David Roman
  • Vice president of corporate relations — Brandon Kempf
  • Vice president of finance — Sindhu Janakiram
  • Vice president of marketing — Bryan Belanger
  • Vice president of instruction — Brady Emerson
  • Vice president of membership — Drew Schweinfurth
  • Vice president of service — Shannon Keelan
  • Vice president of technology — Tiberiu Oprisiu