Bringing Career Support into the Undergraduate Academic Experience

By Aimée Eubanks Davis

Kaitlyn Iglesias is entering her senior year at Rutgers University-Newark ready to launch her career. She had internships at Ernst & Young in New York this summer and last. She is finishing up a degree in accounting and management information systems and is a member of Women BUILD (Business Undergraduates in Leadership Development). She’s beginning the semester with an offer from Ernst & Young in hand.
But if you had talked to Kaitlyn two years ago, a full-time job at a top accounting firm would have seemed out of reach. Only 1 in 4 of the 1.2 million low-income or first-generation college enrollees each year, students like Kaitlyn, will emerge with a strong first job. While Kaitlyn was deeply motivated and fiercely intelligent, she didn’t have the same advantages that some of her wealthier peers did growing up. For those who had high-level professionals across the dinner table all their lives, an interview might feel familiar. For those with an older sibling who’s able to review your resume or edit your cover letters, you’ve got an automatic leg up.

But while Kaitlyn didn’t have those particular advantages, she had others. She knew about the benefits of hard work from two working-class parents, the value of speaking a second language (Spanish) and putting it to practice at part-time customer service jobs, and the importance of identifying mentors and teachers who would help her build her expertise and knowledge.

Kaitlyn needed to bridge the gap between her brilliance and motivation and her opportunities. Too often, we assume that certain skills–how to work well in teams, how to give and get feedback, how to network–can’t be taught, or that it’s not our place to try. It’s time we rethink this. We need to start teaching professional competencies with the same rigor as we do calculus or sociology.

When we met Kaitlyn, we got the chance to help her leverage her skills to amplify new ones—like networking, resume-building and interviewing.

At Braven, we partner with universities to help students like Kaitlyn put their hard-earned degrees to work. Our credit-bearing career acceleration course is embedded within the undergraduate experience at San José State University and Rutgers-University Newark. This format allows our students—many of whom are commuters and work full-time outside school—to fit career preparation into their busy schedules.

We provide students with real-world opportunities to practice professional skills. Students need to practice and fail, then practice and succeed in settings similar to those in which they’ll compete. For example, Braven students get multiple safe opportunities throughout the course to practice presentation skills, ranging from practicing with peers, to participating in mock interviews, to attending networking events. They can fail, get feedback, try again, and improve. At the end of the course, they complete a graded oral presentation.

We teach students how to fish, and equip them with the information they need to make their own choices. To learn network building, for example, students taking the Braven course learn how to design an effective LinkedIn profile, leverage LinkedIn, and make different kinds of new connections. And while we facilitate some network building through our Leadership Coaches (volunteer professionals from the workforce) and Braven staff, students are ultimately responsible for mastering the strategies that will enable them to build their social capital over time.

We help students develop a strong sense of self and see their assets. Confidence is just as important to career success as it is to academic success. Fellows spend a week learning about authentic leadership strategies and then attend our full-day “Storytelling as Leadership” event, in which they learn how to effectively communicate their personal story. At the end of that day, they share their stories with their peers, and reflect on what their personal experiences say about who they are, what they value, and what they’ve overcome. This helps to build self-confidence, allowing them to approach challenges with a stronger sense of self.

We bring them into a community of peers and Braven-recruited mentors from the professional workforce, who help them expand their network and provide critical sources of professional advice and emotional support. Rather than a lecture structure, Braven Fellows meet weekly with a Leadership Coach and a cohort of 5 to 8 of their peers. These cohorts become critical sources of professional advice and friendship and contribute to a student’s sense of belonging on campus.

We start from a deep, data-driven understanding of students’ contexts, competing priorities and needs in balance with our university and employer partners’ needs. This informs what we teach, when we teach it and what we prioritize. We designed the course after getting a sense of each stakeholder’s needs and constraints. For example, we became credit-bearing because our students were juggling the rigorous content in Braven along with work, school and family. And the professional skills we prioritize are based on extensive research around what employers are looking for in strong entry-level talent.

We believe that professional competencies must be given the same priority as academic skills. In doing so, we’ll better prepare a diverse group of students to tackle our world’s most pressing problems.And this isn’t just a matter of a better-prepared workforce. It’s a matter of dismantling persistent inequity. Society is structured so that those with economic opportunities are rewarded with more opportunities, and those without them stay without. This leaves our professional workforce far less diverse than our society, which is both unproductive and unjust. Diverse organizations get more done, and we help right society’s uneven scales.And Kaitlyn is already paying it forward. This summer, she wrote a piece on Braven’s blog sharing advice with her peers about how to prepare for a job interview and have confidence in their own value. “The sooner you see the interview process as [a] two-way street, the easier it will be to walk in confidently knowing your worth as a candidate,” Kaitlyn writes. This is the type of empowerment and confidence our students deserve to have—and when they do, they’ll start to form a leadership force as diverse as our future demands.Aimée Eubanks Davis is founder & CEO of Braven, which works to ensure underrepresented college students develop the skills, confidence, experiences and networks they need to get strong first jobs after graduation. She formerly held various leadership positions at Teach For America.

 

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