Years ago, when I was new to my position as a career coach at The American Women’s College, I asked an adult student what she wanted to do for her career. She paused for a second before answering, “No one’s ever asked me what I wanted to do. I’ve always just survived.”
I think about that student and her words every day, and how deeply they’re influencing our approach to career services at Bay Path. When it comes to navigating careers, there are those who seem to be given a metaphorical map to a specific destination, with directions, landmarks and contacts to point the way, while others, especially first generation students, are pretty much dropped in a foreign land without a compass, left to survive.
A 2017 study by the Strada Education Network found that 55% of adults cite informal social networks as the primary source of information about their choice of major. You have to wonder where that leaves the remaining 45%. The discovery time many students take in order to get a clearer idea of what options may be available can be an expensive detour, one that increases the likelihood, especially for those from lower income backgrounds, of dropping out.
At Bay Path, we see careers—the ways we choose them, the ways we’re hired in them, the ways we advance through them—as a social justice issue, ripe for reform and demanding activism in the form of persistent career coaching, beginning the moment a student enrolls and continuing through her retirement. (Yes, through retirement. Bay Path alums are eligible to receive lifetime career coaching.)
Career activism starts with making close connections to students who may lack access to a broad and experienced social network, guiding them with real talk about goals, skills, drive and finances, and helping them formulate and pursue a concrete plan. This is not “discover your passion” and “follow your dreams.” It’s frank, honest, practical brainstorming and support that helps students recognize what they’re good at, what they’re interested in, where they find satisfaction and confidence and then, what jobs will tap into that.
But what if a student changes her mind? Who really knows what they want to be when they’re 18? 19? Or even 40? It’s important that students have the chance to explore different options. But we need to balance that with the knowledge that veering off course has the potential to seriously sideline a student in far-reaching ways. Unfinished degrees overly burden those students for whom a degree can be the most life-changing. Helping students not only complete their degrees, but complete them on time is a social justice issue. By adopting a Guided Pathways model, Bay Path builds a certain level of exploration into our majors, along with the flexibility to learn through a variety of experiences, while keeping students on track to graduate.
Because networking and connections are so powerful, yet so elusive for so many students, we help them find, join and participate in important networks that can define their professional trajectories. Throughout their academic careers, we help students seek and connect to mentors who look like them, so that they can access and be a part of systemic change that brings more opportunities to more people. We develop internships that will enable them to merge in-class projects with real work assignments, which gives them valuable references and solid experience to fill their resumes, portfolios and job interviews.
Beyond providing students with the education and skills that come with their degrees and helping them pursue a meaningful professional life, career services should be an ongoing resource for navigating the long and, at times bumpy, winding road of starts and stops, u-turns and detours that define a woman’s career.
We know that women today are paid 82 cents for every dollar earned by men. We know that 40% percent of women in STEM roles leave their jobs when they become parents. And a study conducted years before the pandemic found that more than half of workers over 50 lose longtime jobs before they’re ready to retire; nine out of ten never recover their earning power following that loss. Is there any social issue that doesn’t shape a woman’s career?
The 21st century will be an era of profound change. Even before Covid, we knew that the ways we looked at work and the ways we prepared students for it would have to change. A career today is an evolving set of circumstances that demands foresight and flexibility, self-promotion and self-advocacy, and those who don’t recognize that will be left behind. We’re prepared to be part of the change, and we’re making sure our undergrads, graduate students and alumni are part of it, too.