Author: Elin Johnson
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It’s no secret that some colleges are falling short on promises to ready students for the working world. Institutions are coming under fire for underpreparing and underserving their students when it comes to career readiness. On top of this, they have to compete with alternatives to higher education models that can fast-track students directly into professions.
Assistance in the form of career services offices is often underused, but with only 50 percent of students getting help from their college’s career services office there’s a problem, says Brandon Buzbee of the University of Denver, citing a statistic from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).
“We had a problem with that, because we preach inclusivity in higher education, yet we fail to serve more than half our students with this particular resource,” Buzbee said. “The thought was, let’s look at why the model is broken and underserving, and how do we re-imagine a model of career development that democratizes and serves our students at appropriate levels?”
Buzbee, DU’s interim vice chancellor for advancement, said that the university looked at the existing model and decided they wanted nothing to do with it. They’ve re-examined how hands-off career services was and dedicated the office to fulfilling their mission of inclusivity and being accessible to all students.
Students who use career services are more likely to say their education was worth the cost, Buzbee said; they are also more likely to be philanthropic to their institutions and to start their careers with higher salaries. A 2016 Gallup survey backs this up.
“There’s almost a moral imperative related to needing to rethink the model, because it has inherent value and benefit to the careers and professional lives of our students,” Buzbee said.
DU’s career services program stands out in part because of its emphasis on collaboration. Career services partners with the Office of Alumni Engagement to bring DU alums into the conversation and open up current students’ career networks. Alumni are introduced to students interested in pursuing a similar field, and they attend formal and informal networking events.
Additionally, career services works closely with faculty and departments on what paths and advice students can follow to achieve success. Career services went a step further and worked with departments to better understand and provide the resources students needed to get a job after graduation.
Breigh Roszelle, the associate dean for undergraduate studies at DU’s Daniel Felix Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science, has been involved in building connections between career services and the engineering school. Part of this has included bringing career services staff into classes to alert students to the resources available to them.
“I’ve tried to help be a connection between career services and our school, specifically to help connect them with our undergraduate students in a little more of a poignant way,” said Roszelle. “It’s been really beneficial for us to connect them [students] to the resources career services has throughout their entire four years.”
Roszelle said that she and her colleagues understand that engineering is a professional track program, and that the whole engineer needs to be educated beyond calculus and into professional skills as well.
“It’s really trying to help our undergraduate students get to the resources that career services offers,” said Roszelle. “I think especially in engineering, our students are very set in their schoolwork, and it’s not that they don’t want to think about internships and jobs, but I think it’s not as forward in their minds.”
Career services has set up a faculty advisory board, which gathers faculty members together once a quarter to talk about what is working for students.
“We in academia tend to be very siloed sometimes in our schools and in our departments,” said Roszelle, going on to say that learning from other faculty on this topic was beneficial.
Roszelle said that career services has worked to remind faculty of their importance. One of the ways the office has done this is by hosting a breakfast for faculty nominated by students for their impact on the students’ professional careers. Faculty are presented with notes in which students have written the best advice or assistance the faculty member provided them with.
Students helped career services pinpoint which faculty provided them with the strongest industry insider knowledge, and career services honored those faculty and built relationships with them.
DU doesn’t stop there. Career services implemented a series of benchmarks to ensure that students were on track. It caters each of its events to help students fulfill the requirements of these missions.
By the end of their first year, students are expected to be able to articulate in some sense what they want to do and where they want to go. By the end of their second year, they should personally know three to four alumni who could help them achieve this dream. Then by the end of their third year, students, regardless of major, should be getting relevant, useful experience under their belts, such as an internship or professional involvement.
All this hopefully will lead to fourth-year students getting job offers or graduate school acceptances for their postgraduate chapters.
And it appears to be working. DU students are statistically above average when it comes to graduating and then entering the workforce. According to DU’s first-destinations data, 88.4 percent of the Class of 2018 is employed, continuing their education or in active service compared to the national average of 85.1 percent, and 81.6 percent for the Rocky Region. DU’s numbers dipped from Class of 2017’s 91 percent, compared to the then national average of 84.4 percent.
One of those success stories is Claire Girardeau, who graduated in June 2019 after majoring in international studies and Spanish.
Girardeau, who spent all four years at DU, first visited career services her freshman year while she was still making up her mind about what to study. She said that as she bounced around majors, the officers in career services helped her take personality quizzes and pinpoint what exactly she wanted to study and eventually do.
“Even with how they structured their offices and spaces they tried to create and how they sat down with us at the table felt really cozy,” said Girardeau, describing the staff members as accessible. “It always felt like they were on our side.”
She is now in the El Pomar Foundation’s two-year fellowship program, a position she obtained right after graduation after support from career services, with plans to go on to graduate school.
“As I was getting nervous about the interview process, there was always someone in the career services office who was there to walk me through what I needed to say,” said Girardeau. Career services connected her with an alumna associated with El Pomar who helped her through the process.
“It’s really cool to see how they still care about their students beyond graduation in a way that seems like they’re taking care of us, not just asking us for money,” said Girardeau. “It’s a different sort of relationship.”
At DU, 70 percent of students study abroad, and 72 percent of undergraduate and 76 percent of graduate students participate in at least one internship.
“What we find is that if a student goes to career services more than one time in the year that they’re graduating, they tend to have a higher success rate in terms of getting hired,” said Edwin Koc, director of strategic and foundation research at the National Association of Colleges and Employers. “It’s also true with career services that if you’re a student and you use the services a bit more intensively and more directedly, then you’re likely to be more successful in terms of getting a job.”
According to Koc, the least-utilized service tends to be interview preparation, and students who take their engagement to this level are the most prepared for starting their careers.
NACE conducts a student survey that received 25,000 respondents. Results showed that 50 percent of students used career services once, and around 25 percent of students used it intensively. Koc explained that this was because students typically only go to career services when they are engaged in the job search, which tends to be later in their collegiate career.
“The real objective is to get students to come to career services a bit earlier and to start thinking about career options a little earlier in the process, and it’s been difficult for a lot of schools to get students to do that,” said Koc. “It’s just not the nature of students to think in those terms.”
DU is taking things a step further, into the permanent. DU is building a brand-new career services office in the heart of its campus that is designed around the office’s mission and values.
The advancement team toured 10 other institutions’ career support offices to find what works and what doesn’t. From there they created a space where students, employers and alumni can meet and mingle without the sterile formality that often comes with similar offices.
Buzbee said that the new building will lack the “dentist’s office” feel of students checking in and waiting to meet with a professional. Instead they will have the run of a lounge space, where an employee with a tablet will coordinate meetings.
The second floor of the three-floored building will be dedicated to personal career coaching done by professionals. Roszelle said that these collaborative spaces will lead to organic connections.
Accompanying the program is Pioneer Careers, a LinkedIn-esque platform for students and employers to connect. They also have a blog with tips tailored to DU students and Denver industry spotlights, and a career closet students can raid.
Services like the career closet and stipends for unpaid internships make valuable career experiences more available to low-income and disadvantaged students.