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Advancing Career Readiness in a Small College Setting

Career and Workforce Development Small Colleges and Universities Division AVP or "Number Two" Faculty Mid-Level Senior Level VP for Student Affairs
March 2, 2020 Ryan Alcantara Marymount California University

The way I conceptualize student success, at least from the perspective of serving as a chief student affairs officer, is that we are in the business of preparing successful alumni. Successful alumni obviously means first and foremost earning a degree, but attending a sequence of classes and passing them is not sufficient. Alumni need to be career ready, have some experience they can point to in their cover letters and interviews(as well as to light their passion), have developed leadership and interpersonal skills, and possess some sense of connecting to and contributing to their community (however they might define that, but hopefully it includes their alma mater).

I have worked to operationalize this work throughout my time in higher education and am particularly pleased with our efforts to implement this at Marymount California University. As a campus that has amore than fifty-year history, but also has been granting bachelor’s degrees for less than ten, we only began offering career services within the past ten year. Initially focused on career counseling and support of our students, four years ago, our president at the time challenged my team to double the number of internship placements, which created a tremendous amount of energy campus wide. We achieved that and nearly tripled our internship numbers in the subsequent year, and so I offer some advice and recommendations based on the Marymount experience.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) defines career readiness as “attainment and demonstration of requisite competencies that broadly prepare college graduates for a successful transition into the workplace.” NACE has also inquired and reported on the top competencies that employers look for in hires, and the top four are: Critical Thinking/Problem Solving; Teamwork/Collaboration; Professionalism/Work Ethic; and Oral/Written Communications. I am pleased at how well these align not only with attributes we seek to develop in leadership programs and positions for students in Student Affairs, but indeed how much they align with learning outcomes on the academic side of the house. So, when an emphasis was placed on internships, I did not see it as another thing added to our plate, or antithetical to efforts to educate the whole person, I saw it as an opportunity to ensure alignment in educating successful alumni (and at the same time speaking the language so important to our students and their parents).

The Marymount Career Story

Initial efforts in developing our career program focused on career counseling—providing direct support to students in a one-on-one and group settings, as well as scheduling career related programs and services. Such efforts centered on major exploration, utilization of personality instruments, and guidance on developing and updating resumes and interview preparation. Employer relations activities were limited, but efforts were made to provide a diverse set of internship and job opportunities to students accessible through a campus portal. Identifying and maintaining contact with employers and potential employers who are interested in providing our students internships and jobs is important work that requires spending time off campus, but when competing for scarce resources on a small campus and the day to day needs of our students, actual time spent on this work can suffer.

Even before the gauntlet was dropped by the president, we had begun reorganizing the priorities within our career services. As we sought to fill a vacancy within the unit, an emphasis in the posting was on creating an external presence focused on employer relations. In the first year, our internship coordinator worked closely with an assistant dean, as well as with support from development and even our president to build that external presence. This activity included regular participation at chambers of commerce, workforce development boards and committees, councils of city government, business networking groups, and other workforce collaboratives within our region. This has required more than stopping by a meeting. Participation is frequent and being a member at the table has also been important. The awareness generated has created not only opportunities for our students as new positions posted, it also generated partnership programs that provide more exclusive opportunities for MCU students.

As we looked at how we might encourage students to access academic credit for internships, summer was recognized as major challenge. Summer internship pricing was the same as regular coursework, so students paying a significant amount of money to work was not particularly appealing. And so were structured the cost of credit internship summer courses to $100 per unit for up to three units to incentivize students to more easily access this summer credit, while also gaining job skills. The number of students taking advantage of summer internships went up slightly the first year it was offered but doubled and then tripled in subsequent years. We have found, not surprisingly, that summer internships were particularly helpful for student athletes, as well as students who wanted to stay on track with their four-year graduation plan.

At this time, we also launched academic societies for each of our academic majors, led by a faculty mentor and overseen by Student Affairs. The intent of these groups is to expose new students to our various major offerings and connect them to faculty within the major. We want new students thinking about their major early and often. Faculty mentors received resources and support to organize outings, speakers, panels, and joint events. This truly harnessed the energy of many faculty as they planned programs and leveraged their connections to improve our student experience. Out of these efforts we have hosted etiquette dinners with discipline specific speakers, visits to social clubs, held major specific panels on graduate school and career opportunities, and even facilitated an annual trivial pursuit game of almost 100 students.

Coinciding with all this activity Academic Affairs also embarked upon a major restructuring of the curriculum, seeking to achieve several objectives including creating a more engaging first year experience for our freshmen. As part of that process, curriculum was redesigned in such a way as to make internships more accessible in a variety of majors. Each major now requires a career course, which incorporates career preparedness, mock interviewing, and a forum to emphasize such messages as the importance of taking at least one internship before students graduate—helping to more efficiently expose students to these important topics at the midpoint in their academic journey. These combined efforts led to our ability to meet the president’s challenge and more than double the number of internships students pursued in the first year, and we then nearly tripled the number in the following year. We are small but mighty, and it was particularly exciting to see how a clear goal around internships triggered coordinated action around campus, representing the best in how we ought to manage change in higher education, coordinated across the university and in a way that maximizes impact on students’ academic experience and ideally in a manner that is seamless as possible.

Recommendations and Insights

Out of our experience at Marymount California University, I offer the following recommendations for institutions pursuing similar objectives:

  1. On Campus Partnerships – You need to work closely with units across campus, and academic affairs is particularly important. There is not always an opportunity to influence curricular changes to align with priorities like internships and career, but even when there is not, there are other ways to work together. First and foremost, make sure you are speaking the same language with regards to student learning outcomes, and you are clear how the work in Student Affairs is supporting those outcomes. Second, look for opportunities to tap into the passions and interests of individual faculty members, and provide them a space to expand their reach in serving as mentors to students. Finally, don’t be discouraged from reaching out to our friends in finance. A good CFO will appreciate the utility in discounting an academic course like internships, if the cost is marginal and you can align it with institutional priorities.
  2. Incentivize what We Value – On that note, if we want students to access internships, make them more accessible. Discounting internship credit in the summer has been a powerful tool. Not only does this make it more accessible for students, it is a wonderful message to prospective students and their parents: “It is important that MCU students complete internships. In fact, it is so important that we make it as easy as possible for them to do that as part of their academic program and even in the summer!” It is a brand message.
  3. Invest in Employer Relations – We serve our students best when we spend significant time out in the community developing connections and opportunities for our students. Be intentional and invest in building this network. We have found that is also helpful in advancing our regional marketing of the institution and a good place to promote our MBA program. For a small campus it can be difficult garnering the attention of large corporations, so reach out to local small and regional businesses, non-profits, and the public sector. There are tremendous win-win opportunities. Here again is an opportunity to tap into the networks and connections of our faculty and staff.
  4. Leadership is Career Preparation – Finally, remember that leadership experiences are part of the way we prepare students to be successful alumni. We all know that but making sure that there is alignment in our training and evaluation of students leadership positions and leadership programs, as well as to the professional skills and those attributes that employers find important. There are tremendous opportunities here as well to complement the work taking place on the academic side and to demonstrate the impact that our programs have on student learning.