Campus career centers: All in a day’s work

When Lisa Severy became a career counselor in the mid-’90s, the dominant philosophy in serving students was this: “I’ll help you catch your first fish.” Now the idea has evolved to: “I want to teach you to catch fish so you’ll be able to do this forever.”

The process involves meeting students’ needs—and providing what they don’t even know they need, says Severy, director of career services at University of Colorado, Boulder and past president of the National Career Development Association for career development practitioners and educators.

RÁ©sumÁ© assistance is the natural request. But after a 20-minute chat, “we’ll realize they need help understanding why they’re even here,” says Kathryn Curameng, director of career planning and development at Brandman University, an institution spread across 27 campuses and five military bases on the West Coast.

Discerning the “why” involves developing a rich relationship with students. As Rich Davino of Becker College in Massachusetts points out, students who come in merely for a transaction, such as cover letter help, may leave saying, “See you whenever!”

By getting to know students from the get-go—which at Becker means folding academic advising into career services—“we’re avoiding the ‘see you whenevers,’ ” says Davino, executive director of the Center for Career Education and Advising.

Some institutions now organize career services so counselors specialize in particular academic programs or industry areas. Other schools have moved away from traditional counseling staff and toward career coaches, who likely don’t have a master’s degree but may approach the work more from the student’s perspective and passions.

Some centers serve individual schools within a university, although 85 percent of the offices remain centralized, according to a 2015-16 benchmark survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Over half reside within the student affairs division; nearly one-quarter are within academic affairs.

Regardless of the operational model, career services professionals face increased student expectations today—often beginning at the admissions stage as families ask about internship and job-search supports. Those demands extend in many cases to alumni, who now turn to their alma maters in career SOS situations (thanks in part to mainstream media advising that approach).

“Some of our alumni have been through a lot,” says Severy. “They’ve been tossed around like in a washing machine. It’s a different set of skills as a career counselor to work with that.”

These offices are in many cases meeting expectations, yet students as a whole still focus more on the job search itself than on acquiring job-success skills, according to a 2014 Barnes & Noble College survey on the mindset of students for career preparation and success. And only 25 percent of juniors and seniors surveyed said they had worked with their career center.

Raising awareness of traditional and newer services, which thanks to technology can often be delivered remotely, is essential. Career centers are proving, too, that they can create innovative programming to entice participation. Following are several successful approaches worth adopting.

Reflection opportunities

For-credit College-To-Career courses at Wake Forest University in North Carolina aim to help students approach that post-education transition in a “deeper, more reflective and structured way,” says Mercy Eyadiel, associate vice president for career development and corporate engagement.

Assignments include identifying personal values and asking mentors for an
assessment of their strengths as well as opportunities for growth. That feedback helps students become prepared for when a potential employer leads an interview with the ever-so-common “tell me about yourself.”

The five courses in the series help in building “the confidence, the clarity and then the competence around your skills,” says Eyadiel. “You have anxiety because you don’t know what you’re going to be asked, and you aren’t sure if you’ll remember everything. Part of that is because students haven’t taken the time to reflect.”

Reflection is also a key component in Mines Advantage, an optional professional development program for South Dakota School of Mines & Technology students that features 30 exercises within the areas of career preparation, diversity, community involvement, personal development, leadership/teamwork and communication.

The program aims to provide students with the “qualities that fast-track people” in their careers, says Darrell Sawyer, associate vice president for student development in the Career & Professional Development Center.

As students participate in a chosen exercise—which might involve a one-time experience such as giving a technical presentation to a group or attending a professional conference, or a bigger commitment such as earning Six Sigma Certification or becoming an active member of an outside organization—they write and submit a statement in response to a guided reflection question.

Two such prompts: “Were there any aha moments?” and “How do you see this contributing to your own professional growth?”

Those completing the program do a more comprehensive reflection statement—and earn a recognition cord to wear at commencement. Three years in, nearly half of all students have signed up for Mines Advantage, and about 100 have completed it and graduated, says Sawyer.

Closet full of suits

Because career prep is not complete without attention to appearance, interview-suit closets are an emerging trend for campus career centers. Missouri University of Science & Technology has grown a simple coat rack with donations from faculty and staff into a packed closet of men’s and women’s suits and accessories that got used nearly 600 times during the 2015-16 school year.

“Any item that fits you is yours, free,” says student service coordinator Christian Lehman, who manages the closet. Most schools, on the other hand, have a rental fee or will charge if the suit isn’t returned. Missouri S&T’s suit closet even has nearby dressing rooms.

Lehman and other center staff get called in during office hours and find themselves taking neck measurements, teaching tie-tying and helping international students understand professional attire expectations.

“It helps to talk to someone at school rather than trying to navigate JC Penney or Kohl’s,” he says. Community donors, meanwhile, have a chance to help a student instead of tossing unwanted items.

At least weekly, Lehman or another coordinator will assess clothing needs, and sort and donate items as appropriate, says Edna Grover-Bisker, director of career opportunities and employer relations.

The suit closet is one way to reduce financial stress for students, about 90 percent of whom receive financial aid. And it boosts confidence. “You should see the change when a young person puts on professional dress for the first time,” she says. “They stand taller, and shine brighter.”

Help for the whole person

The right appearance won’t mean much in an interview or on the job if someone is struggling in other areas of life. At Howard Community College in Maryland, officials know research has shown career decisions and anxiety often go hand in hand.

But that stress could signal an anxiety disorder, too. “There’s also a lot of overlap with depression,” says Dave Tirpak, assistant director of career and employment counseling.

His department, Counseling and Career Services, has lived up to its name by offering students one-on-one counseling support, via the same staff, for both their careers and personal lives since 2001.

That combination helps, too, in managing the stigma attached to seeking mental health care, since only staff know what kind of appointment it is, based on a color code.

While the office rarely has clients seeking long-term personal counseling, Tirpak recalls one suicidal student whom he helped through the crisis and then saw for about two years. The support evolved into choosing a major and preparing for a career in social work.

“At another college, he would be tossed around to different departments,” he says. “We developed such a great relationship. Working through some of the darkest times in his life with him built that relationship. He’s going to be graduating in another semester.”

First job during college

Internship and full-time job help are career center service givens, but the University of Indianapolis and USA Funds, a nonprofit, are demonstrating that hiring students for actual jobs as early as sophomore year can be a win-win.

Students get meaningful, real-world work experience as employers tap into a talent pipeline that can be developed early—a pipeline that helps decrease turnover for jobs where entry-level employees tend to be on the move, says Corey Wilson, associate vice president of the Professional Edge Center at UIndy.

“We’ve all heard the horror stories of interns making copies all day. We make it clear: We want students to have real-world work experience.” Called coLAB, the program piloted in the spring and launched this fall.

His office works with academically strong freshmen on various soft skills, including dealing with office culture and conflicts, so they’re ready for the workplace the following year. Someone studying to be a physical therapist might win a job in marketing or billing in a healthcare setting—developing a macro-level understanding that will increase future marketability (possibly for full-time work at that company).

UIndy’s goal: Place 100 students by the end of the school year. Employers, who are initially identified and approached by USA Funds (which co-developed and hopes to expand the model to other schools), can provide feedback on weak skills so that UIndy can upskill student employees as needed.

Big-city career treks

Wake Forest’s “go to market” strategy gets students out in the world via Career Treks to various cities. Participants of the multiday trips engage with industry professionals, expanding their networks and increasing awareness of career choices and competition.

Initially organized via a partnership among Wake Forest, University of Chicago and Stanford University, the trips are now specific to WFU and focused on three cities of student interest: New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, says Eyadiel. And thanks to a $1.5 million Kirby Foundation grant, the competitive Career Treks aren’t just for students who can afford the travel.

When launching such initiatives, the resources Wake Forest officials have set aside for career development efforts—a priority in the institution’s mission—certainly help. Eyadiel estimates that among institutions of similar size, hers is probably the largest career office, with 42 staff and a cabinet-level leader for career development (the only known such position in higher education).

“The fundamentals of career development are still the same. Do we do rÁ©sumÁ©s? Absolutely,” she says. “But we’ve taken it up a few notches because we want students to be motivated about this process.”

Melissa Ezarik is UB’s managing editor.

The thriving campus career center

Career center industry partners weigh in on the best investment areas to take these offices into the future

“Colleges and universities can distinguish themselves from peer institutions by making career services more central to their missions. Students most frequently cite career-related reasons for pursuing postsecondary education. Investing in career services and preparation can be a competitive differentiator for an institution, important for enrolling and retaining students, and engaging alumni.”

—Tom Dawson, senior vice president, USA Funds

“Mobile will continue to play a bigger piece. New technology needs to be mobile-enabled—at least, it should be responsive design. Students don’t always put in the effort when it comes to starting their career. Technology that serves them where they are is better than technology that forces them to go somewhere. Email is still important and students prefer it when communicating with employers, despite rumors that email is going away. Quite the opposite. Students check email on their mobile devices. There are exceptions to going mobile and online. In our 2016 student insights survey, we heard from students that they prefer in-person interviews versus virtual interviews. We were surprised. You still need bricks and mortar for this. But for almost everything else, it seems like virtual is the way to go.

—Roberto Angulo, CEO, AfterCollege

“Thriving campus career centers of the future will offer the best combination of career counseling and academic advising. Students need a clear career vision to persist and complete—that career vision ought to be instilled throughout the academic advising process and support the student’s goals.”

—Andrew Crapuchettes, CEO, Emsi


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