For his first virtual interview, James Fendley paired a freshly pressed shirt and tie with basketball shorts and asked his family for an hour of quiet. But the best preparation came from UMW’s Center for Career and Professional Development (CCPD).
Throughout his final semester, the 2020 University of Mary Washington graduate scheduled regular phone calls with the Center’s career counselors, who are charged with guiding students and recent grads toward employment, even during COVID-19.
“With each appointment, my résumé improved,” Fendley said. “Seeing my progress kept me motivated and helped me stay on track.”
His perseverance paid off. A month before he earned his degree, Fendley secured a job at a D.C.-based data analytics firm owned by 2014 alum Jonathan Steenberg. They’re two in a long line of UMW geography majors hired right out of college, thanks to solid programs, strong connections between faculty and students, and an active alumni network. Often landing employment in D.C.’s tech corridor, graduates of the program are the highest paid in the nation for the field, according to College Factual, which also recently ranked Mary Washington’s geography department No. 1 in the Southeast.
“Students often think employers aren’t recruiting because so much is shut down,” said CCPD Executive Director Paul Binkley. “That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Fendley’s hiring came as no surprise to Geography Chair Jackie Gallagher, who attributes a recent “surge of applications” for the 19-credit GIS-certificate program – introduced more than a decade ago to both degree- and nondegree-seeking students – to the pandemic. Many contractors, businesses and government organizations use GIS, or geographic information systems – which capture, store and analyze location-related data – so it’s a critical skill to have on a résumé.
“Almost all of the COVID-19 data you see – cases of infection and death, where testing is happening, routing and delivery of supplies, and how the disease is impacting people – is shown on maps,” she said. “Behind the map, is a GIS.”
Another draw for the department is its Master of Science in Geospatial Analysis, which even attracts first-years to UMW, Gallagher said. The accelerated five-year program, one of only two of its kind in Virginia, gives seniors the opportunity to take master’s-level courses that count toward both undergraduate and graduate degrees. “The program is small, but it’s slowly growing,” Gallagher said.
Enrolled in both programs and an active participant in conferences and other department events, Fendley was exactly the type of candidate Steenberg was looking for when he contacted his former professor and advisor.
“Dr. Gallagher was my go-to person from day one at UMW, and I knew she could help me find the perfect addition to my company,” said Steenberg, who founded JSTech Consulting.
After two phone calls and a Google Hangout interview, Steenberg said he knew Fendley was right for the job and would be willing to juggle multiple roles at the three-person company. “At UMW, geography labs can take hours of dedicated time, trial and error,” Steenberg said. “You can’t fake the work ethic required to get through the program.”
Since April, Fendley has put his degree to work as a business intelligence developer, on projects like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ real estate department.
Unlike other industries, business has grown over the last few months, said Steenberg, who began remote working early in his career and intends for his firm to continue the practice beyond the pandemic. Though he hasn’t yet met his colleagues in person, Fendley said the experience has been great.
“It seems outdated that jobs that can be done from home would require someone to go to an office,” he said. “Teleworking hasn’t limited our abilities to work together.”