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The power of the Laker Effect

GVSU Alumni Network helps two recent graduates launch their careers

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Grand Valley is proud to offer alumni an array of services and resources, including free lifetime career support, special discounts and services, and opportunities for continued learning and professional growth. Yet, perhaps the greatest benefit available to alumni is access to a network of fellow Lakers ready to offer support, mentorship, guidance and, sometimes, even a new career opportunity.

With more than 140,000 alumni across the country and around the world, the GVSU Alumni Network is a strong and growing community. And, as two recent graduates found out, there’s great power in that Laker Effect.

Lily Hepworth '22, Account Coordinator, Advantage Benefits Group. Photo of Lily sitting at her office, wearing glasses and a light tan faux leather blazer.

Last December, Lily Hepworth ’22 was preparing to graduate with a degree in marketing and looking for her first job. She had submitted applications on sites like Indeed and LinkedIn but without success.

“I rarely heard back from employers,” she said. “When I did, it was just automated emails saying they were moving forward with another candidate. I was worried because I didn’t have that network that a lot of people do.”

Hepworth had worked as a student employee in GVSU’s Human Resources office, where she connected with Tara Bivens ’06 & ’11, director of Total Rewards. During a meeting with a community partner, Bivens learned about a job opening at Advantage Benefits Group (ABG) in Grand Rapids. She immediately thought of Hepworth and connected her with the opportunity. The following week, Hepworth interviewed at ABG and, later, received an offer.

A student and her mentor sit at a design looking at laptops together and smiling

(Lauren Seymour)

“It felt surreal to me that I landed an interview,” she recalled. “I never even formally applied and I got it. The job fell into my lap.”

Hepworth has been in her role as an account coordinator at ABG for several months now and said she loves the people she works with. Several of her colleagues are fellow Lakers, including her supervisor, Jessie Smith ’05. 

Smith is the client services director at ABG and was the first referral hire from the GVSU’s HR office 18 years ago. Since then, referrals from Bivens and other GVSU alumni have helped ABG grow as a small business. Today, more than 25 percent of ABG’s team members are Lakers.

Smith said Hepworth has jumped into her new role with ease. “Lily has impressed everyone here with her attitude and capabilities. We are looking forward to continuing her career growth,” she said.

Hepworth said she is grateful for the support GVSU alumni show recent graduates. “It's definitely helped my career because, without the referral from Tara, I wouldn't be in this field where I'm learning and stretching myself every day,” she said.

Nikki Castro '22. Campus recruiter, Steelcase. Photo: Headshot of Nikki Castro. She is wearing a jacket with a black and white thin-lines plaid pattern and wears her brown hair down, long and straight, and it falls below her waist.

Another Class of 2022 graduate, Nikki Castro, found the support of the GVSU Alumni Network during an internship at Steelcase.

A first-generation college student, Castro’s parents had emigrated from Mexico to the U.S. Castro transferred to Grand Valley to study business, but during her junior year, she felt unsure of her future.

“I felt lost and confused on where I wanted to take my degree,” she recalled. “Having parents who are immigrants, I didn’t have a lot of help or resources to guide me.”

Through GVSU, Castro learned about Building Bridges Through Education (BBTE), an education and workforce development initiative powered by the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. With the support of BBTE, Castro landed a yearlong internship at Steelcase as a campus recruiter. During her internship, Castro met a fellow Laker at Steelcase, Eunice Lopez-Martin ’09 & ’21, a senior business consultant who became a mentor.

“Eunice brought me under her wing and helped me on my journey as a young professional,” Castro shared. “She supported me to expand my professional network and encouraged me to take advantage of any opportunities that came my way.”

A mentor and student sit together smiling and talking while looking at a laptop.

Pictured are (left) Eunice Lopez-Martin ’09 & ’21 and Nikki Castro ’22. (Kendra Stanley-Mills)

Lopez-Martin said she quickly recognized Castro as a hardworking and charismatic colleague. “As a minority woman professional, I shared with her some of my professional experiences and offered my assistance in any way that I could," she said. "I stressed the power of networking and having a supportive professional village.”

During her senior year at GVSU and internship at Steelcase, Castro saw a huge growth in herself and said, “I gained the tools and confidence to feel like I’m ready to graduate.”

Castro graduated with a degree in business administration in December. That same week, she accepted a full-time position at Steelcase. She has stayed in touch with Lopez-Martin. “Her unwavering support has helped me feel a sense of belonging, especially as I navigate my first year of full-time work,” Castro said.

In her role as a campus recruiter, Castro is creating opportunities for future GVSU alumni, including 16 Lakers who are currently interning at Steelcase.

“Being a part of the process of hiring current GVSU students is not only exciting, but it also allows me to give back to my alma mater by creating job opportunities for them," she said. "I take great pride in helping students take the next step in their professional careers and ensuring that they have a fulfilling experience at Steelcase.”

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