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Steve Rottinghaus: 'It will get better'

Steve RottinghausAs career and outreach coordinator, Steve Rottinghaus has had to reinvent the job fair and job networking during the pandemic. He has worked at the University of Kansas for six years and is primarily in charge of organizing the Career Fair, the J-School Generations alumni event and advises students looking for employment. Rottinghaus also works with the Ad Club and the PRSSA Club. 

He touched on his family and how the pandemic has affected his daughter with special needs and how his family copes with the lack of interactions. Rottinghaus shared his experience with organizing the fall Career Fair remotely, instead of in-person, which turned out smoothly in the end. He discusses how KU might be better from all that has happened.

► Listen to audio version here.

Catherine Brierton: This is Catherine Brierton. Today is Oct. 30, 2020. I am interviewing Steve Rottinghaus for the William Allen White School of Journalism Pandemic Oral History Project. Going back to March, what were your initial reactions when the pandemic hit and where were you when you heard the news that KU was closing?

Steve Rottinghaus: Yeah, March was a unique time as a career and outreach coordinator at KU. We were just coming off a career fair, and that was March 5, I believe, that Thursday. And we knew some signs, something was, you know, about to happen. We had extra sanitizer, and we kind of said, “Hey, don’t worry about shaking the hands of employers.” And employers were totally on board. Students were on board.

Then that following week, I think, I was in my office there at Stauffer-Flint, I think I got an e-mail notification about some schools being closed. And I was like, OK. And then there was an e-mail from KU talking about extending spring break. Because that was about that exact time. And since we’re on spring break, it was like, OK, plan on taking an extra week of spring break.

And I was teaching the class, and they kind of talked about, you know, there might be a chance everything moves online, but we’re not sure yet. And from what I was hearing on the news, I was pretty certain that we probably wouldn’t be on campus the rest of the spring 2020 semester. And eight months later, yeah, I’m still surprised that we’re in this situation.

Catherine Brierton: How has this semester been different comparing the spring semester with the pandemic to now working with the pandemic?

Steve Rottinghaus: Well, in the spring semester, we’re pretty much midway through the term, so I was able to pivot pretty easily to kind of an online platform. In my career advising role, I deal with students a lot via e-mail. So that was a pretty smooth transition. I admit, I missed the face-to-face because I typically have a lot of drop-ins. I’ve been in this position going on my sixth year, and just having those drop-ins, I mean, I would see probably 300 students a year, and most of those were drop-ins. So I did lose that a lot.

And then this semester, I was pretty, it was a pretty smooth transition again to move online. Again, I have a class weekly that we meet. And the students have been really receptive. And we meet in-person, and they do have the option to, you know, tap in via Zoom if they don’t feel good. And that’s happened quite a bit this semester, and I totally get it. And from an advising standpoint, yeah, just a lot more e-mail, a lot more Zoom sessions. And the students have been really positive through the whole thing, which I really appreciate.

Because I always tell students from a career advising standpoint, be prepared for the interview question, like, “Hey, what did you learn about yourself during the pandemic?” And I guarantee you that’s gonna be a common question. And students can just talk about how they persevered, how they maintained that positive attitude, and how they continue to, you know, work on their studies at KU.

Catherine Brierton: What has been the biggest challenge of adapting to the changes from the pandemic?

Steve Rottinghaus:The biggest challenge for me is just making sure students are aware that my office is still there to help them. So a lot of what I do is get them, you know, ready for life after KU, work on those resumes, portfolios, do mock interviews. So I’m losing a lot of that, like I said, that face-to-face contact. So that’s been a big challenge. We try to do kind of weekly sessions like Monday memo. I might send an e-mail about, “Hey, we have a workshop coming up about what you can do to prepare during this time.” So I think the main thing for me is just that awareness just so students don’t forget that our office does exist to help them.

Catherine Brierton: OK. Um, how has your workload changed as a result of the pandemic?

Steve Rottinghaus: Great question. I’ve definitely had to be more flexible. I’m not locked into so much of those, you know, that 8:30 to 5 session.

It’s pretty common for me to interact with students in the evening, which I totally get. I’m totally fine with. So I think the main thing is just kind of the flexibility and making sure I’m available all the time [crosstalk]. Go ahead.

Catherine Brierton: Excuse me. Go ahead.

Steve Rottinghaus: I think the main thing, just being flexible. Like I said, I’m not locked into those certain hours. I mean, it’s common for a student to reach out to me on the weekend when they have a concern or after hours. And I’m totally fine with that. I knew that was gonna happen. And, yeah, I appreciate that they still reach out to me.

Catherine Brierton: How has your perception of the pandemic changed over time? How have you emotionally coped with it?

Steve Rottinghaus: Professionally, I mean, again, I had no idea it was going to last so long. And I’m a big believer on, like, just focusing on things you can control. So when this all happened March of 2020, I thought, OK, this spring semester, yeah, will pretty much be all online. Things will slow down in the summer, and then fall of 2020, everything will be back to normal.

But, yeah, later in the summer you can kind of tell that that probably wasn’t gonna happen. So for me, emotionally, I was kind of like that. I’m OK with change and all that, but you kind of want an idea, like, OK, when this is gonna end? And that’s been the hardest thing, just trying to figure out, when is this gonna be over? When can we get back to normal hours? When can we maintain focus? And for me, personally, I have a special needs daughter, who’s 21, and she’s got cerebral palsy.

So it’s really messed with her kind of emotionally because she likes interacting with people and having people around her at all times. And she’s missed out on that for like eight months. It’s pretty much just me and her mom working closely with her. And she does see, like, a paraprofessional every now and then, but it’s, yeah, it’s just not the same, and that, that’s been a tough one for our family.

Catherine Brierton: Tell me about the recent career fair. How hard was it to turn something that has always been in-person to remote?

Steve Rottinghaus: That went better than I expected. We had 14 companies, so that was a lot lower than we typically have. For fall career fair, we typically kind of in the mid-20 range. And then we want – do one the spring, and that one is usually low 30s. And then we have typically over 100 students participate. And for this one, I need to check the final numbers, but the last time I saw the registration, the day before the event, we were at 82.

So I think students totally understood that we had to move this to this format. We had this career fair plus app, which was pretty slick, where you can kind of lock in your interview times, connect with multiple companies. You gotta submit your resume in advance because you’re really doing many interviews in a way. The total career fair is more kind of an info session. You kind of bounce from booth-to-booth. There might be a company there that, wow, I had no idea this company existed. I had no idea this is what they did.

Whereas with a virtual format, you pretty much had to lock in – you knew the companies that were going to be there. You had to be very selective about which one you want to meet with and how much time you could interview with them.

So that was probably pretty – the biggest change. I heard a lot of positive feedback from the students that did participate. Not everybody reached out to me. But they said, “Hey, it went pretty smooth. Made some great connections. I’m gonna stay in touch with them.” The employers were very impressed by the candidates, the qualification of our students. So I was very pleased with that. And like I said, a lot of it just has to do with being positive through the situation and trying to, you know, cope with the current situation.

Catherine Brierton: What kind of issues did you see with the last year’s graduates in trying to find a job during the worst period of the pandemic?

Steve Rottinghaus: It definitely has been a challenge for the May 2020 graduates for sure. Most – a lot of the positions, you know, kind of J-School-related, fortunately, there is kind of a remote component to it where you can do a lot of your work from home. You know, say if you’re a writer, a graphic designer, a strategic communicator, a lot of those duties can kind of shift to remote format, which is very important for J-School students. But, yeah, a lot of companies, you know, some of these agencies, they might have lost their clients because of budget cuts. So if you don’t -- clients that are not hiring, you know, new talent to be like account managers. So it has been tough. It’ll be definitely challenging, you know, for the class of 2021.

But as long as they still focus on their studies, build that resume, try to get some sort of remote internship, keep those skills fresh, you know, like with Adobe Creative Suite, yeah, just make sure you’re in a good position so when everything does open up fully, economics, economic-wise, they’ll be in a good situation.

Catherine Brierton: Do you see that there are more, less, or the same amount of students finding jobs now than before the pandemic?

Steve Rottinghaus: I would say there’s definitely less because I think there are fewer opportunities right now. But like I said, I’m starting to see signs that things are bouncing back.

We had a – I’m an adviser to the Ad Club and PRSSA club. And we typically have speakers and always listen to those conversations. They’re a great resource. And I always do ask them, I go, “How has the pandemic affected your company?”  And they admit the last, you know, six, seven months have been tough, but they’re starting to see signs, like moving forward early 2021 that things could open up. MMGY, I don’t know if you’re familiar with them, but they focus on hospitality and tourism. As you know, that industry was hit hard like a lot of industries.

And she says, yeah, it’s been a tough, you know, last six months, but they are starting to see signs where their clients are having more money for the budget, and they’re getting ready to start rolling in 2021. So, again, I hope everything’s moving in the right direction, and I think it is.

Catherine Brierton: How do you feel about the School of Journalism’s response to the pandemic?

Steve Rottinghaus: I’ve been very impressed. Their communication has been steady in my opinion. And when I’m on campus for class, I mean, the signage they have about, you know, where you can enter the building, making sure you social distance, wear a mask. To me, that’s been very effective. I mean, I feel very safe when I’m in that building. I know there aren’t too many classes in Stauffer-Flint Hall right now. And the class I have is small. We only have five students so it’s manageable.

And I’ll talk to other faculty members, too. Every now and then, I’ll see them in the hallway and we chat briefly. And, yeah, I feel very confident about the response. I admit I haven’t been to other buildings on campus other than Stauffer-Flint, but from what I’ve seen, students are following the rules. I’ve had no problem with students wearing a mask, and, you know, keeping their distance. So, yeah, everything’s – it’s been positive so far.

Catherine Brierton: How has the pandemic changed the William Allen White School of Journalism and KU in general?

Steve Rottinghaus: How it’s changed? I think the main thing is just the number of students you see. I know one thing I always look forward to every year was our J-School Generations alumni event. And that typically would have been this last week of October. And there was a chance we thought about moving that to the Zoom format. But the more we thought about it, like, wow, a lot of people are doing Zoom all year. There’s that Zoom fatigue setting set in. Do we really want one more Zoom event? So we decided to cancel it this year and the alums -- we took – had like 20 come back from all over the country. They totally understood our decision. So that’s been tough. Just the more face-to-face interaction. I typically have probably 10 companies come on campus and do onsite campus recruiting events. And they haven’t been able to do that because it’s all been a Zoom format. So that’s been tough. And like I said, I think pretty much it just comes down to that personal interaction. Because a lot of our communication is digital.

Don’t get me wrong. But I still think you have to have that appreciation for that face-to-face and building those real relationships. And that’s been a big challenge.

Catherine Brierton: How do you think KU will be better from everything that’s happened?

Steve Rottinghaus: I think there’s going to be a greater appreciation, and just a sense of gratitude that, wow, there are certain things we just can’t control, and you really got to focus on the positives. I’m a real big believer in that serenity prayer. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with that, you know, where you can just worry about the things that you can control, and kind of know that there’s certain things you can and cannot control. I think that’s very important.

I think there’s just gonna be a greater appreciation for, you know, what they have. Learning more about, you know, digital education and how you can learn in that format. I think that’s a big thing they’ve learned during this time.

And I feel -- I feel for a lot of students, especially those freshmen just getting familiar with the campus scene. I know they lose a lot on the social activities. So I just hope they hang in there and, and then, you know, when things settle down, hopefully by the time they start their sophomore year, it’ll be a much more positive on-campus situation for them.

Catherine Brierton: What advice would you give someone 100 years from now who may be dealing with another pandemic?

Steve Rottinghaus: Wow. Great question. [Laughter] There will probably be a lot of information about the year 2020, so hopefully they can learn something from that experience. But, again, the main thing, I’d just say hang in there, you know, stay in contact anyway you can with your close friends, family members because they’re tremendous support for you and a great resource. Don’t be too complacent. I mean that’s easy to fall in that trap, or, hey, I’m just gonna shut down and lounge on my couch. I’m not gonna do anything.

But, yeah, try to get – find somewhat of a new routine. It’s not gonna be the same, but hopefully you can find something that keeps you busy, active. And, yeah, just stay in touch with that close circle of friends because the last thing you wanna do is just be in total isolation where you just don’t have any connection whatsoever.

Catherine Brierton: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Steve Rottinghaus: It will get better. I know that’s hard to say, eight months. And I know it’s hard we don’t quite see the finish line when you can get ready to move on. But from a student perspective, yeah, be positive. I mean keep those skills fresh. Build those networks. Even if jobs or internships, there are no openings at the time, I think you just want to put yourself in a position where you’re gonna be ready when things do open up. Because the last thing you wanna do is like, oh, I’ve spent the last three, four months not doing anything to get ready for life after KU.

So, yeah, keep those skills fresh, that resume updated. And they can always reach out to me if they need assistance.

Catherine Brierton: Awesome. Well, thank you for talking to me. This is the conclusion of this oral history.

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