Ready, Set, Go Build a Life: Preparing Students for the World of Work


"What are you doing after graduation?" This is the time of year when that question causes college seniors around the country to tense up. What would it take to get to the point where they were prepared and excited for the question? How can colleges better help their students to imagine the kinds of lives they want to lead?

Most career programs in today's colleges and universities are good at what they do. They provide a foundation, especially for students who already know what they want to pursue and need some assistance with resumes, networking and interview skills.

But the current career-services model is hamstrung by a number of shortcomings. First, too many students do not go to the career office until their senior year, which is too late. Second, too many colleges expect their career services office to do this work in a silo. And third, colleges too often fail to support students when they most need help - after graduation.

So how do we do this better? We start by reimagining the typical career advising that takes place on most campuses by focusing on five areas:

Start early: The career exploration process cannot begin during senior year. But we also do not want first-year students fixated on jobs when they need to be focused on successfully transitioning into college. Instead, we need to develop new approaches that are consistent with other forms of learning that are targeted toward first-year students. And we need to make it fun and engaging, so students come back, continue the process, and become excited about their future.

For example, we are creating a suite of exploratory programs at Denison that are low key and, yes, fun. One is an alternative spring-break road trip. The idea is to provide funding to groups of students who propose road trips to interview alumni and parents in a specific profession. Imagine six students with a high-quality video camera, traveling in a minivan to five cities to meet with alumni in the marketing field. The students chronicle their experience (and their learning outcomes) and produce a three-minute video for their peers, which becomes part of an online library on "how Denison alumni have built interesting and meaningful lives."

Coaching and mentorship: The goal for college students should not be just to find a job, but to build a life. We need to help them explore the kinds of lives people lead and the ways they develop careers to support those lives. Mentorship and coaching are crucial. Career services cannot do this work by themselves. Faculty, staff, alumni, parents, community members and others can be engaged as mentors who catalyze students, encouraging them to ask good questions, develop goals, and learn to achieve.

Alumni and parents are key to this process. Denison, like many great colleges, has an incredibly strong alumni network. We need to engage them early in our students' education, bringing them to campus to tell the stories of their lives. Students need to hear about how careers unfold in unpredictable ways and the huge array of paths people take to build successful lives. One of the programs we have developed to address this is called NextGen, which brings recent graduates back to campus for short residencies. We are finding that students crave interactions with our graduates of the last decade or so. We also have built a new online tool called Handshake, where students can pose questions and have discussions with alumni. It helps our students to create connections and develop relationships within this network of interested and successful professionals.

Internships and externships: Students need multiple internships and externships that help them explore different sectors, work on skills, and start to develop networks. These need to be high-quality experiences, which means leveraging our networks of alumni and parents. Colleges also need to create events that add layers of learning outcomes to the experience.

For example, we are developing a suite of summer fellowship programs. Denison students are placed in cities where they have internships during the day, and then use evenings and weekends to connect with alumni, parents and other friends of the college who can provide advice and offer short seminars on profession-specific skills and workplace topics like ethics, networking, leadership, and other issues impacting each work sector and field of employment.

Professional Skill Seminars in the "off months:" A liberal arts education prepares students for long-term success. But students increasingly need profession-specific skills, networks and experiences to compete for their first jobs and for graduate programs. It would be counterproductive to squeeze this into the curriculum. Instead, students need to use the "off months" for focused professional development. Denison is developing new ways to use January and May to offer professional seminars that will run from a few days to a few weeks.

Our first effort is a new program called OnBoard, which uses online technology to deliver eight self-paced instructional modules focusing on mastery of the hard and soft skills most employers find lacking in their entry-level applicant pools. From using spreadsheet programs, to writing professional memos, to reviewing financial statements, to project management, OnBoard offers the short-term skill set that complements the lifelong skills that are derived from a liberal arts education, including research, analysis, critical thinking, effective writing, interpersonal communications, and the ability to solve complex problems.

Post-Graduation Support: Students need career support during the initial years as they are transitioning from college into employment. Many new graduates will stumble (at least once) during their first five years following graduation. I would even go so far as to say that colleges should explore ways to extend this support across a person's entire lifetime. In a changing world, most college grads will make transitions in their careers many times.

As one example, many colleges are cultivating "communities of practice" for alumni and students to connect around shared professional interests. In our case, our alumni are taking these career communities on the road, convening sessions of "Denison Connecting!" in urban centers across the nation and abroad. These not only provide networking connections for our students, but alumni-to-alumni networking for their own professional growth, which often is underestimated by colleges for its value in community-building.

All of this rests on simple assumptions and clear action steps.

First, students are in classes 60 percent of the calendar year. We need to more effectively use the 40 percent of the year that falls between semesters to engage students in additional pre-professional training. With this approach, our students get the best of both worlds. The academic semesters give students liberal arts skills, values and habits that matter for long-term success, while using January, May and summers to give them specific skills, experiences and networks needed to transition from college into jobs and top graduate programs.

Second, the world of work has changed. Colleges must help students and recent graduates access the on-ramps into the professions, and we need to ensure that our graduates have the "day-one" competencies that employers and graduate schools require. Our alumni, parents and friends are best positioned to help us find and use these on-ramps to the new economy. Whether for internships, full-time employment, or admission to graduate and professional schools, the next frontier of career services in colleges lies in cultivating each institution's own community and the long-term relationships that will yield pipelines of opportunity across all employment sectors and academic disciplines.

Finally, we need to pay attention to the financial realities of our students. At Denison, our students span the economic spectrum, and the college is doing the work of raising and committing funds to make sure that everything we do is affordable and accessible for every student.

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