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Career center messaging to students should help them understand that support is available for all stages of career development and preparation.

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Getting students to engage with campus career centers—and, more specifically, to engage early in their college careers with services and events provided by these centers—has been a nearly universal challenge within higher education. Being available to assist students in various stages of career exploration and development as well as having a presence across campus, including in classrooms, are aims that can help. Strategic data collection and use can help drive planning and prioritizing.

Meanwhile, campus career service professionals at many colleges and universities are recognizing the need to ensure alumni know they can still get guidance from their campus career center teams. That postgraduation help is valuable but may be difficult to execute in offices with lean staffing.

Discussions at a Student Success US conference workshop last month centered on these challenges and the ways various higher ed career services professionals are working through them. In small groups, attendees shared “creative ways to engage students and programs since the dynamic of student populations has shifted from recent trends and COVID,” said Ro Lee, associate director in the Career and Professional Development Department at Claremont Graduate University, one of the panelists who participated in conversation prior to and on stage at the event. A few initiatives that Lee noticed garnered a lot of interest and discussion included taking day trips to alumni work facilities, reaching out to affinity groups and getting student clubs and organizations involved in career center events and offerings.

The following questions and insights—from Lee as well as Sean Gil, director of the career center at University of California, Riverside; Audra Verrier, associate vice provost for career and professional development at Loyola Marymount University; and Kimberly Rolfe, co-director of the Career and Community Engagement Center at Whitman College (who was unexpectedly unable to attend Student Success US)—facilitated workshop discussion during the conference, hosted by Times Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed in partnership with the University of California, Los Angeles.

  1. How do we meet students where they are to provide career support, and how can we integrate career exploration and development programs across campus?

In terms of what stage of career exploration or preparation students are in, Rolfe said it’s important for career center professionals to “help students understand we can support them, regardless of how invested they are in their career at that point … We have to be flexible in supporting students.”

Verrier sees meeting students where they are as a key component of the work. In a previous role at a public four-year institution, getting students through the door was difficult. At Loyola Marymount, the challenge is more about understanding “who is coming through the door.” Her office has programs geared toward particular groups, such as underrepresented first-generation students, who may feel most comfortable participating in events on a smaller scale compared to the general student population.

Casual career conversations are also taking place on Wellness Wednesday, a new effort involving employees engaging with students and walking them through career prep process, Verrier said.

At UC Riverside, Gil’s team has implemented design thinking–based empathy interviews. “We go out in pairs and we’ll meet with students outside of the career center, asking open-ended questions about how they feel about careers in general and things they worry about,” he said. One surprise: hearing that students knew they needed internships but just didn’t feel like they had the time or money. The career center staff also learned of the influence faculty members have in providing students with career advice. “That told us a lot about where we needed to be,” he added—referring to the inroads higher ed has been making in the integration of career preparation happening in classrooms.

“Career development is an active area that is reaching out to students rather than waiting for students to reach out to the office,” Lee noted just after the workshop wrapped.

  1. How do we measure which career service initiatives are working and encourage greater participation?

Post-COVID, many departments across institutions are using participation data related to events and service offerings to determine what’s working and what might need work.

Career services feedback comes from both students and alumni. Loyola Marymount has plans to use a national alumni career survey to ask its alumni not just if they’re working full-time but what exactly they’re doing—if they met their career goal, if they got the job they planned to get, etc., said Verrier.

Student expectations about the role of the institution in job placement can be frustrating to career services teams. “I abhor that term, ‘placement,’ but I think we’re just going to have to get used to it, as it’s really what we’re being asked to do,” said Gil, adding that 100 percent employment is a goal he agrees with.

“The reality is you’re doing the student a disservice because they need to learn how to pursue an opportunity on their own,” said Rolfe. “The word ‘placement’ is not appropriate for what our work is with our students. Our job is to help them network and understand what their roles are. If it’s just about placement, then AI is really going to take over our jobs.”

Lee added, “Our roles are starting to be defined by policy and government … I feel like something is being formed by policy that we’re going to have to adhere to, whether we have a say or not. Certain things are in the wind and how higher ed adjusts will be important.”

Another related challenge is that previous students or graduates “can request that their student loans be dissolved because the campus misrepresented something,” Verrier said. “One came in about career services not meeting expectations. In reviewing that, we had to dig back to 2012, and we have no data from that time.”

Getting faculty support is important in reaching current students. UC Riverside efforts have included Ask Me Anything sessions in classrooms about topics such as networking. “It’s also a way to scale services,” Gil said.

Loyola Marymount organizes similar sessions, but sometimes faculty members revert to more traditional thinking about their role in career preparation. “Faculty will say to career services, ‘I had to do work to get students internships last year. That should be your job.’”

  1. How do we encourage alumni to utilize career services?

Young alumni seem to be a common focus for career centers, even when services are available to all alumni. “It’s hard—they’re not all getting jobs,” says Verrier. “We work with them to make sure that we do our part to support as needed with resources and training.” Perhaps that means giving alumni access to AI and other tools for résumé, cover letter and LinkedIn presence help, with staff members facilitating the various self-directed steps, if needed.

Rolfe shared that Whitman’s four-year career coaching initiative was launched in part to reduce alumni support needs. First-year students are initially encouraged, and then the message gets reinforced for students further along, to think about and plan for their first year after graduation, and they are asked to consider what their “year five” will look like. Staff members aim to provide wraparound support during that year as needed.

Gil pointed out that his and other institutions often invite alumni back to meet and mentor students, “but they need career development as well, and I feel like we should be helping them get to the next level.” To him, that means including programming such as a special speaker for this group, or someone available to work individually with the alum when they give back on campus. “We don’t want it to just be for an hour panel,” he said.

Claremont Graduate has been hearing from a lot of alumni in their 50s looking for help with a career shift, Lee said, noting that 20 to 30 percent of his sessions are with alumni.

Lean career center teams are a reality at many colleges and universities, so it can be difficult to carve out the time to work not just with current students but also alumni. Lee suggested incorporating students and student workers more into daily operations. “That may be an area that would assist all of our ‘small but mighty’ teams that do not have the resources of larger institutions in regards to staffing.”

Tell us about an effective way your career center is collecting and using data to drive decisions about offerings and events.

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