Director of Career Education
According to a survey by Active Minds, “80 percent of college students say the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health.” Students are not only experiencing uncertainty about their academic and professional futures, but they’re also grappling with environmental and social upheaval. Now that we're transitioning out of the pandemic and into a still uncertain future, we must transform our services to provide a more holistic and nurturing approach to a student's career journey.
Wellness is core to career development.
As someone who has worked in higher education for 20 years, I have observed the impact of rising tuition, along with wild shifts in the economy and technology, on the nature of my career conversations with students.
Before 2020, most career professionals operated in a largely tactical world, helping students make and execute an individualized plan for career exploration or job search. Now, my interactions with students have shifted from a cheerleading approach ("You can do this!") to something more sensitive to the stress, labor, and anxiety many students experience around their careers.
Stress about career options is by no means new, but there is an increasing sense of responsibility to proactively support students' wellbeing as part of our career readiness work.
Why are Gen Z Students so Stressed Out?
I'm sure that many of you who transitioned into the workforce in 2008-ish have empathy for the uncertainty our students are facing. Gen Z is planning its future during a time of extreme socio-economic tumult, from school shutdowns to widespread protests about racial injustice and rising unemployment.
According to Deloitte's Global 2021 Millennial and Gen Z Survey, "The pandemic has created much uncertainty and stress around millennials' and Gen 'Zs' financial futures. About two-thirds of each group agreed that they often worry or become stressed by their personal financial situations."
At DePaul, we surveyed 534 students in March of 2021 as part of our now annual Career Readiness Survey for Seniors. We found that many of the comparisons between last year's responses (our pilot year) and this year's answers provide insight into how the upheaval of 2020 may have impacted students' confidence and attitudes about their futures.
Here are some of our takeaways:
On average, seniors were more anxious than optimistic—and they were more anxious than seniors were last year.
Overall, students reported less competency in career-related human skills than last year.
More seniors believe that adaptability is important compared to last year.
Students' self-assessment of their skills related to securing a job, managing a career, and professionalism are all down. Less than one in five seniors had a lot of confidence in their ability to get a job within their desired timeframe.
Almost a third of students had no or only a little confidence in their ability to network.
Ok, how can we support career wellbeing?
1. We can create cohorts or communities focused on belonging.
Some institutions are building out identity-specific affinity groups, but I challenge these career centers to go beyond a wall of resource links, or a list of external websites that, while relevant, can feel un-actionable or overwhelming. It's essential to consider the belonging (and connecting) aspect of communities and create space for conversation. This belonging can be achieved by partnering with identity-focused student orgs and campus partners - or making space for discussion amongst these groups.
Example: Future Forward
At DePaul, we have two early engagement programs that create smaller communities of students who share their stresses, passions, and career interests. One of these programs, called Future Forward, is a year-long co-curricular learning experience that engages students in meaningful career exploration.
Students complete ten asynchronous career readiness modules and need to earn 10,000 points/quarter by contributing to an organic social learning platform we call FutureFeed, where they are awarded points for sharing, commenting, and reacting. Using this platform has wildly extended the community and peer-connected aspects of this program. We're finding incredible examples of the benefits of shared experience, peer support, and spontaneous interactions.
Below are two screenshots that illustrate the almost unbelievably supportive sharing that happens in this forum.
2. Center the student experience by offering informal on-demand services.
The pandemic revealed that students desire to connect on their timeline and as needs arise. This is particularly true for non-traditional and commuter students. In response to this we wanted to make the experience of interacting with our office a less-planned and more impromptu (i.e., a less intimidating experience). At DePaul, we will be launching a Career Chat tool in late July, offering students and alum quick answers to career questions. This offering has been inspired by a couple of other institutions that provide similar services, including:
Goucher College's Career Education office, which offers an "Ask a Question" option that sends learners to their office email address.
Washington University in Saint Louis' Career Peer resume and material review.
University of North Texas' Quick Chats.
3. Normalize exploration and gamify career content.
So much anxiety that our students experience is based on the false assumption that they should already know what career they want to pursue before starting college. The rising cost of tuition and a cultural misunderstanding of the contemporary workforce make this assumption understandable but damaging. For this reason, normalizing career exploration and academic exploration was one of the central goals of our Future Forward program. Because this program is co-curricular, we knew we would have to make the learning experience as entertaining as possible to retain learners.
This program allowed us to measure outcomes compared to the senior career readiness assessment via a program-wide survey after the academic year. We had a response rate of 66%, and responses to one prompt indicated that the large majority of Future Forward students believe that the Career Center is a place they can go even if they are unclear about their career goals and that our advisors have the knowledge to help them pursue a career in their desired industry. Fewer seniors agree with these statements, and this indicates that Future Forward is working to normalize exploration. We also used a wide variety of interest and personality assessments that offered a "fun" interface, and these were consistently the most popular part of our content.
4. Speak to students' intersecting identities and respect their lived experiences.
Our students are living complicated lives, and their identities are frequently intersectional. It's crucial that when we design services and resources to meet their needs, we allow for a wide range of lived experiences. Some of the community-focused initiatives and resources should recognize the wide range of needs, interests, and intersecting identities. This could impact the internal and external stakeholders we target - as well as create an agile and frictionless mentorship program that helps students self-identify peers or professionals that most align with their identity.
5. Offer braided services.
There is an increased need to map career development across the campus ecosystem if we are to truly impact all students, and not just those who walk through our doors. To accomplish this, we can lean into the concept of "braided services" from Lanae Erickson, Senior Vice President for the Social Policy and Politics Platform at Third Way, as discussed in Inside HigherEd’s conversation on "The Value of Higher Education." I love this image of fully mapping career services into the campus ecosystem - primarily focused on partnerships with Counseling and Wellness Promotion offices, Campus Recreation, and student orgs. During the "art school" phase of my career, we offered a campus-wide Spa Day that featured massages, haircuts, herbal tea, and a career-focused personal branding table. This embodies the holistic approach necessary to reach every student and re-brand career services as a structurally unavoidable part of the college experience - in a good way!
Regardless of how we implement career wellness initiatives, I believe this is central to the social justice element of our work. Career wellness programs that allow students to learn from peers, normalize their experience, and provide opportunities for both synchronous and asynchronous access will positively impact students' overall well being and career self-efficacy. I am also eager to see how this concept can be adapted to meet the needs of specific communities.
Third Way'sWay's Student Well-Being, Belonging & Success in Higher Ed (event)
Colorado Department of Higher Education Healthy Minds Checklist (PDF)
Annie E. Casey Foundation'sFoundation's Generation Z and Mental Health (blog post)
“I feel that the future I’ve been working towards my whole life is gone now” — What Students Have to Say About the Coronavirus (Medium Blog Post by Livia Morris)
Margie McGee-Newton is Director of Career Education, DePaul University Career Center. She loves connecting students to career education and exploration opportunities and providing both tactical and real-world advice. As an artist, she values a “hustle” mindset, and the most rewarding part of her job is empowering students and young professionals to craft their own stories. She believes that career centers need to be experts at content strategy and have a deep responsibility for helping students navigate the intersections of meaning, identity, and career. Margie is the Virtual Think Tank Planner in the Career Leader Fellowship cohort at the Career Leadership Collective.