Every Denison graduate enters the professional world with a strong liberal arts education that provides a foundation for success after life on the Hill. But today’s grads face an increasingly complex economy—pressures and expectations have changed—and the traditional career services model no longer works. Denison is breaking the mold with its Austin E. Knowlton Center for Career Exploration.
Hank Malin, executive director of the Knowlton Center, talks about the ways in which Denison is leveraging technology, experiential learning, and the power of the College’s alumni and parent networks to help students see their futures—and get there.
What is Denison doing differently from other schools?
Denison unlocks the potential of students to be the architects of their own lives. Our approach moves beyond career services, which is only about helping students land that first job, to career exploration, which has a very different aim. Career exploration focuses on three questions: What kind of life do I want to lead? How will my career and profession help build that life? And how do I use the time at Denison to develop the skills, values, habits, networks, and experiences to get started? The Knowlton Center obviously is part of that discovery process. We prepare our students to be ready for day one on the job, regardless of whether they are going to work for a nonprofit, large business entity, or entrepreneur, and we support students who are considering graduate school.
There are a number of ways we’re rebuilding the path to career readiness at Denison. First, we want our students to get engaged early and often, using all the resources available to them. To do that, Denison offers Advising Circles to help students acclimate to college life and to become knowledgeable about how resources and offices, like ours, can help them plan for their futures. For example, one tool we offer is a program called OnBoard, which is designed to help students close the skills gaps that recent graduates nationwide may be experiencing when they first enter the workforce. So, during the 40 percent of the year—winter, spring, and summer breaks—when Denison students are not on campus or engaged in a full course load, they can use OnBoard, comprising more than 60 online units on a variety of profession-specific skills and topics. Those topics include PowerPoint, Excel, finance, working with diverse populations, networking, and communicating in the workplace. Most of these topics are not taught in the classroom but will definitely be helpful going into a first job. And they help during the interview process.
We also want to connect our students with our network of alumni and parents, who can be highly effective career coaches and invaluable guides as students navigate the internship and job-search process. As part of our internship program, we provide pre-internship workshops, a midsummer check-in, and an end-of-summer review. We ask students to complete a blog or a short video to capture their experiences and learning, so that we can then share those with other students. It’s an exercise that allows them to reflect on what they’ve learned, and it shows them that those lessons make a big difference. We are also fortunate to be able to provide significant stipends to students for their internships, so they can pursue unpaid or lower-paying opportunities.
We also support our students after graduation. One of the ways we do that is through Denison Connecting, a program that offers real-time and virtual networking events in cities across the nation and abroad.
How have students’ needs for career services changed in the past few decades?
First of all, most students aren’t waiting until their junior or senior years to visit our office, and that’s great. We’re seeing a big increase in the number of students accessing the Knowlton Center in their first and sophomore years. During the fall 2017 semester, for example, we saw an increase of more than 40 percent in the number of first-years and sophomores who came to the Center for individual coaching appointments, as compared to fall 2016. Career exploration is supposed to be a journey that lasts throughout a Denison education. In the beginning of that process, students start to explore their choices; then we help narrow them down and network to learn more about those options. At a small school like Denison, a school that prides itself on individualized attention, it’s much more a series of conversations than just a one-time discussion. We set the expectation that the student owns that process. After all, this is their future, not ours. But we are ready to mentor them through the journey.
Second, I think one of the biggest changes that has happened in the last several years is that alumni are returning to career offices as places to have career and life conversations, whether they’ve graduated five, 10, or even 25 years ago. Over the next three to five years, we will develop programs to support alumni, especially our recent alumni, as they launch into professions and careers. Right now, we partner with Denison’s Alumni & Family Engagement office on Denison Connecting events, which are particularly helpful for recent graduates who have moved to a new city. It gives them the opportunity to connect with other graduates in their fields and locations. And if an alum is looking at a career change, these events provide a face-to-face connection with other alumni who can share their experience, and maybe even provide an introduction to an employer.
How have students’ future and career expectations changed?
There are still plenty of students at Denison who want to work for traditional employers—big companies, banks, and consulting firms, for example. But they are definitely asking, “What is my life going to look like if I work for this organization?” We see a range of attitudes around this, of course. Some students definitely don’t want work to be their life. Others will work for less salary because they feel so passionate about the work itself. What work is becoming is being defined very much by this generation. It’s why most career offices are no longer called “career placement,” because it’s no longer about having 200 companies recruiting on campus and “placing” students into those organizations. It’s a much more individualized—and time-consuming—approach.
There’s definitely been a shift in what students want in terms of their lives and work. They want to work for companies they believe are making positive impacts in their fields and on the world. Students actively research companies, whether through social media, employer reviews on Glassdoor, or company websites. Students shy away from companies that get a lot of bad press. They are increasingly more discerning about what their job or company is actually going to be.
What kinds of questions are students asking?
The questions we get asked the most are, “What do I do if I don’t know what I want to be?” and “Why does everyone seem to know what they want to be except for me?” On some level, that’s a pretty logical concern. Our students are surrounded by really talented peers, so many question themselves and their own talents and skills when they arrive in our office for a first visit. But we focus first and foremost on helping them explore and answer the first part of that question.
We encourage students to explore different fields, and one of the ways we do that is by encouraging them to participate in an externship, which is typically a one-day opportunity to spend time with an alum or Denison parent working in a field in which a student might have some interest. Through field exploration, a student might realize that she truly is excited about a profession. Or she might conclude that the field is not for her. Those lessons are valuable.
We also want students to find a company in a geographical area that suits them—maybe that’s a big-business city; maybe it’s a part of the country or world that’s known for tech or entrepreneurialism. So we offer First Looks, during which a group of 10 to 12 students have an opportunity to meet with alumni at two to four organizations in a particular region. We focus our First Looks efforts on Columbus, especially the New Albany area, which is 25 minutes away from campus and home to a broad range of types of organizations. But we also have taken students to Chicago and Cleveland, and we’re planning a trip to Boston this spring.
We are connecting our students with alumni and parents who can be powerful coaches and guides. One tool we use is Wisr, a recently launched mentoring tool. Students can match their interests with an alumnus and set a time to talk with that person. Wisr sends reminders to both parties, and it even provides suggested questions for the students. Part of what makes it so useful, of course, is that a student can be confident that any alumni they are reaching out to have already agreed to be contacted, rather than having it feel like a “cold call.”
Liberal arts colleges have been criticized in the past for providing an education that’s not focused solely on one specific discipline, but you’re finding that liberal arts students are very much in demand by employers. Tell us about that.
That’s right. We’re hearing from employers that they’re trying to recruit more students with diverse perspectives who can bring different experiences and points of view to rapidly changing work environments. They’re seeking out liberal arts students because those students have been exposed to a wide range of subjects and experiences. They are encouraged to do things that are not in their discipline or to try things they’ve never done before, such as studying abroad or forming a club. Liberal arts students are skilled at thinking about what is possible and then reacting to events. It’s an ability to think broadly and ask questions that sets the liberal arts graduate apart in the minds of employers. We’re seeing more and more CEOs with degrees in the humanities. Recent articles in the media, for example, point to the CEOs of Slack, YouTube, Airbnb, and others. It’s the humanities that are helping to solve issues facing humans. Students can develop the skills they need through programming, like OnBoard, but the larger reason employers are seeking liberal arts graduates is their ability to think, to ask the right questions, to put issues into cultural and historical contexts. A recent article in Fast Company magazine by a CEO of a tech startup listed several reasons why he is hiring more and more humanities majors: They better understand relationships, context, and human behavior. It’s the difference, he says, between “making stuff,” and “making stuff people want.”
How can parents and alumni help?
We’re working to leverage the strength of the Denison family, and we encourage alumni and parents to reach out to the staff in the Knowlton Center if they can offer internships or externships that would allow our students to explore their fields. Alumni and parents also can help by mentoring students through Wisr, conducting mock interviews with them, or simply being willing to talk with students interested in their line of work.
One of Denison’s greatest assets is its network of parents and alumni, and we want our students to learn from their incredible success.