A stubborn late-morning fog enveloped the rustic central Ohio lodge, limiting visibility of scenic Pleasant Hill Lake – an apropos setting for 26 Denison students without a clear view of their future.
As steady rain fell outside the large picture window, words like anxious, overwhelmed, and confused were mentioned in breakout sessions. Coaches from the Knowlton Center for Career Exploration encouraged the students, mostly sophomores, to express their feelings about their life pursuits.
Career coach Ashley Strausser assured those who made the 45-mile trip to Mohican Lodge and Convention Center they are not alone. Many underclassmen deal with the same gnaws of uncertainty.
“I have a cousin back home in India who’s in eighth grade, and she says all her friends know what they want to do with their lives,” Disha Sharma ’26 told the group.
Strausser smiled as she sat among eight students on leather couches inside the lodge’s lobby.
“I have a daughter in eighth grade,” the coach said, “and she doesn’t know what she wants to wear to school the next day. Almost nobody at that age knows what they want to do yet.”
A leading career center
The conversation was part of a two-day career exploration conference called the Journey Program — one of many initiatives offered by the Knowlton Center, which is gaining national recognition for its work in career preparation.
U.S. News & World Report ranked Denison the nation’s sixth-most innovative school in 2023, while the Princeton Review ranked it third for career services among all American colleges and universities.
“One thing I will say about the Knowlton Center is if you take the initial step, their people will open the door and help you any way they can,” said Fatima Haroon ’21, a data analytics consultant for the global consulting firm Slalom.
The Journey Program, offered at no cost several times each year, features four workshops designed to get students thinking about their futures and breaking down steps toward desirable career paths.
Nobody is expected to emerge from the weekend with a concrete plan. This is more about getting students to feel excited and optimistic about their voyage. The program exemplifies the mission of the Austin E. Knowlton Foundation, which aims to advance American higher education through direct grants and contributions to colleges and universities. The foundation has awarded Denison $24 million since 2016, transforming the career center’s focus and ability to serve students.
Ryan Brechbill, director of employer and alumni relations, recalls a time when Denison’s career center housed just three full-time staff members and two part-time administrative assistants. They met almost exclusively with seniors who needed to make appointments weeks in advance.
The Knowlton Center now boasts a staff of 24 full-time employees who meet with students soon after they arrive on campus.
Haroon, a native of Pakistan, visited the center on her second day of classes. She spoke with career coach Michele Doran, who had her create a resume and join a trip to northeast Ohio, where Haroon and other students met with alums in positions of prominence at the Cleveland Clinic and JPMorgan Chase & Co.
Taking a proactive approach
Beyond personalized career coaching, the center hosts more than 300 on-campus events each year. It also provides stipends to help fund internships, and funnels students into seven career communities that provide industry-specific resources.
“When I was here before, we reacted to everything,” says Brechbill, who worked at the university from 2002-2011 before returning in 2021. “Now we are proactive. We can say to a first-year student or a sophomore, ‘We have something for you — come see us.’”
Joel Pettit ’25 waited until his junior year to take advantage of Knowlton’s resources, but now keeps regular appointments with one of the center’s 16 career coaches. He participated in the Journey Program and is working toward a potential career involving sports, data, and mathematics.
Since his first visit, Pettit said he feels more optimistic about finding a job in his field of interest.
Strausser can relate to many students who aren’t sure what’s next.
“I was a first-generation college student in my family who graduated not knowing what I wanted to do,” she said. “That’s a tough pill to swallow.”
Stausser didn’t have the luxury of attending a university that emphasized career preparation for underclassmen. She believes Knowlton equips students with a “foundational understanding” of who they are, the fields they might excel in, and what’s important to them personally and professionally.
Teaching students adaptability is crucial, considering most Americans hold several jobs over their lifetimes and sometimes change careers.
“Your first job won’t be your only job,” Strausser said, “and it probably will not be your dream job.”
A recruiting tool
Melanie Murphy, director of career communities and coaching, said she’s seen others across campus touting the values of the Knowlton Center.
Men’s lacrosse coach Eric Koch makes his first-year players visit the career center and his sophomores drop by Denison’s Red Frame Lab. He promotes these resources in recruiting pitches because he believes they help set Denison apart.
“My goal is to get my athletes to understand that doing all of this will help them find their professional path,” said Koch, who also connects players with Big Red lacrosse alums. “I’m advising them that waiting until they stumble upon a potential career field before making use of the Knowlton Center is an outdated and backward approach to career exploration.”
The Knowlton Foundation awarded Denison an $11 million grant in 2023 because it witnessed the payoff students are gaining from their involvement in the career center.
“Getting highly pragmatic practical job skills integrated with the liberal arts isn’t an afterthought at Denison,” said Eric Lindberg ’93, CIO and trustee at the Knowlton Foundation. “We expect a return on our investment. We want to put our money to work with schools that demonstrate that they are doing something wise and making the world better with our funding.
“This is one of the best examples we have as philanthropists, and we’ve doubled and tripled down behind Denison because we’ve progressively seen success over the last 10 years.”