The summer heat hasn’t yet broken through the early morning clouds when Sharon Cole arrives at Syracuse University for the annual CNY Works orientation. Funded by the workforce development nonprofit CNY Works and coordinated by Cole, the program places local students, ages 16 to 20, in University departments to work over the summer.
Every year, Cole, talent acquisition manager in the University’s Office of Human Resources, is at the location hours before the event starts, but she wants everything to be perfect for the local students. She lays out T-shirts, rearranges chairs and runs through the schedule—reassuring herself that her attention to detail and passion holds strong. Right alongside her, for the last 13 years, is her daughter Diamond.
Diamond grew up watching her mom help streamline hiring practices at Syracuse University and prioritize her local community. And yet, Diamond is just one “student” of Cole’s—a woman who continuously personifies lessons of compassion, hard work and love.
Twenty years ago, Cole was enrolled in a job readiness program at CNY Works. She was pregnant with Diamond at the time and knew she wanted to improve her skills to begin a career for herself and her daughter. The agency helped Cole get hired at Syracuse University.
“When I was hired at Syracuse University, I said I was going to give back,” Cole says. “Someone gave me the opportunity to talk with someone at Syracuse University, and I said I was going to work with community agencies and be that contact person moving forward.”
And she did.
When Cole was hired, the Office of Human Resources shortly shifted from in-person, paper application processes to digital processes. She quickly identified that the digital process was impeding on local hiring and found an opportunity to bolster the temporary support process.
Sharon Cole with local students at the annual CNY Works orientationAfter approaching her supervisor, Cole was encouraged to spread her wings, creating an in-house temp agency at Syracuse University; after all, more employees are hired in temporary positions than not at the University.
“I’m proud of taking a process that we had and making it more inclusive,” says Cole.
Word traveled through the University and local community as Cole worked with workforce development agencies and other organizations to hire local community members. Cole says people knew that if they wanted to hire someone for a temporary administrative position they had three options: “post the position, go to an outside temporary agency or ‘do you want to work with the talent team at HR to fill your position?’” The third option was and still is the most popular.
For the past 20 years, Cole has found the most value in helping people get a foot in the door at Syracuse University through temporary positions and also watching young people in the CNY Works program discover options they never thought possible.
By getting people into positions as temporary administrative employees, many then become permanent, use tuition benefits for their children, get promotions, etc. Many CNY Works students are exposed to higher education for the first time, realizing the possibilities in front of them, including possibly attending Syracuse University.
“I open emails and immediately cry sometimes,” Cole says. “Many of my past students or hires email me thanking me for who I am and for making a difference in their lives…for taking the time to talk to them and helping them.
One of the regular emailers is Craig Tucker, now director of the Arthur O. Eve Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP). A serendipitous series of events led him to his current position, but that’s the way it works with Cole.
Fifteen years ago while volunteering with a program to collect furniture for Hurricane Katrina survivors, Tucker started talking to a fellow volunteer about wanting to continue his career in higher education. The volunteer told him that if he wanted to work at Syracuse University, he needed to talk to Sharon Cole. Tucker sent his resume to Cole, who called him within a half hour of receiving his email.
After Cole convinced him to apply for a position as a temporary coordinator in the School of Information Studies, his career at Syracuse University took off. Now, as a program director, he continues to email Cole thanking her for and reminding her of the importance of the work she’s doing.
“I tell her thanks for opening the door and convincing me to get into the temporary pool. She’s doing good, important work…in a way, her work really makes Syracuse University part of the community,” says Tucker.
Cole’s work is now being elevated in a partnership between the Office of Human Resources and the Office of Community Engagement, as one part of a new University initiative: Building Local, a three-pronged effort focused on opportunity, partnerships and business.
“Twenty years feels like yesterday working at the University, and I could do it another 20. I love what I do and love being a part of and representing Syracuse University,” says Cole.
This labor of love has inspired many to realize their potential and help others around them. Most significantly, however, it has been instilled in Diamond.
“Seeing my mom have a passion for helping people—who didn’t have the same chances as other people—showed me how much she cares about the community, which inspired me to be who I am and pursue a career in serving underserved populations,” says Diamond, who is now a rising senior studying public health in the Falk College. “The tough love she gave to me and the role model she is for me…she’s that for every CNY Works student and every person she comes to know.”