Colleges are being pushed to do more to help students find careers and build successful professional pathways. How do we do this work in ways that are focused on student well-being, civic engagement, and educational values? Here are a few lessons we’ve gained through the creation of a Career Exploration Center at Denison University.
First, we have to get the question right. Rather than focusing on “career services,” which is narrowly fixated on getting students their first job, the focus needs to be on student career exploration, which we define as a focus on three interrelated and more wide-ranging questions:
• What kind of life do I want to live?
• How do careers and professions allow people to be the architect of their lives?
• How do I use college to develop the skills, values, habits, networks, and experiences to start this journey?
At Denison, we have been working to become a campus that gets career exploration right—understanding it as more than just a path to a well-paying job. Our most important expression of this work has been the launching of the Austin E. Knowlton Center for Career Exploration. The Knowlton Center is built around seven signature programs that align with five core strategies:
Engagement: Get students involved in the Knowlton Center early, often, and consistently.
Skills: Fill gaps in not only hard skills, but also softs skills and intangibles (e.g., interpersonal skills, work ethic, initiative, learning agility).
Experiences: Give students a range of career-related experiences that connect with their studies and passions.
Network: Help students build a team of contacts who can act as coaches and mentors during their journey.
Commit: Support students’ launch into their work and lives even after graduation.
We have also learned a great deal about cultivating students’ understanding of work in ways that encourage values like relational and experiential learning, civic engagement, and lifelong well-being:
The process should expand what students see. Too much of the work around career preparation narrows students’ world views and options too fast and too far. In contrast, we are taking students on excursions to see places of work, exposing them to alumni, and running a variety of programs and forums that help them understand the wide variety of ways people build lives and careers, with a particular focus on understanding that the path is not linear.
The process should encourage students to study what engages them. The Knowlton Center has the obvious benefit of giving Denison myriad ways to support students, but it also has another, less obvious benefit—freeing students up to embrace their academic journey. Too many students are making the mistake of selecting an academic major that does not engage them but will, in theory, lead to a career. The Knowlton Center confronts this and challenges students to explore engaging academic pathways. We encourage them to worry less about the academic major and to go wide across the curriculum, assuring them that developing their talents in the context of personally meaningful work is the best professional preparation. It is much easier for the Knowlton Center to help students land professionally when personal passions and actual aptitudes are the drivers.
Students start in very different places and need very different forms of support. For example, we learned quickly that the exploration process and career launch look very different for many first-generation college students. Therefore, we added a staff position to the Knowlton Center that focuses entirely on first-generation college students, forging new pathways that account for the different circumstances faced by economically vulnerable students.
Shift the culture. While all our programs are commendable, the most important work the Knowlton Center has done is shift the culture. We are getting students to think about lives and careers earlier in their college experience. This has led to many successes, including the valuing of a liberal arts education, the openness to try new things and fail, and the knowledge that wellness is central to planning for a career.
Well-being matters. Much of the coaching we are doing at the Knowlton Center focuses both directly and indirectly on well-being. Conversations about careers can be stressful or produce anxiety. Students need to hear our staff say this is normal. We are also finding that stress is reduced if we start with questions like “What kind of life do you want?” and not “What do you want to do after college?” This creates space for students to acknowledge whether money drives them, if they have a particular place they want to live, or if a career they desire would allow them to prioritize health, family, or exercise. If we can guide students to envision the lives they want to live, then conversations about careers tend to generate excitement, not stress.
Connect the civic and professional. Our work inspires students to blend their civic and professional aspirations, instead of seeing the two as different parts of their lives. The most important work in this respect exposes them to alumni, parents, and local community members who exemplify this approach.
Finally, meaningful career exploration needs to stretch beyond the career center—it should be embedded in the fabric of the campus and re-enforced by a strong culture of faculty mentorship. (I have written about the importance of faculty mentorship elsewhere). We have also expanded our curriculum in some interesting ways to include new academic majors in global commerce, narrative journalism, data analytics, and health, exercise, and sports studies. All of these are interdisciplinary attempts for our courses to re-enforce the approaches listed above.
The bottom line for me is simple—we need to focus on career exploration in a nuanced way that appreciates our students as whole persons so that it not only provides them a pathway to a career but nurtures their learning, flourishing, and civic consciousness.