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Getting Past Generational Thinking to Meet YOUR Students’ Needs

Ascribing characteristics to particular generational cohorts has become a routine way to make sense of the world. Boomers, Gen X, Y, and Z, are terms that are familiar to us all, and we associate particular characteristics and behaviors with each of these groups.

There are however several problems with using generational thinking to address the career needs of your student population.

  • First, there is a tendency to base conclusions not on good research but on lived experience.

  • Second, even when generational characteristics are derived from a large survey set, how relevant and similar are the respondents to your student population?

  • Third, by its nature, assigning generational characteristics to large cohorts by age group means we are reducing our thinking about an often varied set of people to some limited generalizations. Over-generalization causes us to miss the nuances of our own student population.

I advise, instead, that you design strategies that are closely tied to the student characteristics and priorities of your college or university. Here are some of the strategies we used at American University to address the needs of our rapidly changing student body:

Review Institutional Priorities

We started by studying who our students are, and reviewed documents like American University’s strategic plan and the priorities that were articulated by university leadership in various forums, to better understand where we needed to focus our attention. It quickly became apparent that our student body was becoming more diverse on many fronts, including by race, family income, first generation to college, and home state. American University’s Career Center has always been well regarded by its students, but we quickly realized that with a much less homogenous student body, the days of “one size fits all” are long over.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

To avoid the pitfalls of generational thinking, develop and analyze your own data on your specific student populations. For example, there are national studies that reinforce the common belief that diverse students and first generation students are not engaging with career services to the same extent as their peers. Through a detailed annual analysis of American University domestic multicultural and first-generation student participation in career activities, we have shown that these students consistently use resources to the same or greater extent than their peers. The national trend was not true for us. By contrast, we realized that our international undergraduate students were utilizing career resources slightly less than their domestic peers, which led us to seek creative ways to provide that group more opportunities to engage with career resources.

For example we partnered with our International Students and Scholars Office to make short career pitches at visa/work authorization workshops, thus piggy-backing on existing programming and a captive audience of international students to deliver career related information and resources. The bigger lesson for us was not to assume that all students were similarly situated, but to tailor outreach and programming to particular group’s needs.

Partner with Other Offices to Learn Best Practices and Scale Impact

Early in our evaluation, colleagues and I were worried about our lack of knowledge about particular demographic groups. For instance, we knew that our first generation student population was growing rapidly, but few of us had any non-anecdotal information about their needs. We learned the national characteristics of this group, such as that they are disproportionately made up of underrepresented minorities, and have lower social capital.

To learn more about American University’s first generation students, we partnered with our Center for Diversity and Inclusion (CDI), which provides resources and support for various student groups. CDI conducted a series of focus groups with first generation students, and we found the results very valuable in developing career outreach strategies for first generation students. Some of the information confirmed what we had thought, for example that students did not necessarily know what to expect from a job fair, or the difference between an internship and a job. Other results were surprising and informed our work. For example, the largest racial group among our first generation students was white, at 40%. When asked to describe themselves, the overwhelming number used very positive terms, which made us realize we should not approach our outreach with a deficit model in mind, but rather one of achievement and engagement.

In summary, when thinking about the needs of your student body, identify the characteristics of your particular student groups, base your decisions and resource allocations on the data you collect, and partner with other departments who can inform and extend the work of your Career Center.

Gihan Fernando is Executive Director of the American University Career Center in Washington, DC. He has over 25 years of experience in higher education administration with a focus on career services and student engagement, including leadership roles at the law schools at Georgetown, Cornell and New York University. He is passionate about providing access to higher education and the world of work for all students.

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