The Interview Assignment


he world can feel like a scary place for university students seeking to learn about themselves and what’s out there for them. So when Professor Lauri Mattenson ʼ92, M.A. ʼ98, gave her students the assignment to interview at least two people about their professional experience, there was a collective feeling of excitement and apprehension at the thought of speaking to adult strangers about their careers. But as it turns out, this simple assignment resulted in a deeply rewarding experience for many of its 112 participants, opening minds, gratifying hearts and creating new opportunities from these alumni-student connections.

The class — Honors 50: Creating Your Roadmap — outlined multiple objectives, including:

  • Engage in self-authorship and narrative processing in order to facilitate identity formation, clarify scholarly and professional goals, and better understand the relationship between our values and choices within a larger sociopolitical context
  • Construct meaning using a variety of critical and creative approaches; share process and results in order to practice professional self-presentation and nurture a collegial, collaborative environment

The instructor, Lauri Mattenson, a 30-year veteran faculty member who earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees in English literature at UCLA, used this as her guide to get creative and tap into her Bruin resources. She said, “My main goal is always student empowerment. ‘Who are you? What do you want to say? What’s the best way to say it? Who are you talking to and why?’ I’m passionate about helping students find their voice and use it in meaningful ways.”

She came up with this interview assignment for the first time as a way to get her students to practice professional self-presentation, while attempting to clarify their scholarly and professional goals, because many of them were afraid to talk to people. The assignment’s instructions stated, “Take the time to find someone who might be helpful to you at this stage of your career exploration and development. Don’t be shy. Take initiative and be resourceful. Even if they don’t know you personally, most people will respond favorably when you show interest in their work.”

And respond they did. When Mattenson put the call out, 80 people volunteered to be interviewed by her 32 students. She had reached out to her contacts on social media, colleagues, former Bruin classmates, personal friends and even family members, like her husband and father, who are also both Bruins. Most of the volunteers were alumni in diverse fields and some were sourced from UCLA ONE, the University’s online professional networking platform.

After assembling this interview pool, Mattenson made it available for her students to select their top three preferences. She then paired each student with two interviewees and they were left to arrange the time and place to hold the interview, be it in person, over the phone or on Zoom.

Mattenson provided detailed guidelines to her students on how to prepare for, conduct and follow up on their interviews. Everything was covered from pre-interview research and safety precautions to Zoom etiquette and thank you notes. She tried her best to ensure her students were properly prepared and armed with confidence going into their interviews. She said, “The post-pandemic experience for a lot of young people is distance between them and everybody else. So this professionally intimate conversation, one-on-one, getting rid of that intimidation factor and feeling supported was transformative for them.”

She indicated that the before and after experience of these interviews was pretty dramatic. “They went from the feeling of ‘Am I bothering this person? Am I wasting their time? Who would want to talk to me?’ to ‘Oh my goodness! This was eye opening for me.’” Furthermore, after each interview she kept receiving texts from the volunteers extolling their wonderful experience.

Arni Daroy ʼ20, a recent Berkeley Law School graduate, remarked, “I was excited to talk to Ella about what it's been like as a new practicing lawyer. I was initially worried that maybe I wouldn't be as helpful in answering her questions, but my worries were then replaced with gratitude for the ability to reflect on my own journey and how far I've come since I too was a student in Professor Mattenson's honors seminar… Programs like this make me so proud to be part of the Bruin community and proud of UCLA for continuing to foster such meaningful connections.”

In turn, Ella Konkel shared her takeaways from the interview. “Arni offered me a few pieces of advice to consider: be open to change, pursue old interests combined with the new and to always keep my core beliefs at the forefront of my mind. In the context of determining my path forward from here, I think her advice is incredibly important to remember.”

Emily Siegler ʼ18, a resident at the Mayo Clinic, found the experience to be incredibly rewarding and nostalgic. Her favorite part was being able to share with students how much UCLA had an impact on her personally and professionally. “The people I met, ideas I encountered and values I gleaned from UCLA influence me to this day, and getting to share examples of this with current students is awesome.”  

Kelly Truong ʼ22, a UX design consultant, said she had a fun conversation with her student interviewer Martina de los Rios. She was also complimentary of Professor Mattenson’s approach, saying, “The assignment was well organized to practice networking skills, such as scheduling, outreach, sending thank you notes and asking well-structured questions to better understand the industry and the person.”

On the student side, there were several success stories that went beyond the assignment. Becca Walker interviewed Nic Rinella ʼ14, a clinical scientist for the biotech company Xencor, and the interview went so well he offered to be her alumni mentor through the UCLA ONE portal. She said, “We’ve had several follow-up meetings already where he has given me advice and talked with me about my plans and the current steps I’m taking. He has recommended a lot of future steps for me to take. He has been super helpful and supportive and I am really glad I had this initial opportunity to connect with him because it has really panned out in a way I did not expect!”

Perhaps the biggest success story is from Cheridyn Leverette’s interview of Cheri Kempf, a sports broadcaster at ESPN and vice president of Athletes Unlimited. Leverette, a student-athlete, was nervous coming into the interview but was put at ease by Kempf’s humor and easy-going style. The conversation was so enjoyable, the interview time passed quickly and they ended up chatting for two hours. A few weeks later, Leverette was offered an internship at ESPN, her dream job.

For Reid Sperisen, a second-year political science major, two interviews were not nearly enough. He went the extra mile and conducted six interviews. By then, it was no longer about the assignment; it became about learning from people about what made them passionate about their jobs. At first, he felt intimidated and nervous about the assignment, yet appreciated the challenge and the resources provided by the professor. After each interview, his comfort and confidence levels grew and his curiosity led him to explore more fields that interested him. He said, “I thrive off of other people’s passions.” Doing these interviews allowed him to self-reflect about the direction he was heading, and learn about the perks and pitfalls that come with the job.

Most notably, the once nervous Sperisen became a more confident and polished interviewer. Gina Eskigian ʼ91, an entertainment lawyer who was interviewed by Sperisen, commented, “He was so well prepared and asked the best questions. I was very impressed! I hope I helped him in some way, and I also hope we keep in touch because I'm always happy to be a resource for Bruins even after they graduate.”

There were many more inspiring anecdotes that came about from this assignment. Nearly all of them followed the same pattern for students: feeling nervous, making a human connection, learning from the interview, contemplating career goals and gaining the confidence to do it again.

That’s what the assignment was all about for Lauri Mattenson. Giving her students the tools they needed to make educated decisions about their career aspirations. She lamented, “I can’t tell you how many students I’ve had who will apply to law school but never had a conversation with an attorney. Or pre-med students who have never shadowed a doctor for a day. But they’ve probably watched a lot of ‘Law and Order’ and ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’”

Now that they’ve gone through this exercise, she said some of her students have gone through a bit of a crisis because the class forced them to ask themselves, “What do I really want to do? What are my skills and talents? How do I want to contribute in this world?” She explained, “They may have been determined to go to law school but then realized, ‘Wait! I’m not interested in that.’ These interviews are helping them clarify their goals and make more informed career choices.”

Mattenson acknowledged how much work went into coordinating the alumni-student connections. She said, “It’s a labor of love for sure and I love doing it.  Honestly, it connects me with a broader community and makes me feel like I am deeply connected in ways I didn’t even realize….The whole thing was productive and purposeful and soul-satisfying for everyone.”

*** The interview assignment will be offered again in Mattenson’s Honors 50 course in the future. For alumni willing to be interviewed and offer career advice to UCLA students, sign in to UCLA ONE and edit your profile by checking the boxes under Offer Help in the ways you wish to give assistance.     

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