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Helping Students Score Career Goals: Sitting Down with Jennifer Merrill, Student Services Manager

When students have questions, Jennifer Merrill has answers. As the student services manager at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA Workforce Development), Jennifer and her staff of Student Support Specialists help students narrow down broad career goals into attainable steps toward a FastForward credential.

Whether students need to sharpen their professional skills in areas such as resume writing, interview skills, and job search tips or home in on technical skills like learning how to become a healthcare or IT worker or drive a semi-trailer, Jennifer’s leadership and connections amongst NOVA staff provide keys to success.

Don’t underestimate yourself.

Jennifer is working with the Credit for Prior Learning department to help NOVA Workforce students see that some of the skills they have gained from both working and earning certifications can translate to credits toward a degree program.

“I always try to help students see the transferable skills,” Jennifer said. “So, if they’ve been in the working world for a while, they have skills that employers want and desire.”

Many FastForward students have never attended college before, and Jennifer helps new students understand that they aren’t alone as first-timers.

“So, just helping them [students] see they’re going to be in class with some students that are great at what they’re doing, they might have been doing this forever, or with other students who are like them and might take longer to understand and to digest what they’re learning,” Jennifer said.

Whether you have previous college experience or not, when you enroll in FastForward, you’ll have support from start to finish.

Guaranteed interviews? You got it.

While Jennifer’s job is less focused on working directly with employers in the region, her colleagues in the Business Engagement department are constantly meeting with local businesses to gauge their needs.

Jennifer says these relationships continue to strengthen and bear lots of fruit for student job seekers.

“We have a program called ‘Guaranteed Interview,’” Jennifer said. “What this does is say, ‘Hey, we’ve got these students coming out with these great certifications, would you at least interview them?’ It’s not guaranteeing a job, but it gets the student some of those professional skills and interview help they need.”

Even if the interview doesn’t result in a job offer, interacting with a hiring manager, practicing interviewing and making a professional connection goes a long way in the job search.

One phone call away from a change

It was the height of the pandemic, and a student reached out for help navigating a challenging course. Virtual classes aren’t for everyone, and this student was struggling to complete assignments and connect with the instructor over email.

She was one step away from dropping out.

But after a short chat with Jennifer—who encouraged her to reach out to the instructor over the phone—it turned out her teacher had lost internet from a major snowstorm and wasn’t responding to emails due to the emergency. The instructor assured the student she wasn’t behind and could be back on track quickly.

She called Jennifer back and said, “Oh, thank you for telling me to call because I’m not as far behind as I thought, and I’m able to catch up. The instructor was very gracious and things of that nature.”

To add icing to the cake, last May, Jennifer helped noncredit students walk across the stage for the first time during NOVA’s commencement ceremony, a move that helped students feel recognized for their hard work earning a credential or certificate.

“I think that just gave a lot of people a huge boost in terms of who they are, and that what they did was just as important as someone who is getting their associate degree,” Jennifer said.

Never stop exploring new options

Jennifer shared that all current and potential students should keep their options open by embracing learning a new skill, even if it isn’t the perfect fit, and browsing the FastForward website to uncover new possibilities.

For students that have already begun their FastForward journey, don’t be alarmed if you encounter road bumps along the way.

“But also know what you’ve done isn’t wasted, like the skills you’ve learned and things like that,” Jennifer said. “Even though that may not be your career path, it’s still something you can use in whatever career you might find yourself in.”

So, what are you waiting for? See how you can find your answer through FastForward at one of Virginia’s Community Colleges.