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Spotlight – Valerie Szymkowicz, SJG – The Spelman & Johnson Group

Valerie Szymkowicz

Senior Associate, SJG – The Spelman & Johnson Group

szymkowicz_velerieValerie received a Bachelor of Arts degree from New England College and her MEd from the University of Vermont. She has been in his current role and organization for 11 years.

What was your career path (previous roles) to get your current role? I gained my first exposure to higher education administration as an undergraduate when I worked one summer for the dean of what today we’d call the first year program. This ultimately led to a future position after graduation working in academic advising (which I really loved). Quickly though I realized that career planning was integral to academic advising and decided I better head off to grad school to learn more about the growing field of career services. After grad school, I joined the University of Delaware as a career counselor/assistant director of career planning & placement and director of experiential learning (another great job!). Next up, I moved back to New England and became an assistant director of career services at Middlebury College and eventually made my way to the director’s chair – a position I held for about six years. I left higher ed in the late 1990’s to explore the world of executive search, sourcing talent for varied leadership positions and industries. In 2002, I put all that I enjoyed about my career to date together into the role I hold now with SJG-The Spelman & Johnson Group where I am a search consultant serving the needs of higher education institutions nationwide. It’s been a long & satisfying journey – – that still has a few more legs in it, I hope!

What was your first job? My very first “job” was as a young entrepreneur. With my sister and a few other friends we formed the Very Merry Berry Pickers Club, picked wild blueberries, and sold them door-to-door for what now seems to be an embarrassingly small pittance! We didn’t know about child labor laws and thought it great fun to pick berries all day to earn enough for a single ice cream cone! My first professional job came about 12 years later, working with the “first year program.”

Why did you choose this career? I have always enjoyed the constantly changing dynamic of an academic institution and the fascinating people–students, faculty, and staff–that comprise these communities. Career services and the interactions with internal and external constituents, as well as the opportunity to help individual advance their goals and aspirations all fueled my sense of what “good work” is all about. Moving to executive search and continuing to serve the higher education community has afforded me the chance to grow professionally, support the growth of others, and feel as though I am contributing to a community (education) whose values deeply resonate with me.

What is the skill that is most important in your current role? Relationship-building

How did you develop this skill and how do you fine-tune it regularly? I had great role models and have had, cumulatively, a lot of practice – – plus it is enjoyable building relationships with people who share similar values.

Did you have a mentor? I’ve been lucky to have a number of people along the way who have encouraged, inspired, and challenged me. That said, I’ve largely carved my own career path, building on skills I enjoyed using and working in environments and with communities of people that I enjoy. 

Did you hold any EACE leadership roles? Over the years, I served on several committees and co-chaired the first joint conference that brought the Mid-Atlantic and New England associations together in what today we know as EACE. The relationships forged through EACE involvement have been very beneficial and rewarding and have helped form a substantial part of the professional network around which much of my work today evolves.

What is your biggest career accomplishment? I hope my biggest career accomplishment lies around a future corner, though it has been a great ride thus far!

What is your advice to students looking for their first job? Do something meaningful. Don’t worry about the money; learn to be resourceful. Value the people you work with and learn from them and the experience. The first job is a building block.

What is your advice to young professionals in the field who aspire to your current role? Pursue your passion and build your network.

What was the best career advice you have ever received? Measure your success by the impact you can have on others and how that fuels your soul; remember it’s not about the money!

What would you like colleagues to know about your organization (i.e. hiring practices/programs)? SJG-The Spelman & Johnson Group is a higher education search firm. We support the recruitment of talented mid- and senior-level professionals across the full administrative spectrum (student affairs, enrollment management, academic affairs, finance/business/auxiliary services, etc.) We have a robust network of 60,000+ and hope you are a member. Let us know if your institution is seeking a new leader–we’re poised to help. For more information on SJG, visit our website:

Valerie did not visit her career center as an undergraduate because no such office existed. ;-).

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