I recently attended a conference on student transition and retention, and I was blown away by some of the work that institutions are doing to retain students and help them persist to graduation, particularly in the areas of student advising. As one of the presenters put it, we shouldn’t be letting our students wait until they have a degree in their hand and walking across the stage to start thinking about what they will do next; rather, it is our job as educators to help them make informed career decisions well before they even reach graduation. I wholeheartedly agree.
With inspiration from the conference, a personal interest in career coaching, and an institutional need to better support students to graduation, I’ve been doing a lot of research on student persistence and career advising. While it is not surprising that many theorists and professionals in the field have identified a correlation, what I didn’t expect was that so many institutions have created specialized positions and programs in Residence and other student service locations that provide specialized advising and outreach to students. For example, Lewis and Clark College have a senior level student staff position, a Resident Career Advisor, which offers weekly office hours to review students’ resumes and cover letters, and provides transitional career coaching, in addition to their Resident Advisor duties. These student staff receive required monthly on-going training from professionals in the Career Centre, and are responsible for creating all of the passive program relating to career development and success in the community. At the University of Miami, there is a specialized professional staff position, called the Residence Academic and Career Advisor. This role is dedicated to offering residence students advising opportunities relevant to their career paths and graduation objectives, including helping them triage academic concerns, collaborating with faculty and staff, and assisting students in the development of a career plan.
These positions have been created out of an identified need to help students with career clarity. Literature in the field of retention research suggests that student commitment to education and career goals is perhaps the strongest factor connected to persistence to degree completion (Cuseo, 2003; Wyckoff, 1999). In a conference session presented by the University of Kansas examining the role of career services in student retention, they too looked at career decision making being directly connected to self-efficacy and retention through a pilot study. Based on their research from the study, career services have a significant positive relationship to factors related to retention. Specifically, career competence, often achieved through career coaching, helps explain why students choose to persist and can predict campus engagement. This study has allowed the institution to create and implement a Career Integration Model for advising their students, emphasizing a) Now – assessing interests, values, personality, and strengths; b) Future – exploring careers, information, job markets, and establishing career goal; and c) Action – creating a strategic action plan to achieve goals, engaging in hands-on career learning experiences, and developing necessary skills to be successful (University of Kansas). Moving forward, with this knowledge, the university is hoping to integrate career advising and support into other campus services. Residence may even be an option.
Retention and persistence research also tells us that institutions need to focus more on second year students when it comes to career advising. Often times, we have a tendency to think of our first-year students as needing the most transitional support, but our second year students are actually at a stage of “transitional knowing” – moving from the absolute thinking of the first year to the independent and contextual thinking of the upper year (Baxter-Magolda, 1992), which directly correlates to career support. This is further validated by a relevant study, which suggests that 16%-19% of second-year students at a four-year institution leave their first institution at the end of their second year (Noel-Levitz, 2013). In looking for recommendations to reduce attrition rates, many of the students showed an interest in acquiring career-related assistance in particular areas – of the 3,870 students surveyed, 77.8% identified wanting work experience or internships; 65.8% asked to define goals suited to their major or career interests; 65.3% wanted to explore advantages and disadvantages of career choices; and 57.3% sought to prepare a written academic plan for graduation (Noel-Levitz, 2013). Dr. Mari Normyle (2014), the Assistant Vice President for Retention Solutions with Ruffalo Noel-Levitz, was was surprised by these statistics and is encouraging educators to use this as a reminder of the critical role that advising and career development play in our second-year students’ success.
I believe that second year students often live in the ‘murky middle’ and deserve more attention than we tend to provide, as they aren’t targeted for specialized support as frequently as first-year students and they are not as close to graduation as upper years’, but I do think this notion of helping students define and act upon career goals is important for learners at every academic level. In particular, I believe it’s our responsibility to help students course correct or better align with their career trajectory, especially considering we ask students at 15 years old to start taking required classes that will dictate if they can be admitted into specialized post-secondary programs. Teenagers are now required to make decisions that will impact their career and entire lives, which may or may not truly align with their interests and skills. Unfortunately, students’ early occupational decisions may be impacted by extrinsic factors, such as parents or income, rather than by careful reflection, assessment, and a true understanding of their abilities (Cuseo). This can be a significant influence on a student’s ability to persist, and can sometimes lead to a change in majors all together. Although changing majors may positively correlate to the outcome of persistence to graduation, it does still impact the time in which it takes a student to walk across the stage (Cuseo). When we consider that over 50% of all students entering university with a declared major change their minds at least once before graduation (Foote, 1980; Gordon, 1984; Noel, 1985), that is a lot of extra time that we are investing in supporting students, and a later start to a career for many.
Knowing this, I have asked myself what we, as educators, can do to help students persist. I strongly agree with Cuseo's perspective, which suggests that instead of putting as much pressure on students to make decisions about their career before they enter post-secondary, we should invest more effort into helping them make these decisions during their college and university experience. When we connect this back to the idea of career decision self-efficacy, this would help students believe in their abilities to make career-related decisions and complete career-related tasks (University of Kansas) with guided support. Furthermore, for departments or institutions that value Baxter-Magolda’s (2010) theory of self-authorship, career advising fits well within the concept of supporting students in developing their “internal capacity to define one’s belief, identity, and social relations”. Particularly in regards to identity and understanding Who am I?, I would argue that career competency is certainly an essential part of becoming the author of one’s own life and creating a professional identity. Furthermore, in my eyes advising is a form of teaching, and I agree that specialized advising programs “…promote learning and development in students by encouraging experiences which lead to intellectual growth, the ability to communicate effectively, appropriate career choices, leadership development, and the ability to work independently and collaborative” (Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education, 2012). In my opinion, as we become more modern, this may no longer look like traditional advising; rather, I think we should be working to find ways to incorporate advising models into our everyday positions as educators, so we can help students with the occupational concepts, such as exploration of life and career goals (O'Banion, 1972; 1996).
Dr. W. Habley (2010) suggests that effective advising cannot be done in isolation; rather, it requires the coordination and collaboration among units across campuses. With keeping this in mind, how do we find ways to bridge the gap between career services and our other departments on campus, recognizing that it positively supports student persistence? Are there ways that we can ensure that all departments have best practices in student advising, even if that is not their primary role? If advising provides students with a one-on-one interaction with a concerned representative of the institution (Habley, 2010), should they need to go to one specific service for that support when they already have established a meaningful connection with a different department or support staff on campus? While I don’t think we should decentralize our advising services by any means, I do wonder if there are opportunities to include specialized advisors in high-traffic student service locations. Perhaps each faculty has a specialized advisor, where a student can drop in while they are already in the building meeting a professor for additional support. Maybe our student experience office staff who work with students on co-curricular records, alternative spring breaks, and orientation programs have a dedicated advisor for those that frequent the office regularly. If we think about the high-density living of the students in our residences who are already walking into our buildings to eat in the dining hall, pick up lock out keys, and meet about positive engagement or behavioural concerns, perhaps there is value in having someone present there as well.
I truly believe as educators we have a responsibility to support our students, at all year levels, in becoming engaged leaders, accountable citizens, and successful individuals. If career advising is now an aspect of the post-secondary experience that students are craving more of, looking for outreach on, and needing to persist to graduation, we must challenge ourselves to think outside of the box to find unique ways to be more deliberate and impactful in offering these services. This could include offering more opportunities for students to learn to write a resume, incorporating career goal setting in staff one-on-ones and development plans, or creating opportunities for students to have career advising conversations at various locations across campus. As we continue to move towards placing an emphasis on intentional curricula for co-curricular engagement, measurable learning outcomes, and specific assessment efforts, considering ways that career development fits into these objectives seems like a meaningful conversation and a worthwhile effort. After all, there are not many things more meaningful to a true educator than knowing you helped students learn, grow and walk across that stage with a plan for success in the future.
It has been a few months since I published a blog post. Between preparing and facilitating August Training to orientation to recruiting next year's students, I haven't found a lot of time to get back into writing. However, I recently decided to pursue a certification in career advising, which has been an incredibly reflective and rewarding experience for me. It has satisfied my desire for learning, my interest in career development, and has identified strong connections between retention and career practices. The first assignment for my current course is on my own career journey, which I actually learned a lot about myself from. Because we work in a field that can be so busy, demanding, and diverse, sometimes it can be easy to lose sight of where you came from, where you are, and where you are going in your own career. I found this exercise a really refreshing opportunity, as it reminded me of why I am in this field and opened my eyes to where I may want to go next. I encourage you to ask yourselves the same questions, and see if you learn anything new about yourself through your reflection. If not, perhaps you'll be inspired by mine, or at the very least, you'll learn a little bit more about me as a professional.
My personal career journey started about 6 years ago at a higher education institution in a small, northern Ontario city where I had completed my undergraduate degree in History, English and French. Thinking that I would be a teacher for most of my childhood, I was well on the path towards being an educator when I realized through my co-curricular student leader experience that education actually is taught outside of the classroom as often as it is within the four walls of one. I learned early on that co-curricular education emphasized life skills, transitional success, career development, and resilience; it did not always have to be about academics. With that inspiration, I was offered my first professional role in the housing field immediately following graduation, with an emphasis on student programming and personal development. The mandate of our residence program was to provide the sort of skills to students that complimented their academic experience, and with so many of them living 16 or more hours from home, providing them with developmental opportunities on weekends to meet others, create social networks, and engage in the greater Thunder Bay community. From that position, I went on to manage the Residence buildings for first year students, which included that programming piece but focused more on managing staff, offering student support, and dealing with crisis response. Because I worked at a small institution, that position required that I wear many hats, which provided opportunities to really gain experience and educational knowledge in areas such as advising, academic success strategies, counselling, and risk management. I decided to move to Toronto a couple of years later, where I completed a similar role at a primarily commuter-based community college. In that role, however, I focused more on student leadership programming and assessment, as we were struggling to demonstrate the value of our student programs to the department responsible for financing these opportunities. After a year in that role, I moved to Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, where I now oversee our student and professional staff training, all departmental assessment efforts, and student recruitment and retention initiatives within our residences. It has been a very interesting experience moving from a small town with a Residence population of 1200, to a big city commuter campus, to a more residential campus for first year students with over 3600 beds.
I have been asked by many staff and colleagues how I ended up where I am today, and in particular, why I decided to pursue the education path I did. If I am being honest, a lot of it started in high school and small decisions along the way led me to where I am.. The most important decision I made regarding my own education was selecting schools that had concurrent education programs. As I mentioned, I knew early on that I wanted to be a teacher, so I only applied to programs with the option to complete my Bachelor of Education at the same time as my undergraduate degree. That really narrowed down the field for me, and two of my favourite high school history teachers had completed their degrees at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, so after visiting the campus and feeling such a strong sense of belonging, it was an easy decision. That decision was the beginning of a long stream of choices that really were made by my genuine desire to be an impactful educator and make a difference in the lives of students. Each role I have taken on since deciding to teach, whether inside or outside of the classroom, has been driven by the workplace culture, philosophy, and the degree of fit between my own personal educational pedagogy and that of the department or institution. I have turned down positions after feeling as though my beliefs and values as an educator did not align with the environment. This has been difficult to explain to many people, especially because some of those institutions are very well respected or come with an element of prestige. For me, I have learned that I much prefer an environmental fit that emphasizes the holistic student, the importance of creating engaged leaders, and is a partner in student success. The pride of a prestigious institution is not a priority for me if I do not feel as though my values are more important than a budget line or enrolment requirement.
The second factor that has influenced my professional decision making is my family. I started out working in the same location I went to school, which was approximately 18 hours away from my family. As an only child and only grand child, it was difficult at times to only see them twice a year due to travel costs. As I got older and started thinking about where I would want to settle down, it become more clear to me that although I loved the city of Thunder Bay and the institution, I was personally unhappy because I was not able to see those people who mean so much to me. With my grandparents age a factor as well, it was important to me that I have the opportunity to spend as much time with them as possible, so finding a balance between professional fit and personal needs was important as well. Interestingly enough, I would say that my decision making, both personally and professionally, is very independent from my family. I rarely consult with them for feedback or information regarding either, but it was very important to me to be able to spend holidays with them, enjoy weekend visits, and share in milestones that I previously had not been able to. I can confidently say that now that I have found that balance, it would be incredibly difficult to accept a position in the future that did not allow for that blend of professional fit and familial time.
Not only have personal relationships with my family been a significant factor in where I am, but there are a great deal of friends and professional relationships that have helped guide those decisions too. There are many important people in my life, including high school teachers, previous supervisors and colleagues, and friends inside the higher education field and outside of it, that have been a direct impact on my career and life choices. Based a great deal on their network and reputation, these individuals have provided me with guidance, skills, and opportunities to grow that have opened the door to positions I likely may not have been prepared for otherwise. These role models have also been instrumental in helping me understand the field of housing, advising, and student support, which has helped me better understand the philosophies of some institutions, or provided alternative perspectives to consider. Sometimes these people were also a good reality check when I needed it most as well too when my expectations were too high or I was overconfident in an area that I clearly needed more experience in. I would certainly say that my partner is one of the most influential relationships in my life that has provided me with both the support I need, the reality check I am sometimes lacking, and the inspiration to continue to learn, grown and develop as a person and a professional. Without him and those influential people in my life, I sometimes wonder where I would be.
Sometimes I often think not only about the people in my life that have helped me find my passion for education, but also the circumstances that have allowed for it. Often times opportunities come up in other departments and at different institutions that can sometimes feel like the right time to move on, or not. I find myself constantly looking at job postings, just to see what kind of skills or experiences a role like it would require. Reading through the descriptions and requirements has really helped shape my own professional development goals, particularly if there are areas of the job that I know I lack a lot of experience in. However, I think that education and my genuine desire to continuously be learning has also helped me better align myself with these sorts of positions. My drive to always be learning about the unknown and desire to be high achieving in everything I do has led me to a Masters of Education degree, certified institutes, and now a certificate in career advising. I know that later down the line I will continue to look for opportunities to grow, learn and explore different areas of expertise that are relevant to my future goals and career objectives, including a Doctorate of Education.
When I think about my career satisfaction in the past and present, a lot of it is attributed to how we support students. I struggle when I feel as though decisions are being made that are not done so with student success and the ever changing needs of our students at heart. I struggle even more when it feels like one individual’s agenda and personal desires trump those of our students’. This connects back directly to my feelings about the importance of institutional and environmental fit. Additionally, opportunities for growth and development to ensure students are at the centre of our practices is also highly relational to my feelings of satisfaction. As someone always wanting to know more and seeking to identify new ideas, initiatives, and opportunities that we can better support our students, I have been more satisfied within departments that have recognized this and have provided plenty of opportunities to read books, discuss articles, attend conferences, listen to webinars, and reflect on my own development in a way that is natural and genuine to who I am. When I feel as though my growth is limited, I sometimes struggle to feel connected to my role because our students are constantly changing, as are their needs, and it is important to me to know that I have the most up-to-date tools, strategies and knowledge to meet them where they are at. For me, satisfaction is using those tools, skills and experiences gained through a learning moment to find a new, creative way to help students make meaning in their life. In the case of career development and advising, sometimes it is as small as editing a resume, talking to a student about their life goals or program, or even asking them to articulate their strengths that bring me the most joy and satisfaction. I love the opportunity to help a student find a pathway that will provide them with career success, inspire them to be involved and academically achieve while they are with us, and want to positively contribute to our communities and society.
As I wrote that last sentence, I had a moment of pause and reflection, because I do not think that I have ever expressed to myself or others how directly connected my own satisfaction is to our students’ career success. The more that I think about it, the more that I am starting to see my current work in student retention and my interest in students career development shape my own future career goals and aspirations. After attending a variety of conferences and institutes on retention, something that sticks with me is the notion that one of the biggest factors of student persistence is career clarity (Swail, 2013), as students who leave our institutions most often do so because they lack clear career direction and/or meaningful academic programs. With this in mind, moving forward I think one of my own aspirations is to continue to find ways to demonstrate the importance of including career development as a component of our Residence Life program and overall campus student persistence programming. In the future, I would like to explore how these concepts can better connect on our campuses, and find opportunities to be more involved with the career counselling department on campus. I would also like to find more ways to allow for career practices to be incorporated into my own job, without taking away from the important work that our career centre does to support our students as expert professionals.
If I am being honest, however, when I think about my future career aspirations there are some things that I would do differently if I could. I often ask myself what I might have done differently knowing what I know now, and most of the time I question why I always allowed psychology, learning theory and career practices to be more of an interest than a profession. Since university, I have been interested in how people learn, what purpose drives them, why they have the interests and career aspirations they do, and where they want to be in 5, 10, or 50 years. I’m so thankful that some of these components are involved in my current role as they relate to student retention and learning, but I often wonder if this would have been a field or topic of study to explore earlier. Sometimes I also wonder how I could have been more involved in career counselling as a student during my undergrad. I am sure there were student positions on campus that were heavily connected to the career services department that would have peeked my interest at that time. Regardless, I am pleased to have the opportunity now to continue to work with university level students that are trying to make important decisions at their age that will significantly impact their future. Furthermore, I am really enjoying the opportunity to discuss how career clarity and programming are inter-connected with the retention work I am doing in Residence, because it offers a whole new lens in which to think about ways we can help our university students persist to graduation, which we are currently struggling to do. My hope is that by continuing to offer assessment opportunities, such as StrengthsFinder, MBTI and other tools to students, they will be able to identify their interests, skills and perspectives to help them become more engaged in their own career journey.. Personally, this is an area that I would like to gain more experience in to ensure that we are providing a variety of assessment options for our students.
Reflecting back on my personal career journey, there are a lot of themes that have stuck out to me. First, it is even more clear to me now that students should be the always be at centre of what we do as educators. This paper reaffirmed for me that those beliefs are true to who I am, and when thinking about how that value has impacted my professional career, it has dictated which opportunities I chose to take and which ones I turned down. Student-centred philosophies have certainly guided my career path to where I am today, and I know that will be the case for years to come as well. Second, people are a very important part of my journey. Whether it is my family, my partner, or role models throughout my life, my career success is very much a product of their influence and support, and sometimes their honest reality checks. Without the network I have and the people who have helped me get to this place in this field, I would be missing out on a lot of knowledge, skills and experiences. Third, this reflection has reaffirmed for me the importance I place on offering career development and counselling opportunities to our students, because I really believe that those conversations should start well before they walk across the stage with a degree. The more that we can help students become clear on their career objectives, help them identify a plan and goals, and support them in the development of their career journey, the better prepared our students will be for life after graduation. After all, is it not our responsibility as university and college educators to prepare students for the real world when they leave? All of the skills, tools, strategies, academic knowledge, and opportunities that we offer on campus are not only to support our students to graduation, but perhaps more importantly, to help them be successful after. Pursuing this certificate in career advising has, without a doubt, encouraged me to think more about how my current role and future roles can bridge the gaps between student persistence and career preparation. I look forward to seeing where my career journey continues to take me and the influence career advising has on it!
If you're interested in reflecting on your own career journey, consider the questions below. They might just help you uncover some new things about yourself that you have never even considered.
-What are your previous occupations?
-What is your current occupation?
-What are some small and major decisions that led to your occupational choice?
-How have you made decisions concerning education?
-What people and circumstances were influential in your decisions?
-What level of satisfaction have you had in your past and current occupations?
-What brings you the greatest career satisfaction?
-What are your career aspirations?
-If you could go back in time, what would you do differently?
-What populations are you working with or plan to work with in the field?
-Looking back at your reflection, what themes, patterns, events can you identify in your career journey?
A creative educator striving to enhance the holistic student experience and committed to exploring personal strengths and fulfillment.