Reinventing Career Services

The Walter Center for Career Achievement takes an innovative approach to career development

Anna Powell Teeter

Navigating the passage from an undergraduate degree to a satisfying job can be daunting, and the traditional college campus approach to career development has often fallen short of students’ expectations. That’s why the College of Arts and Sciences has radically transformed its career services — a transformation that included the creation of a brand new organization within the College.

“This is something I came here wanting to do,” says Executive Dean Larry Singell, a labor economist by training who has studied the economics of higher education.

Singell gave the staff a challenge. “We needed to do something and we couldn’t do it the same way that professional schools do it,” he says.

And the College delivered. In 2016, it introduced the Walter Center for Career Achievement, a center that offers a complete re-envisioning of career development for students of the arts and sciences.

“We threw the old model of career services out the window,” says Joe Lovejoy, the center’s director.

The Walter Center is part of the Office of Student and Career Success, which includes undergraduate recruiting and academic advising in addition to career services.

“The luxury of building something from the ground up is that we’ve been very intentional every step of the way,” says Scott Feickert, the office’s executive director.

The decision to make sweeping changes was not made frivolously. It resulted from an extensive six-month-long information gathering process that began with the 2015 fall semester. Input was collected from students, faculty, administration, alumni, and employers.

“It became clear early on in our process that students in the College wanted more than the traditional career services that had been offered previously,” Lovejoy says.

Typically, traditional services include help with résumés and cover letters, mock interviews, and opportunities to interview for jobs with employers. All of these are still available, but students let it be known that they needed more than that.

For one thing, many students shared that they were not ready to meet with potential employers. First, they needed more help sorting through their career options, and they needed assistance with the work of translating their academic interests into career pursuits.

Walter Center Director Joe Lovejoy speaks to a group of students.

Creating a community that surrounds the student

Once Lovejoy and his team identified their challenges, they began working on a solution and created a stunning new multi-faceted approach to career services. Their goal was to create a community that surrounds the student.

“The traditional role of a career advisor is to give information to students,” Lovejoy says. “You come and meet with me. I have knowledge that I’m going to give to you.”

The center took a different tack.

“We sought to leverage the huge amount of resources that the College of Arts and Sciences has through our alumni, our faculty, and the employers who work with us,” Lovejoy says. “We don’t want to exist simply as a brick-and-mortar transactional unit. We want to be facilitators of a community of career support.”

But how exactly would that work? How do you help liberal arts students explore the vast array of career options that lie before them?

The solution was to design and implement a “career communities” model that organizes potential careers around ten distinct themes such as “Government, International Affairs, and Public Policy,” “Finance, Consulting, Management, and Sales,” and “Science and Research.” These career communities provide students with the structure to explore how their chosen fields of study can be applied to the world of work.

“Everything we do is facilitated through these ten lenses,” Lovejoy says.

Associate Director of Employer Relations Staci McFall talks with a student at a recent career-development event.

One way that this plays out for students is through Discover events, one of the Walter Center’s signature innovations.

“Discover events are intentionally informal conversations about a career community,” Lovejoy says. “You can come in your pajamas. There may be ten students sitting around the table with a pizza in the middle talking to an alum about a career in that area.”

Students wanted a wider spectrum of activities that included events that could be stepping stones to the events where they would put on business suits and meet with potential employers.

“Discover events provide opportunities for students to start interacting with alumni professionals in low stakes environments where there’s not a job or internship on the table,” Lovejoy says. “In this situation students can explore how the discipline they’ve chosen to study relates to a career in that area.”

This approach hits the target for Singell.

“The Walter Center’s solution is exciting,” he says. “It helps liberal arts students examine their portfolio of general skills and find ways to bring those skills to the labor market.”

Sometimes, in fact, the Walter Center helps brings those skills to the market quite directly. The center’s namesake, alumnus Ralph Collins Walter (M.A. ’72, Economics), gave the College a multi-million dollar gift in 2016, and this gift is used in part to provide scholarships through the center to help students manage the costs associated with internships. These funds can be used for travel, tuition, and even living expenses.

“Ralph understood what we were trying to do with career services from the very beginning,” Singell says.

Considering that many internships today are unpaid, Singell understands how valuable this scholarship money can be.

“Students sometimes qualify for internships, but can’t afford the expenses of taking the offer,” he says. “Thanks to Ralph’s generosity, many of them will be able to take internships that they might not have been able to do otherwise.”

Career Course Lecturer Angela Lexmond speaks with a student.

Getting others involved

As part of the Office of Student and Career Success, the Walter Center has other opportunities to create a community that surrounds the student.

“The reason this office was formed is that previously there were all of these silos,” Feickert says. “Recruiting was a silo. Academic advising was a silo. Those walls have largely been busted down. We have career services folks at our recruiting events, and that’s been well received.”

Feickert emphasizes the special role played by academic advisors. “Students identify with their academic advisors,” he says. “We’re now cross-training and collaborating between academic advising and career services.”

This is just one of the ways that the Walter Center seeks to get as many people involved as possible. There are multiple roles alumni can play and members of the College’s faculty are engaged.

“The faculty are on board,” Singell says. “They like the open approach to helping students explore a variety of career options that can be connected to multiple fields of study. They are interested in the career center and they’re using it in their classes.”

Lovejoy is thrilled to see the enthusiasm from the faculty and wants career assistance fully integrated into students’ lives.

“Our vision is that a student will receive a College of Arts and Sciences education, be fully career ready upon graduation, and not necessarily have any idea that career services had anything to do with it,” Lovejoy says. “It should be part of the educational experience of being here.”

According to its vision statement, the center strives to be “An engaging community of advocates preparing every student for a lifetime of meaningful work.”

“It’s not the Walter Center that is that community,” Lovejoy says. “It’s the College.”

Bruce Lilly

Bruce Lilly is a freelance writer specializing in academic journalism, business, and transportation. He lives and works in Bloomington. He can be reached at Bruce@BruceLilly.com or (812) 333-2390.