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The Power of Outside Perspective for Career Services

How many times have you heard the phrase during a search “she/he does not have experience in Career Services or a higher education background”? Alternatively, “how could they possibly understand what we do at our office or institution”? In 2013, Inside Higher Ed published an article urging Career Services to transform the model, going so far as to title the piece, Career Services Must Die. They referenced Andy Chan from Wake Forest, along with other thought leaders and ideas for transformational change.

Fast forward four years and the field is indeed changing. Much of that change has come from Career Services leaders embracing perspectives that are different from the past. However, if Career Services is to innovate, we need to look beyond our walls. If we do not think differently, we will ultimately tread water or fail at helping our students succeed. More than at any other time, we need outside perspectives.

At the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) Career Services, we are evolving to meet the career needs of students. We are looking outside of Career Services and at times higher education for different perspectives into the work that we do. This is hard work and we are certainly not perfect at it.

Do you have a plan for how you can embrace outside perspectives as a team, so that you can constantly evolve to meet the needs of today’s students? Here is how we are thinking about things a little differently at UIC Career Services.

Embrace a Start-Up Culture

I started my career at a small boutique IT consulting firm in the 1990’s and even though we did not call ourselves a startup (as that term did not really exist then), in essence, the company was just that. Twenty years later, I still find myself embracing the culture that a start-up company presents. Here are a few lessons from my experiences at this firm:

Take some risks – Start-up’s in many ways are all about risks. In general, I do not think many of us in Career Services would call ourselves risk-takers, however, sometimes it is necessary to try new things or simply see if something sticks. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently highlighted Design Thinking and Higher Ed in an article and made note of how instead of always piloting something, try doing it faster and cheaper. At UIC Career Services, we try to embrace a culture of creativity especially when it comes to engaging with students and employers. We are opportunists and if a program presents itself that can benefit a segment of our students, we usually say yes and take the risk.

Be nimble and adaptable - Successful startup firms are nimble and adaptable. Ultimately, this allows them to survive and thrive in a market in which they face competition. Career Services is competing for resources as well and more than ever, there is a need to be nimble and adapt. Recently, Career Services had the opportunity to be involved in a student success related retention program and partnered with colleagues in both academic and student affairs in on-boarding nearly 75 freshman students into this program. As a willing, able, and nimble partner, we were able to design and implement this program in less than one month. We did not necessarily know or take the time to consider if we had the resources in place for this level of a commitment but we saw this program as an opportunity to make a difference.

Look for utility and depth in your team

So how do you connect the Chicago Cubs to Career Services and how can that team be a sense of inspiration?

Look for utility players – As a fan, one of things I noticed is that they have quality utility players and a deep roster of players who can play many different positions (aka roles). Look at Kris Bryant as an example. In the Cubs World Series Year, Bryant played third base, left field, right field, and first base. Career Services needs utility players to be successful. We need staff that can be effective career coaches for students, connect with employers, faculty and other stakeholders and function in many different capacities both on a team basis and independently. Breadth, utility, flexibility and depth is my current mantra for an effective team.

Look for outside organizations that share your values

Looking outward at organizations with a drive to help students succeed has been a model that UIC Career Services has embraced. Limited staff resources and the need to scale have led us to be creative especially in seeking partnerships with eternal organizations who share our values. We have found a fresh infusion of resources and opportunities with two organizations in recent years. The first is America Needs You (ANY), which provides an intensive model of career development and mentoring for First Generation College students over two academic years starting in a student’s second year of study. Now in its third year in Illinois, numerous UIC students have benefited from ANY’s amazing fellowship program. Their mentors provide intensive career advising for first generation students and their leadership works tirelessly to connect students to meaningful internship opportunities. Here is how their outside perspective benefitted our staff:

  1. An understanding that ANY has considerable expertise and skills in the career development realm from a slightly different lens

  2. An understanding that ANY has some employer connections and relationships that we do not have

Another example of looking outward is our work with The Chicago Network (TCN). TCN is made up of Chicago’s leading professional women and is a connecting point for their professional and personal growth. The Chicago Network’s Future Leaders Program has provided groups of UIC’s female students’ exposure and access to some of the city’s most notable companies and not-for-profit organizations to empower them towards career success and leadership roles. This past year, 24 outstanding UIC female students participated in this program. Similar to ANY, TCN’s outside perspective has taught us the following:

  1. TCN‘s Future Leaders program enhances student self-efficacy. We may have not realized this without seeing this program in action and as a staff have come to the realization that of all the factors that determine career success, self-efficacy is close to the top of the list.

  2. TCN’s story telling ability is truly inspirational for our students (and staff that participated). I do not think as a team we realized just how inspirational and powerful story-telling can be as a career tool (until seeing TCN’s Future Leaders).

ANY and TCN take slightly different approaches to working with college students however their programmatic models and perspectives have informed the internal work done by Career Services.

Hire from an outside perspective

Some of the biggest changes that one can bring to an organization is to hire and bring in new staff. As a hiring manger, I have tried to embrace the idea and impact that hiring from outside of Career Services can bring to an office. As an example, UIC Career Services recently looked outward to fill the newly created assessment/evaluation leadership role and hired an individual with extensive experience in the learning and development realm in professional services. I thought long and hard about this decision and decided that this is what the campus, my staff, and students needed at this time. Fast forward 10 months and this decision to hire from the outside has already had a huge impact on our assessment efforts.

Embrace the tried and true, but look at them a little differently

At UIC, students still seek individual advising services, career fairs, and related programmatic offerings. We are not discarding these services and resources; we are building on traditions that work and seeking out innovation and growth along the way.

Most importantly, we are viewing things from a different and outside perspective and by doing so, this has allowed us to add new functional areas to Career Services. Recent examples include the addition of leadership roles in Assessment and Evaluation and Career Education. Looking ahead, we will continue to look at our work differently in an effort to realign our services to the needs of our students.

Thy Nguyen is the Director of Career Services at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Thy has nearly 18 years of experience in providing career planning and guidance to college students at all levels with a particular focus on working with students in STEM related fields.

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