EPIC Spotlight: Renee Clay

If it’s not apparent that Renee Clay enjoys her job, just look at her desk. It’s filled with knick-knacks, toys and conversation pieces. She laughs often.

“There’s no telling how many people here get jobs,” Clay says. “No telling. It’s fun to come to work here.”

As director of Career Services and Student Programs at the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Clay is always looking for creative ways to help students outshine their competition when they’re in the job market. As a result, she’s constantly exploring ways to go beyond traditional career coaching that’s available at many universities.

Her recent excitement is a board game she and her staff created they named “In the Red,” where players, in a manner that resembles the mystery board game “Clue,” figure out who in their department brings the company down. Nine players are presented with scenarios, such as uncontrollable storms or an embezzlement, as they try to identify the untrustworthy coworker. This is one of many ways she and her staff drive a point home to their students about the importance of business ethics and good judgment.

“We want them to learn it in a fun, different kind of way,” Clay says. “I mean, how many career centers create a board game?”

Since joining Walton’s staff in 1997, Clay has trained and advised operators of small businesses and helped students get the right footing for their first career job after graduation. Sure, the center provides traditional career preparation services, but innovation drives her. She sometimes wears to work a T-shirt that says G.R.I.T., which stands for Generate Resilient Individual Thoughts. She helped design the G.R.I.T. program for faculty members to use in their classrooms by presenting challenges to help students engage in teamwork through necessary career skills like communication, creativity and problem-solving. Those challenges can include an escape room that utilizes job interview skills or in a game called “Island Survival” where, as the name suggests, each person tries to come up with survival game plan based on items provided as if stranded on a desert island.

But her main goal is for students to not be stranded without a job come graduation time. “We try to embrace career readiness as part of student success,” she says.

Clay also has the ability to see a student’s positive attributes that they, themselves, may not see. Such was the case with Katie Perry, a Walton graduate who now works as a Cloud Transformation Lead for ConocoPhillips in Houston.

Perry says she began as a student at Walton but changed to a non-business major because she thought that would be more practical.

Clay, however, wasn’t going to let her go that easily. She persuaded Perry to come back to Walton for an interview with ConocoPhillips, which Perry reluctantly did. Perry didn’t take the interview very seriously – until ConocoPhillips offered her an internship and a scholarship. That got Perry’s attention. She returned to Walton, eventually earning a degree in information systems.

“I think Renee reassured me to have confidence in myself, to know what I was capable of, to go out there and have the interviews and believe in myself,” Perry says.

That reassurance has continued into Perry’s professional career. Perry considers Clay a friend and continues to turn to her for advice and, in turn, Perry has helped Walton students gain internships at ConocoPhillips.

Taylor Frederick, a 2019 Walton graduate who works as a home adviser for Mr. Cooper, a mortgage lender based in Dallas, says Clay gave him the skills and confidence to help him secure a job before graduation, though the process began the first week of his freshman year. After hearing Clay speak at college orientation, Frederick’s mother persuaded him to pay a visit to the career center. At Clay’s urging, he began attending career fairs and did it so often, he was comfortable interviewing by his senior year.

“She basically encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone to set myself apart,” Frederick says. “I don’t know that I would have done that kind of stuff without her.”

Frederick says he could always turn to Clay when he wanted advice or feedback on public speaking – he served as Walton College Career Services Ambassador – or a recent job interview. She always took the time to meet with him regardless of her schedule, he says.

Clay says she attributes her mentoring methods, in part, to a high school teacher who taught advance biology in her hometown of Stuttgart, about 60 miles southeast of Little Rock, and an English instructor at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, where she attended college. Both kept the subjects interesting, and Clay says she finds herself blending their teaching styles as she works with Walton students.

After Clay earned degrees in biology and zoology, she became certified in histology – the study of microscopic anatomy, such as cells and tissue. She worked for six years as a surgical pathology technologist and an instructor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock. Clay accepted a job as a program director at Baptist Health Medical Center-Little Rock, where she taught histology, radiology and classes for the hospital’s registered nursing program. She enjoyed it.

Amidst working in the medical field, she met and married Dr. Donald Clay, a psychiatrist. In 1995, they moved to Northwest Arkansas, where he worked. She, on the other hand, found there was little need for medical instruction in the area. “I unpacked for six months and played golf,” she recalls.

As time passed, she earned an M.B.A., had a baby and longed to return to work. That’s when she noticed that the University of Arkansas had an opening for a training coordinator and technical consultant for the Small Business Development Center. “I remembered how much I missed being in the classroom,” she says.

Clay was hired. For the next six years, she worked with small business owners through the center’s workshops and other training programs. Willard J. Walker Hall, where her office is now, and the J.B. Hunt Transport Services Center for Academic Excellence were nonexistent and that space was a parking lot, Clay recalls. She was stationed on the first floor of the Business Building.

While she enjoyed working with business owners, she wanted to work with college students. By then, a career center at Walton was in development, thanks to a $50 million donation from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation to establish the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Clay accepted a position as Co-op Coordinator with Walton’s George W. Edwards, Jr. Career Center’s cooperative education program, which enables students to earn academic credit while gaining degree-related work experience. Allowing students to minor in a discipline was also made available, she says. The career center’s staff had about “four or five” people, and the student enrollment was about 2,000, Clay says. Now it’s closer to 6,000.

In 2014, Clay became a director with Career Services and has served in that capacity ever since. It keeps her very busy as she meets with students daily, using both traditional and nontraditional methods, and at every phase of the student’s college career. This includes résumé consulting, practice interviews, career fairs (Walton’s is the largest on campus), the G.R.I.T. program and activities like the board game and escape room. On her office walls, she keeps large tear sheets with the students’ strengths and weaknesses marked in pen as reminders of what needs to be addressed in their planning.

Clay also teaches Freshman Business Connections, an introductory course that serves as a primer to the different business fields and helps orient students to college life. She stresses to them that the most successful students are the ones who focus on their academics by maintaining a strong grade point average while taking advantage of internships and opportunities with student organizations. She and her staff set deadlines for their students and schedule appointments so they can report their progress or obstacles. It works, Clay says.
She says students’ expectations have changed through the years with many never having experienced failure. The technology explosion during the past 20 years has also vastly changed childhoods.

“The ‘Generation Zs’ have never answered a phone that wasn’t theirs,” she says. “This generation expects instant access to information.”

They also struggle with the best way to connect with others, Clay says. The center has programs and activities that can help with this, such as its Are You Ready? Pop-Up Shops that focuses on a different career-educated theme each week in brief, but powerful, ways. There are also visits from recruiters with the Company of the Day series and an ongoing list of programs and services available for career readiness, including the Career Closet, which provides students with gently used professional clothing for job interviews without their having to worry about the expense. But it’s all on the students to find that dream job. “I think students sometime think we have a magic drawer of jobs,” Clay says.

Yet there’s one thing she relays to students: don’t be complacent.

“My biggest struggle is to see the student who settles with being mediocre,” she says. “Please don’t settle.”

Frederick says Clay is effective in making sure that doesn’t happen.

“She’s a super, super hard worker,” Frederick says. “She’s a perfectionist. She wants to make sure things are right, and if things aren’t right, she’ll call people out on it. She’s going to makes sure things are done the right way.”

And that’s not just for students.

“I always felt she was working for everyone’s best interest – the companies and the college and so forth,” Perry says. “And for me, personally, she’s somebody I’ve stayed in contact with, somebody to bounce ideas off of – a good friend and a good partner.”

Clay says she has a blast watching students evolve from orientation to when they receive their diplomas. She gets to know them, goes to their weddings and maintains relationships long after they leave. She’s honored in knowing she may have played a role in a student’s successful, lifelong career.

Frederick says Clay certainly did for him, and he has a message for current Walton students.

“Don’t be afraid to go talk to her,” Frederick says. “Make time and make an effort to go see her because she can change your life, and she is amazing at what she does.”