Counseling Students Who Need a “Plan B”
By Billie Streufert
When it comes to education and careers, pain often comes in the form of “no.” Some seniors do not land their dream job or are denied admission into graduate school. First or second-year students may not be accepted into their chosen major or get rescinded later for insufficient grades. Some alumni may be unable to pursue their preferred career because they are limited geographically or they fail the license or certification exam. Many athletes who dreamed about playing for a professional team are never drafted.
Dr. Nancy Schlossberg’s theory of transition provides a valuable perspective when we assist these students. She suggests that some people find nonevents, which they had counted on to occur but do not happen as hoped, as painful as actual events such as the death of a family member or friend. Our work as career counselors begins in acknowledging these students’ grief, especially because others in their support system may disenfranchise their loss.
The techniques below are not designed to fix or treat students who are coping with nonevents. As Dr. Alan Wolfelt shares when he describes his work with the grieving, “Companioning is about going to the wilderness of the soul with another human being; it is not about thinking you are responsible for finding the way out.” Instead, the strategies below help us walk beside students during a difficult time and ultimately encourage them to persist in college.
Be proactive. First, take action to make sure the student finds you. Contact the directors of programs with admissions criteria or enrollment standards, such as nursing, education, or dental hygiene. Inquire about the process for notifying students and ask to be included in their procedures. This may mean that your contact information is provided in a notification letter or that the faculty member introduces the student to you immediately after their conversation.
Permit and normalize a variety of emotions. Assess previous encounters with loss and the coping techniques that were helpful. Grief is often messy. Students may be angry at the admissions committee or prospective employer one day and sad the next. Bridges’ transition model suggests that any resistance is normal. Permitting diverse feelings and processing the thoughts associated with them will help students accept the nonevent.
Identify what is lost and what is still possible. Collect and review the facts to help students acknowledge the reality of the loss. Exploring the factors that led to their failure or rejection may improve their future performance. If students still desire to pursue the job or career they initially chose, help them assess the probability of their success. For example, students who are denied admission into a nursing program may discover that other institutions have similar academic standards or prerequisites to your university. Often through this research students will realize that they must accept the existence of the nonevent.
Examine the underlying factors that attracted them to their initial career choice. You can then explore other careers that possess the same attributes and joy as their previous option. Perhaps they were drawn to nursing because they wanted to work in a healthcare setting and help others. If so, ask if they prefer to work with data, people or things. Depending on their answer, you can share information on occupations such as child life specialists, healthcare social workers, radiological technicians, or clinical laboratory scientists. Some students may have initially selected traditional careers, such as nursing, because they were unaware of alternatives. Others may be reluctant to let go of their former decision because they mistakenly believe that only one perfect career exists. Examine and evaluate these thoughts together to determine their accuracy.
Partner with students’ academic advisors. Some students may inquire about the fastest alternative degree paths because they do not want to delay their graduation date. Academic advisors will be able to conduct degree audits in all the academic disciplines that interest them. You can then share information about the popular career paths for these programs or identify the overlapping courses among the options they are considering, which will give them more time to engage in informed decision-making.
Become familiar with financial aid and academic standing criteria. Students who have experienced a nonevent as the result of academic difficulty may be unable to satisfy the criteria needed to receive financial aid. Both the institution and federal government will have standards, which often include both the student’s cumulative grade point average (GPA) and completion rate. Nearly every student relies on financial aid and removing it jeopardizes their enrollment. Help students assess their options and collaborate with their advisor to formulate a plan for the future. For example, students may be able to finish their degree and improve their GPA if they elect to repeat courses or request academic amnesty.
Explain the value of a college degree. In the face of loss, some students may lose hope and give up on college altogether. Share information about the earning potential and employment rate of college graduates compared to non-graduates. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that individuals with only a high school diploma have nearly double the unemployment rate of people with a bachelor’s degree and earn $415 less per week. As the result of their broad, interdisciplinary focus, liberal arts graduates are also prepared for numerous careers and can choose from a variety of occupations.
Facilitate reality testing. Once students have selected alternative careers, help them confirm their decision. Arrange information interviews or job shadows. Locate relevant employment or volunteer opportunities. Encourage them to visit with the faculty in these academic disciplines to learn more about the courses, common challenges, and support services. Time is often of the essence for these students, so you may need to move forward quickly.
Assess students’ self-efficacy. Some students may internalize the hiring or admissions decision and mistakenly believe that it reflects their overall competency. If these thoughts go unchecked, they could inhibit their performance in the future, especially if the nonevent becomes public. For example, future employers may see nursing courses on a student’s transcript and inquire about it. Have students practice sharing their story as if in a job interview or conversation with a friend to help them become comfortable explaining it. Identify and celebrate students’ strengths. If possible, connect them with others who have coped with the same loss.
Inquire about their support system. Share with students that the nonevent may cause family members or partners to grieve, too. This may exacerbate an already heavy burden for students or produce a sense of guilt. If students have not already shared the news with these individuals, role play this conversation together. Encourage students to share the information they have collected and the options they are considering. If necessary, offer to participate in a conversation with everyone so that the student can find support and hope.
Finally, acknowledge the growth produced by their grief. Loss often teaches us that pain and joy are not mutually exclusive. Through the worst and often most unanticipated circumstances, people discover the strongest in themselves. Celebrate this triumph. It not only affirms that they will survive and be okay, but also serves as an inspiration for all of us.
Billie Streufert is the director of Career Services at the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota. She earned her Master’s Degree in Counseling and Student Personnel from Minnesota State University and has nearly ten years of experience in career and academic planning. She may be reached at email@example.com.
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