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Structural advising adaptations for equitable career success

Faith McClellan

Dean of Career Services

Smith College

With mounting pressures facing career centers to deliver a strong return on investment, and the stressors facing students studying and graduating amidst a global pandemic and economic uncertainty, the historical model of siloed career education is insufficient to deliver equitable success outcomes. Institutions face an imperative to adapt and integrate approaches across the academic, co-curricular and career areas to create broader ecosystems of student support.

Research shows that career education significantly impacts retention among low-income students, particularly when offered in the first year. A Gates Foundation study indicated that nearly half of students who do not complete their degree leave because of a disconnect between their studies and personal or professional aspirations. The 2021 report commissioned by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) and produced by the Career Leadership Collective and the Advising Success Network highlights the importance of integrated advising strategies to equitable student outcomes: “Career advising integration seems to have more profound effects for minoritized students when introduced in the first year, deployed in tandem with academic advising and embedded in courses (p.14).”

The AASCU report highlights five levels of advising integration, ranked in order of implementation difficulty:

  1. Partnerships: working relationships across functional teams, internal or external

  2. Programmatic Initiatives: target services, events, or programs

  3. Curriculum Integration: development of new curricula addressing career foundations or interweaving of concepts into existing curricula

  4. Organizational Proximity: alignment through shared oversight, space, or programs

  5. Structural Mergers: formal integration of job descriptions, structures, and resources

At Smith College, a private women’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts, we currently focus on the first two of these, partnerships and programmatic initiatives. We would like to offer these as illustrative examples, along with some practical strategies and tools for those constrained by structures and resources.

Partnerships are central to our advising approach. We engage faculty advisers, department heads, and academic centers at the College in partnership with the career center, strengthening advising ties. Our Engineering Department offers a Design Clinic in which students work in teams on applied projects sponsored by clients in industry; our Education Department is piloting a teacher recruiting initiative; our Science Center co-hosts a weekly brown bag lunch series on careers in the health professions. We also partner with co-curricular teams for promotion, referrals, and cross-training, including connections with our teaching/learning centers for community engagement, entrepreneurship and innovation, global studies, and leadership.

Programmatic initiatives currently focus on early engagement designed to bridge the gap between faculty, students, and career counselors. Central to our effort is the piloting of three staff called Smith Connectors who report through the Dean's Office and partner closely with the Career Center and other student success areas. The goal of this pilot is that the Connectors will facilitate networks to academic advising, co-curricular programs, the career center, and many other departments across campus. In their first month on the job, the Connectors have already completed over 100 successful referrals to the career center, measured by advising appointments or workshop RSVPs in Handshake. Beyond referrals, the Connectors help to create a campus culture that encourages students to think early and often about career planning, and to tap into affinity groups and career communities that support this. The Connectors will launch new programming initiatives in winter 2021, including career exploration workshops during J-term and a series of career conversations between faculty and students.

Having offered this background on our own approach, we would like to share some learnings that may be useful at a broader level. Here are some takeaways to consider:

  1. Enlist students: Trained peer advisers and student groups can serve an important role for first years in making connections with the career center and co-curricular supports. It is important to get peer advisers out onto campus, beyond the walls of the career center. For example, at Smith, our peer advisers table in the campus center and offer drop-in support in the athletic center and library. We also partner with our House Community Advisers (like Residential Advisers) to offer regular student-led sessions in the houses on networking and other topics.

  2. Offer ready-to-use content: As a precursor to formal curricular integration, one strategy is to offer on-demand content that faculty and staff can use to advise with career-oriented questions. For example, through our Professional Pathways program, we offer career coaching kits for each discipline area, linking academic study to industry. We are also developing toolkits on multicultural career advising competencies and revamping our online resource directory to be more user-friendly for faculty.

  3. Focus on new faculty: Formalizing professional development aimed at career resource awareness and work-integrated learning is an endeavor requiring significant institutional investment. One short-term strategy can be to focus on pre-established opportunities to meet with new faculty, through onboarding and orientation initiatives. Besides establishing individual relationships, this can help to shift the campus culture towards early engagement with the career center. For us, this is a first step towards developing a formal career success partners network

  4. Share technology: To support a team-based approach to career advising, notes and other information on student progress must be shared. Even before structural integration or mergers, it is important to audit technology to assess how relevant data is shared. CRM systems like Salesforce, Banner, or Workday can support the sharing of advising notes, as well as the tracking of career center engagement as correlated with persistence, retention, graduation rates, first destination outcomes, and career mobility.

  5. Form cross-functional teams: Any strategy to address student success and retention needs to be guided by an invested group of stakeholders including students, alumni, faculty, and student success staff. At Smith, we have formed an advisory group charged by the President with developing a strategic plan for student career success. We will use this group to review data, assess our structures, shape coherent goals, and create a roadmap for shared work. Though high-level support of such a group is instrumental, when this is not available it may also have value to start with more informal working group structures, around a particular topic, such as retention and career outcomes for a particular population identified in gap analysis as needing amplified support.

As you consider how to integrate academic and career advising at your own institution, it is important to position equity and inclusion as drivers for the work. The following are some suggested readings aimed at assessing equity multicultural competence in career advising:

Indeed, at Smith College we are among many institutions spearheading initiatives to better craft an integrated advising experience. To cite just a few, these include the Carthage College Aspire Program, the Ball State University Skills Infusion Program, and the George Mason University Career Influencers Network. From our experience, we think these models are innovative and additive and deserve attention in the emerging career education landscape. We learn from such models that the best advising is done in collaboration, across campus, and with driving institutional support.

Faith McClellan serves as Dean of Career Services at Smith College, where she works to create bridges between knowledge acquired in the classroom, particularly within the liberal arts tradition, and students’ co-curricular experiences. Ms. McClellan holds over 20 years of experience in nonprofit management and higher education, including ten years in career and workforce development. She holds a Masters in Public Administration from the NYU Wagner School and a BA in Gender Studies and Education from Brown University.


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