Life support: How colleges are guiding students beyond campus life

"Juniors and seniors are interested not only in career networking but more so in trying to understand what it's like to navigate life after college," says David Crowley, director of Assumption University's ASPIRE program.

Student support programs are increasingly filling up college and university “To-Do” lists to ensure undergraduates are in the best position to thrive during their studies. However, colleges aren’t doing enough to ensure students are able to transition out of a life solely focused on getting good grades.

To prepare students for a life outside of college, institutions are beginning to connect eager alumni with students to help show them the ropes of what it means to be the next version of themselves: adults.

A recent report from the Strada Institute for the Future of Work and the Burning Glass Institute confirms just how dire this need is. The report found that 45% of four-year college graduates don’t have a job that requires a four-year degree.

“Colleges and universities can do more and should do more to help students prepare for the critical transition from college to the labor market,” said Stephen Moret, president and CEO of the Strada Education Foundation, at a media briefing.

Assumption’s proactive mentors

Assumption University kicked off the fall semester with its much-anticipated ASPIRE (Alumni-Student Partnerships in Reflective Engagement) program. Located within AU’s Center for Purpose and Vocation, ASPIRE is an in-demand offshoot of its SOPHIA program, which connects second-year sophomore students with faculty mentors to talk about one’s talents and possible avenues for vocation. AU alumni who participated in the SOPHIA program were so thankful for the opportunity that they were eager to give back to the next generation of students.

Thanks to a gracious grant from NetVUE, AU founded ASPIRE to look beyond solidifying students’ vocational calling.

“Juniors and seniors are interested not only in career networking but more so in trying to understand what it’s like to navigate life after college,” says David Crowley, director of ASPIRE.

Crowley, along with Center for Purpose and Vocation Director Esteban Loustaunau, spent a year working with students, alumni and staff to identify the core needs of students. Time and time again, managing finances after graduation dominated the brainstorming sessions. College students have a history of stressing over finances. In a recent report monitoring students’ mental health, finances were among the top three factors driving stress to record highs. The other was managing relationships.

“What happens when [a student’s] three best friends aren’t able to be with them when they’re having a crisis?” says Crowley.

ASPIRE has since modeled its inaugural programs around these two topics. In its first social last year, students and alumni mentors spoke about family, friends and romantic relationships.

Loustaunau credits the early signs of the program’s success to its hands-off approach in connecting students with alumni.

“It doesn’t happen artificially, like forcing a match between an accounting grad and an accounting major. It organically happens through conversations,” he says. “Regardless of their majors, it’s their connection to Assumption and their desire to get to know one another that makes it work, and it happens with every event.”

The program has more robust plans to tackle students’ financial questions. Three Assumption alumni are collaborating with faculty to develop a cocurricular personal finance program that touches on basic budgeting, investing, health insurance and how to manage one’s career wages. It will be available to spring 2024 graduates as a supplemental workshop for students eager to learn more beyond the currently available course.

The mentor-based programs available to sophomore and upper-level undergraduates through the SOPHIA and ASPIRE programs are driven by AU’s strategic plan championing accessibility and inclusion. Crowley believes that as the Northeast deals with continuously changing student demographics, AU is finding ways to ensure its underresourced students thrive.

More from UB: Here are 4 ways institutions can upgrade campus wellness for their most vital asset: Their staff

Grinnell tackles first-gen students

Grinnell College in Iowa is one institution ensuring that all its students receive dedicated support from relatable alumni. The private liberal arts school has dedicated a cohort for first-generation students in MentorGrinnell, a virtual mentorship program that began this fall. First-generation students often struggle to adapt to college life without a family network, and that problem usually extends to their lives after college.

Jessica Stewart, senior associate director of alumni and donor relations, the mentorship program connected with Grinnell’s First-Generation and Low-Income (FGLI) Resources, which created an outlet for FGLI students to connect and identify with FGLI alumni.

“It’s a smaller group, but it has been successful, and I think it’s been meaningful for the students and alumni involved,” says Stewart. “Having alumni support and knowledge about how to navigate has been really helpful.”

MentorGrinell is predominantly career-focused and features different cohorts based on academic tracks, such as health professions, business and finance and technology and data. Students are matched with mentors based on their discretion, or they can take advantage of a keyword-matching algorithm that does the pairing for them. The reception from alumni so far has been ecstatic, says Stewart.

“We have more alumni than students, which I think is a wonderful problem to have, she says. “That gives students options to find somebody that’s gonna work for them.”

However, first-generation students tend to be interested in focusing on more than just vocation, and alumni are ready to guide them on navigating college and what it’s like to secure an apartment.

“What’s nice about this program is not only is it career-focused, it’s also just like life-focused,” says Stewart.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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