SCHENECTADY — Born legally blind with congenital cataracts and given up for adoption at birth, Roger Woolsey has been dealing with extra challenges all his life.
That experience helps make Woolsey, 56, the perfect person to helm Union College’s Becker Career Center at a time when college graduates entering the workforce have to navigate an uncertain world that’s emerging from the pandemic.
Woolsey, who started as the Becker Career Center’s executive director in mid-December, said he’s already been able to see how adaptable Union students are — whether that’s switching gears between 10-week terms or adjusting to a last-minute change to remote learning, as happened at the start of the current term.
“They have to be interdependent, they have to be flexible, they have to adapt to change immediately,” Woolsey said. “I think these last two years we’ve all learned how to get through all of this, and one thing I’ve heard already is about how adaptive Union students are.”
Woolsey will bring a career that blends startup and academic experience to a job that is focused on preparing the next generation of workers. Replacing Robert Soules, who retired last fall, Woolsey takes over a career center that has seen demand spike over the past decade. In 2010, Becker hosted 2,038 student appointments for advising services. In 2020, that number had jumped to 3,154, according to the college. On top of this work, the center typically manages between 150 and 200 student appointments with alumni each year, the college notes.
By building relationships with local municipalities, chambers of commerce and businesses, Woolsey said his goal is to make sure Union’s 2,150 undergraduate students are aware of the opportunities available to them right in the 100-acre Schenectady campus’ backyard. The private liberal arts college blends arts, humanities and social sciences with sciences and engineering.
“My goal is to introduce the Capital Region to Union students,” Woolsey said. “It’s taking the energy that we’re seeing, for example, in Schenectady and introducing that same energy to the students, and saying there are opportunities here, there is youthfulness in the Capital Region. When students graduate from college, what do they want? They want to be in an environment where there is energy.”
Woolsey sees that energy not only in the cultural offerings in the area but also in the thriving industries being built near New York state’s seat of government. It’s all fresh in his mind because Woolsey is still new to Schenectady.
He was born in Los Angeles with congenital cataracts and lived in foster care until he was adopted at the age of 4.
He still recalls the day he was dropped off at his new family’s home. He remembers being anxious despite feeling welcomed. Then when his new father, a veterinarian, left to go to work at the animal hospital, Woolsey began to cry.
He wouldn’t stop. So his new mother called his new father’s office, and his dad came home almost immediately.
“I felt good because he was such a warm soul. I was nervous, I was scared and there was something about his voice or about his demeanor that I must have felt comfortable with,” Woolsey said.
Woolsey, who has a 12-year-old son, brings his own warmth to his work in career education.
But he didn’t always know it was the field he would find himself in. In fact, in high school he dreamed of spending more time on an actual field. He played linebacker and defensive lineman for his high school varsity football team and would pretend to film United Way commercials as if he were a professional athlete.
Woolsey’s eyesight made positions such as quarterback and wide receiver impossible. He said he has about 20/400 vision in one eye and 20/600 vision in the other. He can see the big “E” at the top of the eye doctor’s exam chart, but that’s about it.
Still, he never let his limited sight stand in his way. After all, he’s never seen the world differently.
“If you’re born sighted and lose your vision, that’s completely different,” Woolsey said. Plus, he said, technology like magnification on computers and phones, as well as devices such as monoculars that help him watch plays or his son’s hockey games, let him live in a fairly typical way. Driving is about the only thing he doesn’t do.
Woolsey said his college football dreams were probably doomed more by his size — at 6-foot-3 and about 200 pounds, he was bigger than the average person but much smaller than elite lineman — than by his eyesight.
He studied communications at San Diego State University, where he said a public-speaking class helped him emerge from his shell.
“I was pretty shy, and I think for me I found my voice and confidence in that one class,” Woolsey said. “It changed my life.”
In addition to giving him confidence, the class also planted the seed in Woolsey’s mind about the importance of higher education. However, he started his career in the private sector, working in advertising and marketing for a telecommunications company in San Diego. From there he went to graduate school at Emerson College in Boston to study marketing and management communication, which eventually led to a job at Boston College, where he taught — what else? — public speaking.
At B.C., Woolsey said, he often had students lined up outside his door.
“I was the internship coordinator for the department so I was helping students with jobs and internships, not really knowing that it was career education at all.”
But career education was what it was, and it was where his professional life was headed. Prior to coming to Union, Woolsey oversaw career centers at Dartmouth College (2013-19) and Colby College (2008-13).
At Union, Woolsey said he wants to develop students in the way startup companies are developed: focusing on how to problem-solve and thrive in a fast-moving world.
Woolsey knows the world of startups from personal experience. The telecommunications company where he began his career was a startup, and in between academic posts he ran a startup of his own focused on financial literacy and career readiness service, requiring him to seek backing from venture capitalists.
“When you go through life and you’re meeting with venture capitalists, you realize how important people are. People don’t invest just into the idea of the company, they invest in you the person,” Woolsey said.
To develop Union’s students, Woolsey said he wants to create a career curriculum that prepares students for postgraduate success beginning in their first term. The program will feature some online learning as well as traditional workshops, and it will include internships that potentially lead toward job opportunities in the Capital Region.
“We’ve got great opportunities for students and for employers,” Woolsey said. “I want to immerse the community with Union to support our local employers, but I also want to support the talent that we have here at Union moving forward. With the experiential learning through internships, we have a golden opportunity to do that.”
Union College by the numbers
1795: Year founded
2,100: Total students
3,154: Student-advising appointments at the Becker Career Center in 2020
23%: Domestic Union College students who are people of color
58: Majors and minors
$58,956: Tuition cost in 2020-2021