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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Helping students find jobs

With a sense of vocation, ELCA schools go beyond basic career services

Sitting down with students, Cynthia Favre, director of career services at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minn., has learned a lot. “Sometimes students think that if they haven’t figured it all out yet or if they aren’t in a job they’re totally passionate about, they’re a failure as a human being,” she said. “It’s a sad thing.” 

Favre traces much of that confusion to a culture that can make work seem like “drudgery,” and to such well-intentioned sayings as “Choose a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” These expectations, she said, “are misleading and pressuring.”

Instead, Favre and other staff members tell students that, for most people, figuring it out and finding fulfillment in work comes over time. “It’s a journey,” she said. “We talk about persistence and resilience so they will be able to sort out whether it’s just circumstances or not the right place for them.” 

Favre and staff members offer guidance that reflects the Lutheran sense of vocation (being called in this life to serve neighbors and the community). They enjoy helping students explore how their skills could be used to develop solutions to world problems. “I also tell students: ‘You have a responsibility to be a force for good in the world. … But what you do for employment doesn’t have to serve all the needs in your life,’ ” she said. 

Student learning

Students find more than the typical career services offerings at the Augsburg College Clair and Gladys Strommen Center for Meaningful Work, Minneapolis. The center helps students with strength-finding assessments, coaching, interviewing, résumés, internships, employer informational sessions and more.

Frequently students are shocked. “They look at me, totally surprised, and say, ‘This was actually helpful,’ ” Favre said. “I think they don’t realize how much information and support is available to them here.”  

Across the U.S., ELCA colleges and universities are operating from a Lutheran sense of vocation and offering students and graduates more specific and individualized career services than ever. Here are several that tailor their interactions to the individual student, helping each choose a major and find meaningful work as part of a purpose-filled life.

Lutheran, without limits

According to its mission, Augsburg College, Minneapolis, “educate[s] students to think critically, serve faithfully, lead effectively and live responsibly in the world.” 

“Because vocation is such a core mission for Augsburg, we work very closely with students from the moment they’re admitted,” said Keith Munson, director of its Clair and Gladys Strommen Center for Meaningful Work. Center staff work to make their interactions with students more than the typical career services offered at other public or private universities, he added. 

During orientation and in classes, students begin to consider the Lutheran idea of vocation, of lives that serve neighbors and the community. “Our office and staff are integrated into the Augsburg curriculum from the start,” Munson said.

Working with other offices, academic advisers and Augsburg’s Bernhard Christensen Center for Vocation, the center assists students with strength-finding tools, one-on-one coaching, interviewing, internships and more. 

Laurie Barger, a 2013 graduate, majored in math and Spanish, played soccer for Augsburg, studied abroad in Mexico and Cuba, and volunteered at a social services agency doing taxes for low-income families. She credits the Strommen center staff and her professors with helping her land a job as a merchandising and business intelligence analyst at Target Corp.

“Through networking and community involvement, making strong relationships with my professors and peers, as well as being educated in a high-level, real-world environment, I was able to build a résumé that made me stand out from everyone else,” she said.  

Down the road, if Barger or any other Augsburg graduates need help with their careers, their alma mater offers it, at no cost.

“Alumni (about 10 percent to 15 percent of Strommen Center users) are always welcome here,” Munson said. “Most schools have limits on how much they work with alums, maybe only three years out or a limited number of hours without charge. At Augsburg we have always offered unlimited, free career services for alumni too. We work with alumni at different stages of their careers, and they find this extremely helpful.”

Those who haven’t had to do a job search in some time appreciate assistance that can include, but isn’t limited to, how to use LinkedIn and other social media networking sites; practice interviews (in person or online video-conferencing); and help “telling a potential employer their stories of career change, transition or a return to the workforce,” Munson said.

For example, one alumna who wanted to move from a supervisor to a management position decided on a strategy after working with career services that included “taking some additional courses to make it to the next level,” he said. 

Individualized help
At California Lutheran University, Thousand Oaks, career services director Cindy Lewis said that nine months after graduation, more than 90 percent of students are fully employed or in graduate school. And no, they don’t count the part-time jobs at Starbucks that students had before leaving school. “It helps that we are located in southern California, where there are so many businesses,” she said.

University career services staff have 18,000 business contacts. “[We] respond immediately whenever an employer contacts us,” she said. “We also email job descriptions to our students.” That’s in addition to all the usual things you can expect from a university career services department, from individualized counseling to résumé help and mock interviews.  

One CLU career services program, “For a Cause,” provided unpaid internships by matching more than 20 students directly with nonprofits. “This makes getting an internship a sure thing, especially for people who may have discrimination against them,” Lewis said. “For example, they may have [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] or autism and have difficulty making good eye contact.”

That’s helpful because today’s employers expect one or two internships. “If a student doesn’t have an internship on his or her résumé, the student is at a disadvantage,” Lewis said. “Not only does it build skills, but there’s a chance someone will want to hire you full time. Research says that about 40 percent of internships lead to jobs.”

Lewis said the program has received support from a donor (who wished to remain anonymous) who was “so excited about this that he provided payment for these unpaid internships for 10 of our students who were first-generation and needed to be able to earn money while they were working.”  

Megan Thomas and Katie Brewster

Megan Thomas (left) from Finlandia University, Hancock, Mich., learns the ropes from Katie Brewster at Portage Health. Finlandia’s nursing students have more hands-on learning hours (1,125 hours of lab and on-site clinical training) than typical four-year programs. Ninety-two percent of graduates pass the licensure test, higher than the national average, and 100 percent of those students are employed as nurses or attend graduate school, said Finlandia spokesperson Karen Johnson.  

Webcams, mentoring  
Favre said Gustavus Adolphus’ career services office, located within the Center for Service Leadership, “starts early … often working with students before they get to campus, taking assessments, talking about their interests, what they’re thinking about taking as far as academics.” 

To enhance internships, which Lewis calls “the new first job,” students answer questions about their experiences via webcams. Students email their online video answers to career services, their internship director and their career mentor (if they have one) for feedback. “In the past we had  them write in journals,” Favre said. “But this gives them practice in presenting themselves well.”  

The college’s yearlong alumni mentoring program was the brainchild of Kathi Tunheim, business professor and the Board of Trustees Endowed Chair in Management and Leadership. She piloted the Gustavus Mentoring Program in 2010 as a student project for one of her management classes. That year a handful of business students were paired with alumni in their career fields of interest.

The program has now grown to more than 130 students and expanded beyond business majors. Today students peruse a catalog of biographies of potential alumni mentors and select their top three. Program leaders try to match them with one of the three whenever possible. 

“This is such a great experience,” said Benjamin Reynolds, a senior business management major and a member of Shepherd of the Lake Lutheran Church, Prior Lake, Minn. He signed up for the program in 2012 hoping to get his foot in the door of the business world. 

Reynolds meets with his mentor every one or two weeks. Although they can talk by phone, “we realized how much more beneficial it would be for us to meet in person,” he said. “We’ve worked on a lot of things: my résumé, presentation skills, how to interact with professionals in a business setting, building a network of the people I know in the business world. …

“He had me pick three people I’d worked with in the past and have conversations with each of them about jobs, their career path and referrals to other people I could talk with.” 

This year Reynolds began serving as one of the program’s student leaders. He helps plan events that “encourage a community feeling in a group with so many separate pairings” and smooth out “any bumps on the student side of things,” he said. 

For her part, Tunheim is pleased with Gustavus Adolphus’ integrated approach to careers and vocation. “Martin Luther got it right,” she said. “The idea of vocation fits beautifully with mentoring. Our mentors reconnect with the college and connect to a young person they want to help. Our students are learning about their major, future work, and also their vocation and all the other roles they play in life.”

When alumni talk about how vocation isn’t just a job, “you can see a light bulb go on for students,” she said, adding, “They see through the lives of their mentors that vocation ... also means being a servant leader in your church, home and volunteer organizations.”


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