Turning the Career Fair Tables

By Lizzie Hickman & Holly Bonner

Career fairs. Odds are you’ve attended one. Students and professionals walk around booths taking pens and leaving resumes on company-sponsored tables. 

They’re full of buzzing talent and opportunities. But what if talent isn’t the only thing you hear buzzing? Suddenly the fluorescent lights are making a sound, the click, click, click of dress shoes consumes you and the number of jostling people overwhelms.

That’s what a career fair might feel like for students on the autism spectrum. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s Mosaic program is reverse engineering the career fair model as part of efforts to support the holistic needs of degree-seeking UTC students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

“Our best case scenario is employers come with the intention of conducting onsite interviews and hire one of our students for an internship or a job,” says Kyle Hudson, Mosaic Career Coordinator. “Even if employers just come to meet and support the students, it’s dispelling misconceptions about autism.”

The format looks similar to traditional career fairs except employers move around the room and visit tables with junior and senior students from various fields of study including many STEM-related majors.

In 2008, Mosaic formed to address the needs of autistic students looking for guidance. Now, eleven years later, it has grown into one of the most comprehensive programs in the country.

Mosaic provides autistic students the opportunity to experience college through a four-year credit-bearing curriculum. The first two years focus on personal development and social navigation, while the last two years focus on professional development. Mosaic’s career fair is the grand finale allowing students to showcase all they have to offer to prospective employers.

“They are very intelligent, and capable of excelling within their degree-related fields,” Hudson says. “But due to a social skill or a sensory barrier or not having the knowledge and autonomy to self-advocate through a professor, students who would be successful immediately hit roadblocks.”

College traditionally gives young adults time to grow into their new sense of independence and develop their own values and beliefs. For Mosaic students, part of their college experience is learning to navigate social settings that may seem foreign to them.   

The beauty in the Mosaic program is helping students unleash the immense amount of potential they already have so they can excel as professionals. One way Mosaic does this is by establishing peer mentorships between its students and other UTC students. Through these relationships, Mosaic students dive deeper into campus life and grow more socially confident.

What results from the Mosaic program is a class of career-ready and determined individuals who are prepared for the next step of their lives.

“Our students cover the whole scope of degrees offered at UTC,” Hudson says. “While we do have a slight skew toward engineering and computer science majors, we also have students who are interested in studying sports, education or the performing arts.”

Chattanooga-based companies such as Unum, BlueCross BlueShield, Volkswagen and more have successfully partnered with Mosaic to hire some of their top students. By bringing neurodiversity into the workplace, these companies have opened their doors to a new group of uniquely talented and intelligent employees.

"The best days at my job are when I can help a student overcome barriers in the employment process, and begin a career they never would have had access to without Mosaic's training and community,"  Hudson says.

Along with employers, Mosaic also welcomes people who can be resources for volunteer or job shadowing opportunities.

The Reverse Career Fair was slated for March 26 and is now postponed due to COVID-19 concerns. Find updates at utc.edu/mosaic