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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern students’ newest friend: AI program ‘Ask a Wildcat’ connects students and alumni

Illustration by June Woo
The program connects students with alumni via AI by asking a career or professional development question.

AI-powered program ‘Ask A Wildcat’ is bringing students a new way to connect with the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences’ 80,000-person alumni network. The Austin J. Waldron Student-Alumni Connections Program partnered with artificial intelligence data company Protopia to provide a way for students to directly ask NU alumni for career advice.

The user-friendly interface launched the first week of Fall Quarter. The program asks a student to input a short headline, brief introduction, question for the alum and closing sentence.

Weinberg senior Mirabella Johnson is on the Student Council for the Waldron Connections Program. She was one of the program’s first testers over the summer.

“With AI being so new and pivotal in our era, (the program is) trying to hone in on that and use programming like that for the greater good,” Johnson said.

Students can ask any and all questions pertaining to academic or professional development, including advice on postgraduate pathways, building and growing a startup, to help with class projects or what to look for in an internship.

After submitting a question, AI will share the request with up to 25 of the most relevant alumni and connect the student and alum via email in three to ten business days. The submission page also provides students with a “cheat sheet” on how to follow up with alumni. 

Johnson said she heard back from an alum within hours after submitting her question.

“Hearing from experiences of people who used to be in your shoes is really helpful, especially at a place like Northwestern,” she said. “Going forward, the program will definitely make it easier for students to do that without that awkward first conversation and puts you in contact with people who can kind of help you right away.”

Weinberg senior Lauren Malenfant joined the Waldron Connections Program’s Student Council last spring. The student council helps promote and moderate events hosted by the Waldron Connections Program, share resources with their peers and provide feedback on programs.

Malenfant, who studies economics and political science, asked the program: ‘How have your experiences at Northwestern helped prepare you for the career that you’re in now?’

“Within the next three or four days, I got three different responses all from people doing very different things,” Malenfant said. “I remember there was one from someone doing research in physics and someone else in sports management.” 

Since 2013, The Waldron Connection Program has focused on supporting students with navigating and curating their interests by connecting them with alumni for career exploration. The program hosts alumni panels, professional skills development workshops and on-site trips to Chicago.

School of Education and Social Policy sophomore Sara Pena Figueroa said she sees the program as particularly useful for students in SESP.

“My first thought is I would use it to look for possible career options, especially because SESP has a lot of variety depending on your concentration which are broad themselves,” Pena Figueroa said.

Cassie Petoskey, director of alumni engagement and the Waldron Connections Program Program said she fostered a connection with Protopia over the last few years. She said the company approached her three years ago with an idea to use AI for community contribution purposes.

Petoskey said Protopia’s AI model is not based on another generative model and is designed with the NU platform in mind, aiming to sustain the size of both the student body and the alumni network.

“I’m hoping that this is a tool that students know they can turn to when they have questions and don’t know who to ask,” Petoskey said.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Cassie Petoskey’s last name. The Daily regrets the error. 

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Twitter: @HabashySam

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