Closing the Divide by Going Outside

Kelli Smith Director of University Career Services at the Fleish

Kelli K. Smith, Director of University Career Services, Fleishman Center for Career and Professional Development, Binghamton University
Twitter: https://twitter.com/drkelliksmith
LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/kellikapustkasmith/

Recently I read, “3 Reasons Why You Should Take Your Work Outside” by Lea McCloud just after having an outside meeting on a lovely spring day with one of our graduate assistants. We had planned to discuss her work interests for next year but had not planned for it to be outside. Why not? What I found interesting is that a staff member later confided how delighted she was to see my Tweet of this impromptu choice since apparently, for her, it represented a major culture shift for our office. Even more interesting is that this particular graduate student and I had discussed our recent culture shift of “going to the students” over the past year and her work to embrace that change.

Last year in the month I started at Binghamton University our staff had a planning retreat. One of the concepts we all agreed we should focus on was getting out of the office more to connect with students, much as is described by Trudy Steinfeld and Manny Contomanolis in “Thriving in the Brave New World of Career Services: 10 Essential Strategies” published one month earlier. Both Manny and Trudy noted the importance of meeting students in their space and to be less place dependent. More specifically, they wrote:

  1. Meet students and stakeholders in their “space”. Career services are increasingly less “place dependent”. Virtual interviews, coaching appointments and program content delivery are critical in today’s world and there are a rapidly expanding array of technical platforms and tools to support working in this way. Equally important is the need to deliver services where your clients are – in their academic buildings, residence halls, and social places. Flexibility is increasingly vital to effective services delivery.

For us it made natural sense. We knew from our survey data that we were not perceived by campus as the most welcoming, and we also had a tradition of an incredibly packed schedule of pre-planned programs throughout the year, requiring significant time and the student to “come to us” for educational assistance. At the same time, we are presented regularly with examples of talented and high achieving students that share they are (or were) too intimidated or overwhelmed to visit our office not because they see our staff as unkind or unhelpful, but because it meant they were facing reality. One might argue we enable that anxiety of such students with our new approach by not requiring them to enter our physical threshold. But like with anything new or overwhelming for us all, a professional nudge on their turf hopefully allows for a more open mindset to post-diploma thinking, and a familiar face may allow for greater confidence and willingness to visit our Center.

As a result, a few relatively small changes we made have had a significant impact. One of our staff members volunteered to host Friday afternoon office hours in a campus residential communities. It was rare that she did not have back-to-back students meeting with her. We changed our program request form to be more welcoming and “easy” for campus, while slightly and strategically lessening some our pre-planned programs with smaller attendance numbers last year. As a result, we went from 58 total requested programs last academic year to 103 this academic year with a total of 2513 “student touches” through those tailored programs. Perhaps one of my favorite outcomes is how it has truly started to become part of our culture. During a staff meeting this April Lexie – our graduate assistant with whom I recently had an outdoor meeting – announced how she had planned a “Games, S’Mores, & More” program at a residential community fire pit in partnership with one of our academic advising departments. She stated her intent was to connect with students in a casual and convenient way and to demonstrate how approachable we are. As a former campus activities staff member, I have long held the belief that programming after spring break is a serious gamble, so even I was unsure whether any students would show. To my delight, 29 students showed up and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

Late last fall our Director of Residential Life and Housing arranged a meeting with myself and several others involved with our residential communities which adopted the “Oxford Model” in the 1960s. Each of our six residential communities has a Faculty Master that offices in their assigned community. I did not know in advance the meeting was to propose “The Apartments” community, primarily made up of sophomores, juniors, and seniors, should have a Fleishman Center for Career and Professional Development staff person office there rather than a traditional faculty master. To my delight what resulted is us gaining a new staff member that will truly work “where the students are” starting this June. There is no doubt in my mind that this would have happened if we as a staff had not committed last June to meeting students in their space.

Perhaps it is time for us to step outside of the comfort zone of our offices and join the students in their “space.” All across the country there are many innovative approaches to meeting our students where they are – physically and developmentally – and being flexible in our educational design. For the benefit of everyone, I encourage you join in the dialogue to share what you are doing on your campus to meet students and stakeholders in their space or be less place dependent. Successes and challenges are all welcome.