Not Just for Seniors! Connecting First-Year College Students to Career Services
By Diane Farrell
No one is surprised to hear that seniors on the threshold of graduation visit the Career Resource Center (CRC) looking for job search assistance. Those who have procrastinated on career choice and finding employment see the finish line approaching and realize they need to find something that will keep them fulfilled and flush with cash once they're marched to the edge of campus and pushed out of the proverbial nest.
A greater challenge has been encouraging the first-year student to make use of career services. Once these students find their on-campus jobs, they have more important things to do such as adjusting to campus life, making new friends, and managing academic challenges. At University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, we typically reached new students through orientation days; however, we were troubled that many first-year students were making decisions about majors for poor reasons and receiving advice of questionable quality from peers, family, and even some advisors. We learned freshmen and sophomores sometimes experienced pressure to remain in their majors, seeing change as a form of giving up.
Faculty members were aware that the CRC helps people write resumes and find jobs. They were less clear, however, about the assessment tools we offered and how we helped students with major choice, career exploration, and decision making. Not for lack of mention - we do send email reminders to faculty each year about the services we offer and take pride in the good relationships we have established with a number of professors. Still, freshmen accessed our services only in small numbers.
Four years ago Pacific resurrected a career development course that students may take for one academic unit. While we have reasonably good enrollment, the number of freshmen taking the courses remains small, despite advertising to parents during orientation.
Making a career class mandatory for undergraduates involves efforts of heroic proportions and, on our campus, would be unlikely to succeed. So, we wondered, was there anything else we could do to reach first-year students? How could we connect with freshman in a way that made sense to them and, more importantly, came at a time when they were ready to hear from us?
The trouble with introducing career resources at New Student Orientation is that first-year students only care about the services they need to find an on-campus job. Beyond that, they don't think about careers because they're trying to get their bearings on campus. Frequently, new students believe they have it all figured out ("I'm in the pre-pharmacy program") or they feel a career is too far off to worry about yet. Occasionally we appeal to students who are "exploratory," but few freshmen realize we can help. The problem remains how to reach students who might not continue in their majors and who have limited exposure to career options. Early exposure, of course, gives students time to explore their choices experientially through job shadowing and internships.
Connecting to General Education
As part of the general education curriculum at Pacific, we offer a first-year seminar series focused on the question "What is a good society?" Students explore this question through themes such as family, work, and citizenship. Since freshmen are asked to examine the theme of "work" in a more profound, reflective way, it seemed a natural time to connect them to the services available at the CRC, particularly those tools designed to assist them with self understanding, occupational exploration, and making meaningful, values-based career choices.
The Career Resource Center partnered with the Associate Dean of the College of the Pacific (COP), the largest of Pacific's schools and colleges, our liberal arts college. His dual role as Director of General Education made him a valuable partner in our efforts to alert students to the tools and services we could offer them as they reflected on the nature of work. We developed an approach that involved meeting with Pacific Seminar faculty before the semester began, creating materials describing our assessment tools and other services, and distributing them to each student in these classes on the day the "work" theme was introduced.
Through some relatively minor efforts, we achieved some impressive results. During the quarter immediately following this new outreach, the CRC experienced a 52% increase in the number of career counseling sessions held with freshmen. First-year students became a larger percentage of all sessions than was typical, rising from 12-13% to almost 24% of all sessions held that quarter. While sessions with first-year students have since stabilized at a lower level, the percentage of sessions devoted to freshmen remains 15-20%, depending upon the semester.
As faculty members have learned about the breadth and quality of CRC services, we have been invited into more classrooms to give presentations. Recently, we met with professors from one academic department at their invitation to describe how we help students identify career goals. The CRC staff has been invited to serve on the First Year Experience committee, which in turn has provided opportunities to connect with faculty members in different ways, forging ongoing relationships that lead to additional collaborative programming and referrals of first-year students to career services. Together these activities have led to an overall increase in contact with freshmen, approximately 100% over 2 years. Our intake tracking tells us a significant source of referral to CRC services is through their professors.
Will this effort have any long-term impact on freshmen? This will be an interesting question to try to answer. We are actively engaged in research to assess outcomes for these students. However, as a method to stimulate first-year student connection to CRC services, no effort at Pacific has achieved greater results than linking to the general education curriculum and the corresponding relationship building with faculty.
Diane Farrell, MS, NCC, is Director of the Career Resource Center at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. She earned her MS in Counseling from San Francisco State University and is a National Certified Counselor. Diane has 15 years experience in career services at various public and private colleges in Northern California. Her experience includes work with undergraduates, graduates, and alumni of all majors. She also worked as a staffing specialist in the high tech industry. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org