Adam Weinberg is the president of Denison University in Granville, Ohio. Laurel Kennedy is the vice president for student development.
Our mission as college educators is to bring together capable students from a wide variety of backgrounds and equip them with knowledge and skills they need to achieve personal, professional and civic success.
However, the post-graduation experience is not always as successful as we wish, especially for first-generation students from low-income backgrounds. National data underscores that, despite their college degrees, this group of students faces a variety of obstacles that slow their professional attainment.
At Denison, we have been tracking the career outcomes of our students in a highly granular way for the last seven years. During this period, we have conducted surveys, interviews and focus groups to understand our students' early career transitions, points of career acceleration and the barriers to career launch they have encountered.
What we have learned may be helpful to other institutions that share our commitment to early, positive career outcomes for all students. We know there are clear differences in career paths for more well-off students versus their lower-income and first-generation college peers. As we work to narrow that gap, these strategies are making a difference.
- Seek students' help in demystifying career development. We have discovered that many university resources are promoted in language that is coded and inaccessible, or that appears only at the end of a web-search trail that few students will complete. We hired students to review our website and help us identify the sections that were unclear, incomplete or unnecessarily daunting. Students are helping us put helpful information in their paths in ways that make sense to them. For instance, we have a lot of financial support available for students in their career development journey but it wasn't very well spelled out on the website or in written materials provided in every introductory appointment. Students advised that information needed to be provided much more explicitly for them to take advantage of it.
Remove requirements of self-disclosure. We learned through focus groups with first-generation students that if resources weren't put on the table, many would simply assume they were not available. Few would risk the discomfort of asking for assistance unless they were sure it was available and that they were eligible. In all introductory coaching appointments, we now make sure that resources are made visible and accessible — from paid internships to grants for test preparation to covering interview travel.
Address cultural shifting head-on. Our students shared candidly that it was not until they arrived at a university with many wealthy students that some first experienced the full force of their social and economic marginalization. This created an ambivalence that students found difficult to process. Talking with alumni, advisors and professional mentors who had previously navigated these tensions helped students feel less isolated and overwhelmed. The same is true for faculty who work closely with this group of students and hence have their trust. We now ask alumni, faculty and others to surface and speak candidly about these concerns, to the extent they are comfortable, as they talk with students.
Be sensitive to well-intended interactions that dismiss concerns. Faculty advisors, career coaches and mentors often want to reassure young people about their career prospects. Our students told us that even the best intended "Don't worry!" can have a particularly silencing effect on an economically disadvantaged student who is worried and would benefit from talking through what is on her mind.
Articulate low-income and first-generation graduates' skill sets. The Association of American Colleges and Universities has done extensive research into the skills and capacities employers most need. The attributes they've identified align with first-generation and low-income students in particular. Among these are the ability to be creative, resourceful and perseverant in problem-solving, to work well in diverse teams and to navigate new settings proficiently. We are working with students to help them articulate these strengths in the interview process, and we are drawing the attention of faculty and staff to the benefits of these attributes as they prepare reference letters. We are also highlighting these traits in conversations with recruiters and internship providers, reminding them of how important — and unusual — these qualities can be in young professionals.
Value equally the benefits of internships and jobs. Internships offer great value but they don't always pay (or pay well enough) to meet the income requirements of students responsible for their own expenses. So we are maximizing the benefits of on-campus employment by training campus employers to work formatively on professional skill sets. Our career center led the development of a campus employer's toolkit offering information on mentorship within the context of supervision and performance evaluation, advice on professional etiquette and tips for helping students learn skills such as writing professional emails. This scaffolding of student employment enables many of the benefits of internships to be realized, recognized and articulated through campus work experiences.
Create inclusive networks. The importance of professional networks is well understood. The most powerful networks, however, are often exclusive, based on kinship or status. Low-income and first-generation students rarely have access to these types of networks. We are helping students to understand how networks function and how to use them to find opportunities. Equally important, we are constructing professionally focused networks of alumni and parents that leverage the kinship of the college and the bonds that alumni feel toward each other to assist graduates across class lines.
The first few years out of college are a time of tremendous and rapid change. We have learned that continuing to provide students access to our career resources and networks need not be costly. It also pays dividends in our career development center, as we learn from these young grads and utilize their feedback to improve our programs.
We must all be committed to keep asking questions about how we can better prepare our alumni to succeed in their post-graduate life. The learning never stops.