Helping Students Gain Career Skills for Lifelong Success

Since the publication of Engagement & Employability: Integrating Career Learning Through Cocurricular Experiences in Postsecondary Education in March, I have had the opportunity to speak to a wide variety of colleagues in higher education and student affairs about the impact the book is making on their campuses. I am excited when I hear that many have shared the book with others as a way of explaining how they conceive of the purpose of our work. I am even more elated when I hear that it has caused some to adapt their practices regarding how they approach their own work. During the long months in which my coauthors and I worked on the book, we hoped we could spark a national conversation about how student affairs contributes to one of the most significant and expected outcomes of college: preparing students for their careers.

One of the most common misperceptions about this work, however, is that we are somehow advocating for or contributing to vocationalism in higher education. Some falsely assume that because the book is about helping students prepare for their careers, that we believe that this is the ultimate aim of college. I can’t speak for all of the contributors on this point, but I can say that I believe quite the opposite is true. My vision for how this work should be applied is grounded in the liberal arts idea. The skills identified by the National Association for Colleges and Employers (NACE) that frame this work are often called “transferable skills.” This refers to the notion that they can be broadly applied in a wide variety of contexts. In this way, we aren’t preparing students for success in one particular job at one point in time; instead, we are giving them skills they can apply to be successful across their entire careers.

I have been struck by how many individuals have told me that the skills discussed in the book were already learning outcomes that they were pursuing on their own campuses. But that the book prompted them to package the skills and articulate them to stakeholders in new ways. By simply communicating these skills to employers using language that they value, they have shown their institution’s commitment to accomplishing these shared goals.

I have also been excited to hear how various institutions are using the work as a basis for integrating cocurricular learning with student’s experiences in the classroom. At the end of her tenure as executive director of NASPA, Gwen Dungy wrote, “For those in student affairs, it’s time to stop saying that our programs complement the teaching and learning that occurs in the classroom when at too many campuses student affairs has no relationship with the faculty and no idea about what the student’s experience is in the classroom.” For many, the book has provided a roadmap for doing this better. While we may not necessarily know what hard skills students are gaining in the classroom, we can provide these transferable skills they can use to be successful. This has the potential to provide a road map for a truly holistic experience for students.

Finally, I have heard from quite a few student affairs faculty who intend to adopt the book as a text for a variety of courses, including career selection, leadership and administration, assessment, and even a special topics course on transferable skills. I, myself, have been preparing a revision to the syllabus for my Introduction to Student Affairs course (PDF) at Stephen F. Austin State University. I am sharing my current draft here in the hopes that it might provide some ideas for how we might educate the next generation of student affairs professional to focus on employability skills. I also hope it might inspire you to do the same and share your syllabi with me. If you are planning to adopt the textbook for a course, I would love it if you should reach out to me at [email protected]. With your permission, I may also share the work with others. I would also love to hear any other ways you are using the concepts from the book.

I am grateful for NASPA’s support of this work. I am equally grateful to the other professional associations who have contributed, including NACE, the National Association for Campus Activities, National Intramural and Recreational Sports Association: Leaders in Collegiate Recreation, the Association of Fraternity and Sorority Advisers, and the Association of College Unions International. But most of all, I am grateful to everyone who is applying this work to do great things on our campuses!