June 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic brought changes for students, faculty and staff at Minnesota private colleges, including the ways students explore and navigate ever-changing career and employment landscapes. Discover how career development professionals at three Minnesota private colleges — Carleton College, The College of St. Scholastica and Concordia University, St. Paul — have responded to changing, and sometimes unchanging, student needs.

Harnessing the power of student connections

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Andrea Mayer, director of career development at Concordia University, St. Paul has seen significant changes in student engagement that mirror broader state and national trends. “We’re moving past COVID and are now navigating how to best meet our students where they are from all the disruptions these last few years,” Mayer said. The pandemic induced shifts away from in-person classes and student events to digital formats, changing how students connect within their campus communities. “Student engagement looks different. It’s not necessarily good or bad. It’s just different and we need to adjust,” she noted.

For Mayer and her team, navigating changes in student engagement meant becoming more intentional and creative about understanding what student engagement looks like — or could look like. “We thought about how we can develop greater peer-to-peer support to promote career development opportunities to students,” Mayer shared. New or simply renewed strategies being implemented by Mayer and her team include arranging for students in academic major or program-based clubs to attend employer events together, such as job fairs. This model of group career development and peer-to-peer support acts as an automatic support network and helps students feel more comfortable while trying something new. This is a powerful tool to guide students who may feel anxious about or intimidated by career exploration as they emerge from the pandemic. “By implementing this and other revamped strategies, we’re reimagining and re-establishing the career landscape and students’ understanding of the process,” she said.

At Carleton College, Rachel Leatham, associate director of the Career Center, has seen a similar trend in students’ preferences and needs. “We’re seeing the power of peer-to-peer support. We’re also offering more group-based options to students.” Leatham said. “I don’t think we would have seen the true power of peer-to-peer mentorship and connection without the past few years’ transitions,” Leatham reflected.

Connecting students with alums

Besides tapping into peer-to-peer support, another useful strategy amid a pandemic included relying on the expertise of the vast networks of alums who have graduated from Minnesota private colleges.

Mary Anderson, director of career services at The College of St. Scholastica, has observed the unique and powerful role alums have played. Anderson and her colleagues have seen increased interest and eagerness from alums to connect with students amid the pandemic. By directly connecting students and alums, students can gain greater perspectives and widen their social networks, creating valuable and genuine connections. “Involvement from our alums and their connections to potential employers has helped to begin to level the playing field for students experiencing increased personal obstacles or setbacks related to the pandemic,” Anderson said.

Employers and alums at have also stepped up to help fill gaps caused by the pandemic, Carleton’s Leatham noted. “By connecting with our alums, students are able to hear alums’ stories,” she said. “It’s about being a part of a community,” Leatham observed, adding the pandemic has created gaps, or at least disruptions, in the typical community and professional networking students undertook pre-pandemic. “We know we’re going to have to work hard to fill in a few gaps.”

Future directions for students

Amid the challenges of the past few years, career development professionals at Minnesota private colleges have seen everything from significant changes in student needs to more subtle shifts in student preferences. One aspect of the career development process that has remained relatively unchanged, according to St. Scholastica’s Mary Anderson is that, “career development is still about identifying and nurturing students’ gifts and interests. It’s about students finding meaning and purpose as they earn their degrees and pursue their post-graduation goals.”

For Leatham, the past few years have instilled a greater sense of urgency in responding effectively to student’ needs, often in more nuanced but strategic ways. “We need to be showing up for our students and for ourselves, modeling what that looks like, along with showing students empathy as they navigate things,” she shared. “More than ever, we’re needing to recognize the whole person and the identities students bring with them.”

By Rachel Wormer