This past year has been a watershed one for residential liberal arts institutions like Oberlin College, where I run the Career Development Center. The pandemic is challenging how we deliver a liberal arts education. It is also challenging how our most important constituency — our students and their families — perceive this education. The finances of our incoming students are more precarious than they were before, and the job prospects for our graduating students are even more uncertain. All those realities have made a broader truth increasingly clear: the old model of career development that exists at colleges and universities across the country must change.
The economic impact of the pandemic should be reason enough to reconsider how we prepare students for careers. But after the outrage following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor thrust racial injustice into conversations everywhere, it became clear that merely reconsidering our work is not enough: COVID-19 and uprisings for racial justice have called for a thorough transformation of how we prepare students for the professional world.
Look at the standard services of any career development center, including Oberlin’s, and you will find, with some variations, the same three offerings: we help our students write about themselves (in résumés and cover letters), talk about themselves (say, in interviews), and find an audience (for example, by networking with alumni). If you strip away the innovations of email and the internet, such offerings look unchanged from a generation ago — and their persistence perpetuates a myth that mastery over those three areas is enough to successfully launch students.
The truth is that today’s students confront a vastly different professional landscape. They face disruption and uncertainty their parents would have scarcely grasped. They’re told that their first job out of college won’t exist in 10 years, and that the job they will have in a decade doesn’t exist today. Those statements are intended to excite them but instead inspire an anxiety made only more acute by COVID-19 and its economic consequences.
All students don’t shoulder this anxiety equally. For affluent students, whose parents have college degrees and professional credentials, it may be enough to offer help with writing, talking and connecting. These students have already secured internships and relevant summer jobs. They know how to ask for help, and help is usually no more than one degree of separation away. They are already embedded in a thick social network that can help them launch after college. The network may be hard to see, but its value is hard to deny.
Students who come from less affluent backgrounds often don’t have those networks. Many haven’t watched someone close to them cultivate such a network or build a professional career. No one at home can coach them through the writing and talking required for a successful job search, sometimes because of language barriers. These students don’t know what questions to ask when they feel at sea. They lack internships and relevant job experiences because they need jobs that pay for college. For them, there is no thick and extensive social network — only social barriers that can’t be easily overcome by learning to polish a résumé.
Just as the social network is hard to discern, so are those barriers. Yet their consequences are equally hard to deny. For example, students may lack the capacity to negotiate effectively because they have not seen people like them present themselves in professional settings. That can affect the first job they get or how much they’re paid in the job. And we know that a student’s first salary after graduation can dictate income for years to come — which is not only an issue of economic justice but of racial justice, as well. On many of our campuses, Black students and students of color are more likely to be low income and the first in their families to attend college.
In short, while COVID-19 and its fallout remind us of the challenges all students face in the leap from college to career, for those of us in career development, the protests and demands for racial justice call us to transform how we prepare our students for professional life. They call us to confront how our time-honored practices perpetuate a myth that the social network that white, affluent students arrive with doesn’t really exist.
Providing Access to Social Capital
For Oberlin, the opportunity to do so came with a move to a three-semester academic calendar, which we needed in order to shrink the number of students on the campus during the pandemic. We asked entering juniors to skip the fall semester and, instead, attend the spring and a new summer semester. For them, that meant forfeiting two consecutive summer internship opportunities, sitting by while other classmates went back to college, and doing so during a period of social unrest and outrage.
We needed to keep these students engaged and to do so with something bold enough to get and keep their attention. We also needed to compensate them, at least partly, for the career-building opportunities — like summer internships — they had lost to the pandemic.
That is what prompted us to design Oberlin’s Junior Practicum, a program with two parts: a monthlong remote summit in September on career readiness and skill building, followed by paid remote micro-internships. We also wove into the program a series of complex problems — like climate change, refugee protection, politics and the media, gentrification, and political polarization — that we knew would resonate with students.
We began the program this past fall and introduced each complex problem with an expert keynote speaker. We followed each keynote with breakout sessions in which students debated how their industry of choice contributed to the problem but could also be part of the solution. We folded in sessions to help students with résumés, grant writing, branding, negotiation and many other skills. We organized group workshops on topics such as navigating the workplace as a person of color, allyship, inclusion and more. And then we sent them off to remote micro-internships to practice what they had learned.
The visible components of this program — the lectures, workshops, readings and training modules — were valuable enough. But what was truly transformational about this program was less visible: the power of having 300 juniors do this work as a group and at the same time.
It is no longer enough to pose to students challenging problems, to ask them to connect those problems to their life after college, or even to have them reflect on their identity and their position in society. This is what liberal arts colleges like Oberlin have been doing forever.
If we want to help students, we must stop ignoring the reality that some arrive at our campuses already with access to the social capital that is so hard to see but so important to professional success. We need to embed all students, especially those without access to the same resources, in a thick social network that can help them succeed.
By constructing a cohort, as we have with the Junior Practicum, we can create experiences that impart information and skills but also help students confront anxiety, unconscious bias, impostor syndrome and privilege head-on. In the Junior Practicum, students work in teams and negotiate with each other, whether in debates about how their industries of interest affect the complex problems or in developing ideas to pitch in the competition that concludes the program. That requires them to see how their identities and those of their peers interact in a setting that replicates the workplace they will soon be joining.
It will always be important for our career development programs to help students write and talk about themselves, and to find an audience. But COVID-19 and uprisings for racial justice have made it clear to us that this is not the future of career readiness at colleges like ours. Students need to succeed in workplaces defined by deep uncertainty and deep-seated inequities. We must transform how we do our work if we are to help them succeed.