March 2021

It’s been a year since the pandemic hit Minnesota, upending routines and changing lives and life as we knew it. But the work of educating students has continued — as has preparing them for careers and graduate school. Staff have found ways to adjust and keep helping students plan for life after graduation.

Consider the experience at St. Olaf College. Following a statewide stay at home order last spring, all career development activities by career development staff shifted from in-person to virtual, including online appointment scheduling, meetings, workshops and other programming, said Kirsten Cahoon, senior associate director, the Piper Center for Vocation and Career. While dramatic, these changes didn’t lower student support: the number of students using these services has held steady, she said, and the frequency of interaction has increased.

Support for virtual summer experiences was another important step. “We put out a call to alumni and parents for help in hosting virtual summer internships and projects to replace the traditional internships that were cancelled, and 225 students were hired for these programs over the summer and J-term,” Cahoon said. “It was a win-win-win for students, alumni and the school to connect with our alums and provide meaningful, practical experiences.”

Students appreciated alumni who stepped up to meet this challenge and the great support and mentoring they received in this time of uncertainty. Alumni were ecstatic about the assistance students provided to complete projects.

St. Olaf College also increased funding to help pay students for unpaid or underpaid internships, removing a barrier to taking these opportunities. In 2019-20 this funding totaled $670,000.

In addition, more than 240 students took advantage of a resume review program with peer advisors reviewing cover letters and resumes, offering feedback in a virtual environment. The department also increased outreach to sophomores by offering persistent personalized services and having initial conversations. Since the beginning of the school year, 64 percent of sophomores have had virtual one-on-one meetings with a peer advisor or coach to explore majors or start drafting their resumes.

“We’ll continue to offer alumni-parent internships because they’re too good not to continue. Maybe next year we’ll have a hybrid option of face-to-face and Zoom/Google Meets,” Cahoon said. “The pandemic gave us an opportunity to be more flexible and responsive. We know that you can’t beat a liberal arts student with career-ready skills. We’re making sure that our students engage in on- and off-campus activities to gain experience.”

Concordia University, St. Paul pivoted quickly

CSP senior Andrew Saal attending the Minnesota Private Colleges' virtual job and internship fair
CSP senior Andrew Saal attending the Minnesota Private Colleges' virtual job and internship fair

In a typical year, career development staff at Concordia University, St. Paul, would meet one-on-one with students to discuss career plans, host job fairs, employer panels, workshops, networking opportunities and other events, but 2020 was anything but a typical year.

“When the shutdown order came we moved all our activities to virtual. Some leaders in the field are acknowledging that the pandemic only put changes to career development on the fast track to a direction we were already headed in,” said Andrea Mayer, M.A., director, Office of Career Development. “We’ve continued to focus on integrating career services operations throughout the university experience.”

Because Concordia University has both online and in-person students, doing things virtually wasn’t new, but many students were overwhelmed when everything went online. Many had to relocate and, in some instances, figure out internet access and how to learn online. Now students are in a groove and have realized how resilient and adaptable they are, Mayer noted.

At the same time, the nature of the conversation with students has shifted. Now Career Development staff makes sure to check on students’ mental health by asking how they’re doing, if they’re feeling good about their career goals and plans and how they define success. They stress that perhaps while the piece that defines success for students, such as an in-person internship, might not be available right now, other options are available and can still be valuable steps towards their goals.

“We’re helping students be creative about internships. Companies didn’t know how to work virtually with interns, so the numbers of available internships took a hit as many were frozen or rescinded,” Mayer said. “Students are still looking for meaningful experiences. Certifications, research projects and related community involvement are good ways to get relevant experiences — as well as working with faculty for ideas and suggestions.”

College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University turned to micro internships

When the pandemic hit and jobs and internships were cancelled, Saint Benedict’s and Saint John's Experience and Professional Development (XPD) staff created a website, training and space for alums and employer partners to create micro internships — remote, project-based experiences. By engaging their alum network, they also created specialized videos with tips from alums about how to engage virtually and connect to opportunities in a down economy.

“Micro internships are mini-internships or projects. Think of them as a line or two of a job description,” said Angie Schmidt Whitney, M.A., executive director, XPD. “We saw this as a way to connect students to opportunities to build skills and create professional networks despite COVID limitations.”

A “Just in Time” virtual job fair last April showed students that, despite shifts in hiring, opportunities still existed. Staff members also stressed the ABC concept — accept A job and get experience, then move to a Better job and finally land a Career job; one leads to another and don’t expect that your first job will be your career job. A fall hiring fair also debuted in 2020.

The schools’ job and internship platform, Handshake, was vital to making it easier for organizations to connect with students, Whitney said. It also created a space for colleges to collaborate on new ventures, such as virtual fairs.

“One of the biggest positives of Handshake is that it provides equitable access for all students,” Whitney said. “It’s not bound by who you personally know but allows students to connect with organizations nationwide and even hear from students who have worked for those organizations.”

In addition, Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s offer "Student Exploration through Alum Mentorship" experiences, a (now virtual) three-day job shadow program that leverages the institutions’ alum network. Focusing on sophomores, the short-term program is a way for students to explore a career through three virtual informational interviews, two virtual conversations with the mentor’s peer or professional network and a virtual site visit.

Looking ahead, there will also be more to do to deepen partnerships with faculty, Whitney added. “We want to more intentionally connect students to the outcomes of a course — what skills are they learning and what bigger picture outcomes are we looking for?”

By Tom Brandes