Students, Universities, and Career Services: Can They Work Together to Improve New Graduates’ Professional Lives?

3d_graduation_cap_and_diplomaDuring graduation season, the career blogs have been aflutter over student preparation for the job market & professional life.

  • Time Magazine did a cover story about selfish millennials.

Aflutter indeed! And yet it seem this conversation is going on about students, not with students.

Here’s my reaction to all of this:

1- university programs (especially in the humanities) are set up to prepare students for a life of the mind within the university. Without changing that fundamental setup, blaming the university for not preparing students for professional careers is like blaming the sky for being blue.

Can it change? Yes, but it would require major hustling from the top down and the bottom up. Not likely on most campuses at the present time.

2-students, like rest of us, are busy with whatever immediate tasks are in front of them. So until résumé preparation and job search activities are the immediate tasks, most students aren’t going to go to career services to work on something that seems so far in the future to them.

In other words, students need professional development services when & where they are most relevant to students–not when and where it is most convenient to the professors teaching their courses or the career service office employees.

3-these skills that employers say they want (communication, decision-making, problem-solving, organization, analysis) are skills that can come out of the traditional university curriculum.

But somewhere we have to bridge that gap–help students translate those skills that they do develop in academic contexts into the language of the professional context.  

Service-learning is a particularly good place for this: the professor is removed from the equation as the one-and-only authority, authority lies in the community, more responsibility lies with the student, and reflection as part of the process allows students to articulate the ways in which they have communicated, solved problems, made decisions, etc.  

Even quantitative data can be covered in a Spanish & community course: when students present percentages or percentage change in a local Hispanic population as part of their course project, I require that they also calculate raw numbers (and vice versa).

That leads to analytical & critical thinking skills employers want because it illustrates the use of quantitative data to represent only one side of an argument: “there was a 300% increase in Spanish-speaking clients!” Impressive. Except if there was 1 when you started and 4 now, it’s a little less impressive.  Same is true the other way: “there was only a 1% increase.” Doesn’t sound like much but if it started at 3 million and you added 30,000 that’s an impressive raw number. (I was inspired to do this when I saw a students from a campus professional organization mess this up horribly with small number–the raw numbers went from 4 to 6–a 50% increase–and she claimed it was a 200% increase!) The lesson here: check your math. But even more important: check other people’s, too!

Yet for the purposes of students’ professional lives, all of these experiences I have described are useless if they don’t know how to put them on their résumés, cover letters, personal statements, and answers to common interview questions.  

This is what I do when I work one-on-one with students and in on-campus workshops (usually hosted by the humanities departments who do want to help students translate the skills they have acquired for the work place).  

We mine the rich experiences students are getting in their four years on campus for the raw materials employers need to see on job search documents and hear in interviews. Then we refine those raw materials into clear, concise, specific bytes that resonate with employers.  Language departments in particular prepare students with interpersonal, communication, and multicultural skills that can set their graduates apart from the crowd–if only we show them how!

Darcy Lear is a Chicago-based career coach specializing in training students to highlight their language studies so they standout in the job search and workplace. For one-on-one coaching or to set up a workshop, contact Darcy:
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