March 2013
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Wake Forest University
Wake Forest University has reconceptualized its approach to career advising, taking a more holistic approach to student development. (Photo courtesy of Ken Bennett)

A Holistic Approach to Personal and Career Development at Wake Forest University

Wake Forest University students have a reputation for drive and achievement, both during and after college. Alumni surveys over the last several years show almost 95 percent of Wake graduates are employed or enrolled in graduate school within six months of completing their undergraduate degree.  But Wake Forest President Nathan Hatch remained concerned that Wake students were “worried about getting their A’s and getting a high-paying job … and not thinking about whether this is what they want to do or where they find joy and fulfillment,” says Andy Chan. Hatch hired Chan in 2009 to serve as a vice president of the university and director of the new Office of Personal and Career Development.  

Chan was charged with completely rethinking the idea of career development at the university—after all, he notes, “If the world has changed so much just in the last four years, why haven’t career offices changed at all?” Over the last four years, Chan has built the Office of Personal and Career Development (OCPD) into an entity focused on reaching out to students throughout all their years at the university to prepare them for careers beyond the first job. “We’re preparing students for ‘life after the liberal arts,’” says Heidi Robinson, an instructor in the college-to-career courses. “We’re teaching them to use everything they learn at Wake to thrive in their career of choice.”

Reaching Students Early

Chan built the OCPD on the idea of helping students acquire three Cs: clarity, competencies, and confidence. Students first need some clarity about what they might do with their lives, even if it’s only a broad notion. The competencies, Chan says, involve “professional skill development that allows them to handle the dynamic, uncertain future. I’m less concerned about the perfect first job than that they have the mindset and skills to understand that the first job really is the first of many, and they have the competencies to get the next jobs and be successful.” The final C, confidence, is also crucial in the rapidly changing world students will face, Chan says. “I’d like them to come to Wake Forest and learn a lot about how the world is changing … and then they have a way of thinking about it so that as they move forward in their lives they can handle it.”

To achieve these goals, the OCPD reaches out to students early—at first-year orientation. “We want them to see us as approachable early on,” Chan says. As part of the orientation, students fill out questionnaires about their interests and possible career paths. Chan and his staff don’t expect these interests to remain static, but that data gives them an idea of where students are starting from and allows them to customize their communications to each student. “If you’re a student interested in art, for instance, you will receive information about opportunities to meet arts organizations, arts professionals on campus, arts-related resources, ways to connect with alumnae in the arts,” Chan says. “Students feel like we’re there for them.”

   Wake Forest University
   The College to Career Community connects with a network of faculty, staff, and alumni who can answer questions about potential career paths. (Photo courtesy of Ken Bennett)

Students can also get more information about their areas of interest from alumni who have worked in those fields. Ladd Flock maintains the College to Career Community, a network of alumni, parents, faculty, and staff whom students can reach out to for advice and guidance. The centerpiece of the community is a LinkedIn page that students can use to put out general queries or directly contact alumni who are willing to speak with them about particular careers or pathways. Social media literacy is crucial for any campus office looking to reach out to students, Flocks says, but it’s particularly useful in this case because “students are more comfortable with using social media for interacting with and getting feedback from people they haven’t met before.” Alumni have separate pages and organizations for their own networking and recruiting, so the College to Career page “is a safe place for undergraduates to ask questions.”

Flock is also in contact with alumni in order to gather data about their post-graduate paths. Surveys administered to alumni six months after graduation have garnered 75 to 85 percent response rates—enough to extrapolate from, Flocks says—and the OCPD website currently offers spreadsheets tracking  “first-destination data”  for classes from 2004 to 2010. The data Wake Forest has collected currently includes students’ employers, their specific title and position, and their academic major at Wake Forest. That data is also available disaggregated by major. Having this kind of information has been important for getting  faculty and administrators on board with new initiatives, Flocks says. “It doesn’t have to be perfect … but it puts people at ease, and if you don’t have it, it’s hard to have discussions around change.”

Courses for Career and Professional Development

A “career course sequence” has also been completely redesigned in order to reach students earlier and focus on a broader notion of career preparation. Prior to 2009, Wake Forest had only one career course. “It was the kitchen sink of career courses,” says Heidi Robinson, an instructor in new the sequence. “It was good for what it did, but in half a semester we tried to cover values, interests, skills, personality inventories,  interviewing skills, resumes—it was a lot.” Still, the course was widely popular with students, who praised its usefulness. In order to reach more students, and to take a broader, more comprehensive approach to career development, that course has been expanded into three courses, with a fourth in development.

The new sequence, developed through a partnership between OCPD and the Department of Counseling, begins with a course focused on values and self-assessments—“it focuses on the ‘who am I?’ question,” Robinson says. Students enrolled in the course also research academic majors and skills associated with each major, “and we let them know they’re not wed to their major.” The second course, “Options in the World of Work,” turns the lens outward. “It’s the ‘what’s out there for me,’ course,” Robinson says. Students research careers, conduct informational interviews, and “pull back the curtain on those professions— they start to figure out if these careers line up with their values.” In the third course, students change focus again and try to think like employers—they reflect on what skills they’ve developed over the course of their college careers and how they might use those in a professional capacity.

Another “career” course open to students gives them the chance to give those skills a road test. Polly Black teaches and advises student projects in the Center for Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship.  Unlike similar programs at other universities, the center is housed in Wake Forest College, the university’s undergraduate college of arts and sciences, rather than in the business school. “We felt that the training and discipline around liberal arts education, which is about divergent education and looking at things from different angles, was really a part of the magic of entrepreneurship,” Black says.

“Our program has one foot in the academic side and one foot in career development,” she adds. “It’s not so much about incubating ventures as incubating students.” Black teaches a course that puts students from a variety of majors onto teams charged with developing potential business ventures. “There’s a huge amount of growth that comes from trying to take something off the white board and putting into process—it helps them enormously in figuring out who they are and where they want to go in life.”

Building Partnerships Across Campus

Reinventing a whole office isn’t easy. OCPD staff note that much of what they’ve accomplished would not be possible without direct support from President Hatch and the rest of the university administration. Chan reports directly to the provost and the president, which gives him a greater level of influence than his predecessors in career services. Chan is also frank about the costs of all these new programs. “If you look around, most universities are cutting resources for the career office,” he says. “I have to think about getting more resources to be able to fuel this transformation.” He spends nearly a third of his time focused on fundraising, and over the last four years has brought in more than $8 million for new career programs. 

Just as important as funding and top-down support, however, is the broad network of support OCPD has built across campus. Ladd Flock notes that the data he collects from students and alumni is invaluable for another aspect of his job—reaching out to faculty members. “I can give them outcomes data, and for many faculty, data is their world,” he says. “They feel comfortable building that into their conversations with students, and I make it easy for them to access it.” Flock has met with hundreds of faculty members—both individually and in departments—to discuss ways in which they can incorporate discussions about career planning into their academic advising and other interactions with students. “I start my conversation asking what kind of conversations they’ve been having, what their department does to support students in their career planning,” Flock says.  “I ask them what they’d want to do more of if they had the tools or resources … and how we can support them better in the future.”

Flock also maintains a network of twenty faculty representatives from all of the university’s academic divisions who are well-versed in all of the resources offered by OCPD. These representatives provide additional guidance to faculty members interested in doing more career mentoring with their students and offer feedback to Flock regarding how OCPD can better reach out to faculty. It’s also important that Flock approaches faculty on their own turf—meeting at their offices or in their regular department meetings. “It makes sure that we’re all hearing the same message,” he says, and allows career advising to develop organically as a part of each department’s culture.

Working with Campus Cultures

Working within existing campus cultures is integral to all OCPD activities, says Allison McWilliams, director of the Mentoring Resource Center. “We’ll never be successful with a model that imposes ourselves on others. I come from the consulting mindset, so what I say to them is I’m here if you need me, but if you don’t want me, I won’t force myself.”  McWilliams promotes and oversees mentoring activities on campus, but she stresses that she does not run a mentoring program—“I don’t match people; no program runs out of this office.” Instead, her office focuses on providing mentor-training programs and other resources to the dozens of organizations on campus, both academic and social, that run mentoring programs.

Mentoring can be an important part of career preparation—not just for the mentee seeking advice, but also for the mentor. “You have to learn to ask questions and give feedback. A lot of these skills the students practice in their classes,” McWilliams says. “They learn to think critically about history or philosophy, to make presentations—how do you translate those skills to life? They have these skills, but they haven’t been asked to think about them in this way. This makes those connections, and you can see the light bulbs go off. This is where we connect what they’re doing to life after college.”

The Mentoring Resource Center keeps close track of all the mentors and mentees trained on campus, but ideally, McWilliams would like to move beyond these metrics. “My main goal is to get to a point where every student who comes has the opportunity to take part in mentoring. But there needn’t be particular parameters to how it happens,” she says. “My vision is that we get to a place that we don’t have to use the word mentoring anymore—it’s just how we interact with each other.”

Chan echoes this sentiment—“I’d be fine if many of our students were unaware of our office being behind the scenes getting them where they wanted to go.” As the ethos of career and personal development becomes more and more a part of the campus culture, Chan sees more of the one-on-one work with students moving out of his office and into a broader network of faculty, staff, and students. “If I can find a way to get the number of students coming through our doors to come down, but still have successful outcomes, it means we have a stronger community supporting the students.”


Learn more about career and professional development at Wake Forest at the OCPD website. For more resources on the role of liberal education outcomes in preparing students for professional success, see the LEAP surveys of employers and the LEAP Economic Case for Liberal Education.

   
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