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Students at Gettysburg College can participate in free online personal development workshops during the January break.

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College students’ busy schedules often make it difficult to attend events or participate in professional development work. In fact, 2023 Student Voice surveys found 31 percent of students have never used their career center, and 30 percent of students spend zero hours participating in campus events. A primary barrier is timing and location of events, with 41 percent of students indicating this factor negatively impacted their ability to participate.

To promote engagement and learning while supporting students with competing priorities, officials at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania launched virtual course offerings during January, creating over a dozen opt-in events over two weeks.

Each one- to two-hour course provides learners with enduring skills related to financial literacy, leadership, storytelling, academic success or other areas.

The inspiration: Gettysburg offered a traditional credit-bearing January term from 1970 to 1985 but did away with the term in 1986, only offering two traditional semesters in the fall and spring, says James Duffy, associate dean of co-curricular education.

During remote instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic, administrators reimagined J-Term as a virtual offering to partner with learners while they were at home and give them educational resources.

“We had a window of opportunity to deliver them, we had a platform, because everybody was using Zoom at that point, we knew that we had a captive audience because we had students who were essentially at their home and in their rooms and couldn’t do much,” Duffy shares. “And so in 2021, we launched what is our current virtual J-Term offering.”

J-Term for Student Success

Other institutions have used their January terms to promote student success and development.

  • Sophomores at Goucher College can participate in a microinternship over winter break and January term for pay.
  • Hollins University had a three-week course on resiliency during the 2023 January term.

How it works: Each fall, administrators send out a call to faculty and staff, asking if they’d like to teach a J-Term course that academic year. The instructor selects their own topic focused on personal or professional development skills, the most popular being geared toward career goals and aspirations.

Duffy, a former registrar for the college, leads the scheduling, which he says is the most challenging aspect. For 2024, the college hosted 13 virtual sessions over 10 days (Jan. 2–12), requiring flexibility in times and dates to accommodate Gettysburg learners around the globe.

Sessions featured topics including how to rent or buy a home, networking skills, emotional intelligence, résumé writing, marketing for entrepreneurs, organizational abilities and travel.

Access is one of the key features of J-Term, because the offerings take place outside of the academic term and throughout the day. This gives students the ability to opt in regardless of work schedule, time zone or physical location.

“J-Term’s become a flexible, nimble content-delivery option for our students,” Duffy says. “From a mental health perspective, it’s fantastic because they don’t feel the pressure of the daily grind of school and all the things that come with that … They have this opportunity to sit in front of a screen for an hour or two, digest that information, perhaps participate, and then apply that information.”

The courses also align with the college’s institutional priority to bridge skills gaps and help students prepare for careers that may not yet be available.

“It’s been good to see how we can deliver a program that connects very intentionally with what we want our students to learn and what we want our students to know,” Duffy says. “We know that those enduring skills are the skills that they need, whether they go into the working world, to graduate school—whatever they may do.”

Survey Says

A winter 2023 Student Voice survey by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse found 43 percent of students at four-year institutions believe developing specific skills needed for their career was the most important outcome in their academic experience. Just under a quarter of four-year students say developing skills relevant to any career or job (human skills) was most important.

The impact: Over 620 of Gettysburg’s around 2,000 undergraduates registered for virtual sessions this January, and each offering had around 50 percent of registrants attend. The most popular session was Level Up Your Résumé and Cover Letter, with 75 percent of registrants in the audience, or 78 students.

Some J-Term sessions also featured Gettysburg alumni, giving students a glimpse of what their lives might look like after graduation. Participating faculty members also encourage their students to participate, creating a “healthy ecosystem” of engagement, Duffy says.

DIY: For institutions considering their own J-Term workshops, Duffy offers three insights:

  1. Center content on student needs. Gettysburg officials don’t select content but rather allow campus stakeholders to select what they believe would best support students.
  2. Offer flexibility in scheduling. Spreading sessions out throughout the day and week is important to accommodate students in different time zones. While a Friday session at 7 p.m. might not interest everyone, 15 students attended a workshop held at that time this year.
  3. Focus on communication. Part of what makes virtual J-Term work is that it requires instructors to focus on presenting and students don’t have any responsibilities other than showing up. Staying in communication with those leading session to make the process seamless and offering easy registration and consistent reminders streamlines logistics.

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