Student Reflections on the Professional Development Scholars Program


In May 2020, CWRU Women in Tech Initiative hosted a virtual panel discussion inviting recent graduates from the Professional Development Scholars Program to discuss their experiences as part of the program.

The Initiative sponsored the Professional Development Scholars Program, a career-building opportunity in association with the Weatherhead School of Management, for women in the technology field to meet their professional goals and further develop their leadership potential.

The program was made possible by continuous support from Craig Newmark Philanthropies.

The Panelists:
Professional Scholars Graduate Perspectives
Professional Scholars Graduate Perspectives

From left to right: Madison Hillyard, Priya Khullar, Emily Long, Noelle Nelson, Alessandra Sivilotti

  • Evren Gurkan-Cavusoglu, Ph.D., Faculty Director for Women in Tech Initiative
  • Pooja Khatija, Ph.D., Program Facilitator for Professional Development Scholars
The Program is for Everyone, Regardless of Experience Level

While reflecting on her experience, Madison Hillyard expressed her appreciation for the program and emphasized the fact that the initiative is for students at all levels who want to grow professionally and learn from best practices with a network of peers. Whether or not one has participated in a career development program through internships in the past, she stated there certainly is a reason to take advantage of it:

“If you’ve never thought of your professional development, this is the program to kick-start that. If you have thought a lot about your professional development as a person, this program is going to be refreshing and give you different tips that you haven’t heard before, or maybe haven’t come in contact with. I think it’s a really accessible program.” - Madison Hillyard

Priya Khullar went on to outline that she found the program “incredibly helpful” – not only did it help her build a network and connect with the students who were at different places in their education at CWRU, but the initiative also provided her with a space where the participants were encouraged to share their stories and learn from other women’s experiences. As Priya explained, she took some classes in the past where she was the only woman in the room. So talking about the issues she dealt with and understanding that there were women who were “in the same boat” – consistently going through similar experiences – was fulfilling, she noted.

“If I were a freshman, I wish someone would tell me to take this program, just on the basis that I have been able to learn so much not just about academics and work, but we’ve had discussions about our personal life and how that affects our careers, or how we need to hold ourselves in a certain atmosphere. . . . So it’s very fulfilling and it’s a fantastic opportunity regardless of which level you are at.” – Priya Khullar

The Program is Flexible and Relatable

The panel also highlighted the fact that the program was “surprisingly relatable” and allowed the flexibility to pursue individual interests, where the participants had a voice and could contribute to the direction of the program.

Ali Sivilotti stated that Pooja Khatija, the program coordinator who facilitated input from the full group on a regular basis, was “incredibly flexible” and “always reevaluated after every single session.” Ali recalled that after covering the initial topic, how to approach the first job or internship,the participants decided they wanted to focus more on the subject of negotiation - specifically, “how to change jobs or change positions or just look to change your outlook on your current position.” As a result, the program members felt ownership in what they learned.

“I would say it was definitely surprising how relatable [the program] was for all of us and I think we were all able to both give and receive lots of advice over the course of these sessions.” – Ali Sivilotti

Noelle Nelson went on to point out that, unlike smaller professional development or networking sessions she attended in the past, the initiative created a support network where the group members were able to reflect on complex or challenging issues for an extended period of time in a non-threatening environment. She further explained that some networking sessions can be “a little nerve-wracking,” especially, if one is a shy, soft-spoken person. This program, however, was special in that it enabled the participants to become comfortable enough to “put themselves out there” and create a caring space, she added.

“ [The program] is a lot more interactive. You get to actually practice interviewing and negotiating with people that you can build up trust with, and you just don’t get that from a lot of those smaller professional development sessions.” – Noelle Nelson

Emily Long went on to highlight that the initiative is a great opportunity to understand what it means to be a woman in tech and STEM, and to practice the industry standards. She also emphasized the importance of building a network with people “who came from where you came from,” which was one of the reasons why she found the program relevant and relatable.

 “It’s an opportunity to adjust your perspective and to prioritize different parts of professional development, and to be able to do that with others’ experiences contributing is beyond valuable.” – Emily Long

The Program is a “Must-Do” for a Female in STEM

Madison Hillyard stated that if she had the opportunity to participate in the program as a freshman, she would have “tried to take it multiple times.” She believes the program has the potential to evolve, and each session is going to take participants through different experiences where they will learn and apply new professional development skills in their pursuit of careers. Madison also noted the program would have been a great go-to resource for her when she had an issue with a boss in one of her internships.

“I think I would call this a must-do as a female in STEM.” – Madison Hillyard

Priya Khullar went on to explain that one of the reasons she chose to join the program was the fact that she finds such initiatives “incredibly important” as someone who’s a little farther along in her academic career than some participants. She stated the program has been a great opportunity for her to build other women up and be there as a resource for them.

“The opportunity to build a network and help other women who are coming and dealing with the same issues I do seemed extremely important. So it’s a fantastic place to do this.”– Priya Khullar

Evren Gurkan-Cavusoglu concluded by calling on panelists “to keep the network going.” She said the next step should be to engage in career-related conversations with CWRU WIT members and she urged the graduates to become mentors for the “students coming in.”

“You all recognize the importance of networking so I’m hoping that you will be willing to be a resource for our students . . . . Hopefully you will be willing to share your experiences if someone is having questions about the program or about their careers in general.” – Evren Gurkan-Cavusoglu, Ph.D.

The Professional Development Program will continue with a new class in the spring of 2021.

For more information on the program, please contact Evren Gurkan-Cavusoglu, Ph.D., at