By now you’ve probably heard all about Trina Thompson, the New Yorker who graduated from college this past spring, and is suing her alma mater because she hasn’t been able to find a job jet. She wants Monroe College to give back $70,000 in tuition money because she says that her school’s Office of Career Advancement hasn’t done enough to help her find work.

Good luck with that, Trina.

But what are college career centers supposed to do? What services are available and how can you get the most out of them? Let’s review:

What do they do? Most four-year (and many two-year) colleges and universities have career services and job coaching programs that help students and alumni develop job skills, polish their résumés and make useful contacts as they look for work. Some career centers even provide job listings for openings on and off campus, as well as information on internships, work-study and volunteer programs.

Some of the resources offered by college career centers include individual career counseling and advice, seminars and workshops on interview skills, contacts in various fields, career fairs, résumé help and even classes in using technology. Many college career centers also feature databases of alumni in various fields and set up networking events so that job hunters can speak with those who might be able to help them.

Who do they help? These programs aren’t just for current students. Many alumni are finding the way to end a job search with success is to turn to the alma mater for help through career services. For students, these services are paid for through student fees, so there is no charge for making use of the available resources.Some schools, like Syracuse University, offer free career help to alumni while other schools charge a small fee for career services used by those more than a year beyond graduation.

“While we do charge a fee for non-students, our services are open to anyone across the country with a four-year degree, not just graduates from our school,” Dana Sowby, the Associate Director of Career Services at the University of Utah, says.

What’s my role? (*This one’s for you, Trina.) A college career center isn’t just something to be used passively, however. In order to make the most of career services, active participation is necessary. “It is really important to engage in the process,” Sowby points out. “There are a number of resources available to students and to graduates, but if you just pop in occasionally, and expect someone else to do it all for you, you won’t do as well.”

“Our center puts out a regular newsletter,” Sowby says. “If your career center does this, sign up for alerts and notices. This way, you will know when a networking event or interview opportunity is coming up.” After all, you can’t take advantage of opportunities you don’t know about. “This is a process,” Sowby continues. “Someone isn’t going to just walk up to you and hand you a job. You need to prepare and watch for those critical moments. A college career center can help you do that.”

The most important thing, Sowby reveals, is to start early. “It sounds really obvious, but the sooner you get started, the better. As soon as you get an idea that a layoff is coming, you should sign up with career services. You can even take advantage of these programs if you aren’t activity looking. Use the career center as a way to keep up with what’s going on, and keep your skills and résumé sharp.”

For students, starting early can be even more beneficial. “We’ll help you if you first come in the day after graduation,” Sowby says, “but it’s better to start early. If you come in as a sophomore, or even a freshman, we might be able to help you find a part-time job that relates to your major in some way. This can help you get a better internship, which in turn can help you land a better job after graduation.”

Even with all of those resources, though, finding a job can still be difficult … Trina.

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