The current generation of college students faces greater challenges than ever before. The world of work has become increasingly complex, changing, and uncertain. Subsequently, students are tentative, insecure, and unprepared to make sound career choices. During their twenties, many wander aimlessly from job to job searching for meaning and satisfaction.
Parents are bewildered—and often angry—that colleges don’t provide the necessary structure and guidance to help their students address these challenging issues. When I met Dr. Hatch, I learned about his passion for educating students, not only academically, but also as whole people. He has written that universities have a responsibility to help students understand themselves and find their way in the world. When combined with Wake Forest’s teacher-scholar philosophy and service-oriented Pro Humanitate culture, I was certain that Wake Forest was the university where innovation could occur to address these crucial issues.
When students are questioned about their purpose and passions, they typically offer uncertain answers, if any answer at all. Most students have heard of the concepts but don’t know how to find the answers. I have had opportunities to teach these important life and career development concepts at Stanford, and I am excited that we intend to address personal and career development with all students at Wake Forest, undergraduates and graduates.
Every university can and should help students to find direction, but few universities offer a structured, visible process for all students. At Wake Forest, the entire community shares the values of Pro Humanitate and concern for students as people, which means that we have a unique opportunity to create a broad structure and culture of support for students to discover who they are and discern what they are going to do in the world in a productive and intentional way.
We intend to create a clear process that students will find highly engaging, and we will make sure that students see this as one of their important responsibilities when they start school.
Students already sense that they need to do this kind of developmental exploration, but the process of figuring out who you are, how to get a job, and getting a job that fits, takes time, discipline, and effort. The process also can feel uncomfortable—and at times, even painful— because it’s uncertain, unpredictable, and confusing. We want to make this process part of the fabric of the college experience so that it isn’t an arduous task, but a natural part of the learning and development process of being a college student.
When evaluating prospective colleges, students and parents assess schools, asking the question, “What schools offer a solid education and will also prepare and equip me for life after college?” Wake Forest will stand apart from other top universities by providing just that. One sign of our success will be when other top colleges and universities emulate our efforts in this area. They will not be able to replicate it exactly as we do, because our faculty’s sincere desire and proven ability to really know and help our students will always be the crucial differentiator. We begin much farther down the experience curve because our class sizes are small and our professors are mentors who already have meaningful relationships with individual students.
I really appreciate when Dr. Hatch says that what we’re doing is consistent with our historical values but also counter-cultural. Popular culture would say “You’re #1” or “Go it alone,” but Wake Forest has always espoused that service and community, in particular having relationships with people—especially multi-generational relationships—will pour wisdom and support into your life, making your experiences more rich and your view of the world more clear.
This is why mentoring is a central element of our career development process. From the students’ perspective, students will learn from building relationships and other central experiences, which will lead to developing their personal worldview. At the same time, mentors— faculty, academic advisors, parents, and alumni—will be equipped to ask smart questions and provide relevant, accurate information to students about how to bridge academic experiences to career-related alternatives and decisions.
Whether the job market is good or bad, students need to recognize that their careers likely will be over forty years long. In addition, the average person has over eight jobs in a lifetime. So, the first job is just that: the first step in building the foundation of a long career. Like the first stage of building a new home, building a foundation is not necessarily the most desirable work. It’s the basic effort required to make sure that the structure is solid and can sustain and enable future personal, professional and environmental changes and challenges.
A big part of that first job is learning about the work world and expectations that people have: working with managers and co-workers and the other basic skills that one needs to demonstrate he or she can deliver value. Students with this strategic mindset can release the typical burdens: wanting to make as much money as possible, being too picky about choice of job, and whether the employer has the strongest brand name. Subsequently, they will be more free to explore and consider a wide range of possible options.
The first and most important step is to truly get to know the student and help the student know himself or herself. This is counterintuitive, especially for parents, because we assume we know the young people in our lives well already. Parents can sometimes be impatient, too, wanting answers right away.
A tone of exploration and openness is crucial. Students want to impress the adults in their lives, and so even seemingly innocent questions (e.g. “What is your major?” or “What are you going to do after graduation?”) create pressure for students to have the “right” answers. Adult influencers (parents, faculty, mentors, and advisors) should ask questions that guide students to analyze their experiences (e.g. “What do you love about your classes?” or “What are your favorite projects in school?”). This generates data for the process of discerning a student’s passions without communicating the expectation that students should have their path completely figured out. It also reduces the inherent anxiety that students can experience in those relationships.
As college starts, first-year students need to get comfortable going to school, building relationships with classmates, professors and staff, and learning about the appropriate resources to meet the challenges of a demanding academic program. Most importantly they need to be “on notice” and very aware of what they are enjoying, and not enjoying, across all of their experiences. This information is critical for helping them make important future choices including choice of major, minor, summer internships, and extracurricular activities. As they begin to think about their purpose, interests, passions, and their worldview, many students would benefit from keeping a journal. One fundamental exercise is to create a twocolumn “T” chart that chronicles all types of ideas and experiences they liked and disliked during college and high school.
During breaks, especially in the first academic year, I recommend that students meet with the adult “fans” in their lives: teachers, coaches, club advisors, bosses and parents’ friends. Students can share their journal lists and experiences with these informal advisors and brainstorm about the ways they might further explore the things they have most enjoyed. This experience builds the foundation for networking and is the perfect first step for students to explore what is possible for their lives.