The College Journey for Underclassmen Students is a Profound One
The application process is deeply emotional for students and parents. For adult learners, many have made a big decision with their families to allocate time toward their future and have prepared to make financial sacrifices to become a student. The act of paying your deposit and officially enrolling in a university is cathartic. “I’ve made my decision, I’m going to [MyUniversity]. Phew!”
The challenge for university administrators focused on the experience of underclassmen students is twofold. It involves simultaneously fulfilling the expectations set in the enrollment process and being prepared to establish new expectations for the next (hopefully) four years.
This includes a wide range of services roles like undergraduate advising, student success, career services, and specialized positions like “first-year experience” and “experiential learning.”
In our research — and having worked directly with dozens of higher education colleagues in these service delivery roles — we’ve formed opinions that are the cornerstone of our approach to supporting underclassmen students and those early in their academic journeys:
Engage Underclassmen Students Early and Set Expectations
Early, successful engagement with underclassmen students plays a critical role in student success — ensuring positive career outcomes, leveling the playing field for low-income students, and developing alumni institutional affinity and involvement. At the Chicago Liberal Arts Leadership Summit in February 2018, University of Chicago colleagues Meredith Daw, AVP and Executive Director of Career Advancement, and Linda Pantale, Assistant Director of Alumni Careers and Programs, explained how the University’s recent decision to move Career Services underneath the Office of Admissions has enabled them to direct most of their resources toward first-year students.
This ensures they understand their degree and learn to network effectively for internships. Recently admitted students are provided with templates for success and what to expect in different degree paths. Not only does this help overcome challenges that many first-generation students experience, but by junior year, 25% of their student body already has a job offer in hand.
Engaging students early necessitates close collaboration of leaders from Admissions to Alumni Relations. When goals are aligned, you’ll be better positioned to actually deliver on the expectations students have about their college experiences and support student success.
Underclassmen Students are Not Certain About Their Careers When They Start School, and That’s OK
According to an NRCCUA Survey of 200,000 seniors, 88% of students rank career preparation as the most important reason they are going to college.
The elephant in the room for many, if not most career offices, is a total lack of engagement by underclassmen students. Where are the freshmen and sophomores making appointments at the Career Center, attending career exploration events, or even reading emails?
Why?! This is their future! Don’t they care?! Is there such as thing as “too soon” for career exploration?
Let’s walk in a first- or second-year student’s shoes for a moment. They just started their post-secondary journey. Many feel like sponges, trying to absorb as much as they can while staying afloat academically. Making the transition from high school to college is often just as tough socially and emotionally as it is academically. As if they didn’t already have enough on their plates, now we want them to start thinking about how they’ll spend the next ~40 years of their life? That can be a tough ask. It means thinking about the end of college just as they are focusing on mastering the beginning.
We surveyed 2,200 students at Denison University to ask, “What is your top priority right now?”
While juniors overwhelmingly clicked Find an Internship (63%), the majority of freshmen primarily clicked Explore Careers and Something Else. The sub-responses of Something Else correlated heavily with academic and classroom requirements.
The big takeaway is that career services shouldn’t give up on underclassmen students. Instead, they should change their message and identify more strongly with the need at hand.
Incredible Wisdom Can Be Gained Through Micro-Interactions
There is a growing focus on many campuses to ensure every single student participates in an internship before graduation. Per our research, it’s tough for a freshman to visualize an internship when they aren’t even sure what major they want to pursue. Externships, micro-internships, and job shadowing are powerful vehicles for students because they:
- Emphasize exploration in a low-commitment way
- Help students imagine new possibilities for their future
- Promote the engagement of alumni and employers at a higher frequency
It’s also very easy to source hundreds, if not thousands (yes, thousands), of externship opportunities.
Students Trust Peers More Than Administrators
It’s no surprise that we look to our peers for guidance in many areas of our lives — academically, professionally, and socially. Which classes to take, which professors to pick (or avoid), how to prepare for a job interview, and even where to live.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a role for higher ed administrators. Instead, administrators should focus on harnessing the power of peers.
Campuses across the country are overhauling their first-year advising approaches to leverage peer advisors and “navigator”-type roles. For example, Case Western Reserve University recently launched a new Student Success initiative that brings together all functions and services essential to student success in one effective organization. The initiative involved introducing the navigator role: ambassadors who help answer point-in-time questions and eventually bridge the student to traditional resources, such as the career center, for a job search. Known for their innovation in higher ed, Arizona State University operates with a similar First Year Success Center.
Our goal at Wisr is to partner with higher ed leaders to unlock peer advising networks through a single community that interconnects core advising segments.
We like to think about mentor/advising relationship with the “5 Years Back” rule. It’s easy for a graduating senior to empathize with a freshman and give great point-in-time guidance. It’s a little harder for a 45-year-old alum with two high school-aged children to share tips for picking your schedule or which professors to take a class with.
At the University of Chicago, through the College Programming Office, Wisr is creating mentorship “pods” where one senior is matched with around 30 incoming freshmen. The community creates shared accountability, with all members visible to one another. Incoming freshmen are connected to their mentor and given access to the community the moment they enroll, which increases a sense of belonging before stepping foot on campus and creates a smoother transition once they arrive. Using simple survey data, students are paired with peer and staff advisors based on a range of matching characteristics, such as academic interests, personal interests, and special affinities. This is particularly powerful for first-generation college students. Whether it’s through technology or face-to-face advising, supporting underclassmen students by making peer networks more accessible will help fill the gaps in advising that your staff struggles to reach.
Experiential Learning and Career Exploration in the Classroom are Where Rubber Meets the Road
While students trust peers the most, faculty are a close second. They are at the academic core of the university. On top of that, it’s not uncommon for employers to bypass career centers in favor of working directly with faculty they’ve built relationships with to offer in-classroom career exploration opportunities.
Unfortunately, university silos and tension between staff and faculty encumber an incredible opportunity to bring academics, experiential learning, and career exploration together for student success.
Many liberal arts institutions, like Kalamazoo College, have started breaking down these silos and bringing career prep to the classroom. At Kalamazoo College, Joan Hawxhurst, Director of Career Preparation, regularly invites alumni to speak on panels related to topics being discussed in the “Shared Passages Program” seminar classes. As these panels grew in popularity, they evolved into a course called, “Crafting a Life.” Similarly, the Illinois Institute of Technology has created a similar methodology called “Designing your Life”. Vice Provost Gerald Doyle, has packaged this into 50 micro-lessons on designing a life and career at IIT. This points to an increasingly common trend: career development activities are beginning to move away from the career center and into classrooms. After all, students have to go to class. They don’t have to go to the career center.
Using Wisr’s technology, faculty gain access to a network of alums who have raised their hand to say “I will speak in class” or “I will assist students with experiential learning projects.” Democratizing the tool helps the career center and student success teams build their brand on campus, boost engagement, and scale their advising services through the network.