KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Jobs are out there, and Western Michigan University graduates are ready to make an impact in their field. The University will confer 871 degrees Saturday, June 27. While the pandemic and ensuing financial crisis pose unique challenges for the new Bronco alumni, WMU’s Career and Student Employment Services—CSES—department is working overtime to connect them to employment opportunities.
“It is clear that career services doesn’t want any recent graduate missing out on information or experiences because of the obstacles of distance learning,” says Molly Sell, a newly graduated teacher candidate who completed her bachelor’s degree in art education.
She points out the office’s collaboration with the Office of Clinical Experiences to provide a number of development opportunities including professional workshops, resume critiques and job search resources, both prior to and after the onset of distance learning. The dedication to students is paying off as career opportunities for WMU students continue to grow.
"Employers are still active. Employers are still engaging with our students. Employers still want to connect with WMU," says Dr. Deveta Gardner, acting director of career development and academic success.
In just the two months since the transition to distance learning, the team has inputted more than 9,000 jobs in WMU's online portal Handshake, connected with more than 500 employers about recruiting at the University and added hundreds of new employers to the system.
The office is emphasizing the importance of flexibility in exploring career options and standing out in a crowded field of applicants.
"I like to call it the ‘Western will,’" says career development specialist Wayne Bond, who is himself pursuing his master’s degree at WMU.
The CSES team is leading by example, quickly pivoting to virtual sessions in mid-March; creating a webpage dedicated to graduating in a pandemic; and navigating new ways to guide students on their career paths without meeting in-person. Recognizing new challenges that come with rising unemployment and financial uncertainty, Career and Student Employment Services added countless hours to its workload collecting additional opportunities and advice for this new world of video interviews and remote internships.
"It definitely gives you a leg up, because the situation we're in means that any job posting is going to have, I would imagine, a lot of applicants with all the recent graduates and everybody who's out of work right now," says Gabriel Hayes, who graduated in April with bachelor's degrees in chemical engineering and applied math. He worked with the office's career development specialists to improve his resumé. "They helped me to work with the structure to make it look more appealing and highlight my experiences, and I think that helped a lot."
They've also worked to prepare students for nearly 20 different virtual events involving employers.
"I think career services is doing a good job of finding creative ways to provide WMU students graduating during the pandemic with the same opportunities" as those who've graduated previously, says Sell, who took part in a virtual education job fair featuring more than 200 school districts from across the country. WMU's CSES team collaborated with institutions throughout Michigan to coordinate the event.
"We contributed approximately 100 hours of time assisting education graduates in preparation for their job search and interviews," says Gardner. Bond even participated in the fair by offering guidance and answering student questions in a chat room throughout the duration of the event. The WMU team is also compiling a book of resumés from all students who participated in the event to share with the districts involved. Sell appreciates the effort to bridge the gap in opportunities to form connections during the pandemic.
"I think career services realizes that these extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures and effort," she says, highlighting the personalized help she received from Gardner who called to discuss and help correct a "major typo" she found in Sell's resumé. "This is just one example of how Career Services is going above and beyond for WMU graduates right now."
FOSTERING SUCCESS IN UNCERTAIN TIMES
Students didn't expect to graduate during a pandemic. Businesses didn't foresee operating—or in many cases, being forced to close—during one. But these are the times we live in, and WMU students are building "power skills" to position themselves as valuable assets for companies looking to weather the storm.
Career Services team members focus on the eight career readiness competencies identified by the National Association of Colleges and Employers: critical thinking/problem solving, oral/written communications, teamwork/collaboration, digital technology, leadership, professionalism/work ethic, career management and global/intercultural fluency—skills developed in a four-year, liberal arts college setting that build a solid foundation for success in any situation.
Hayes says the structure and diversity of his coursework, which included taking some classes outside of his major, helped him learn to quickly adapt in a variety of situations.
"Being able to work in different settings and have the ability to get different types of experiences, I think that helps you to figure out where you're most comfortable and [identify] where you're not as comfortable so you can focus and work on it," he says, adding that the real-world experience he was able to glean during internships at both Consumers Energy and DTE Energy helped solidify his desire to work in the energy field and build valuable connections as he pursues his career.
The ability to articulate experiences and identify career-related strengths is something Career and Student Employment Services staff spend a great deal of time on with students. As Strengths Champions they have the ability to assist students with the Gallup Strengths Assessment.
“This assessment tool engages students in understanding how to use their natural talents and Strengths,” says Gardner. “This is another viable way to assist students in expressing to employers what skills they bring to any workplace.”
In addition to helping students better communicate the skills they’ve developed, career development specialists also open their minds to career paths they may not have previously considered.
"We talk to our students about focus—understanding your values, your interests, your personality, your skill set. And, if it's something that can be transitioned because of the experiences that you're acquiring now and moving forward, that's going to greatly help you," says Bond.
Sell is using that focus right now to build on her experiences and create new ones in her downtime, which include studying to improve her Spanish language proficiency and working on her own new artwork while also creating an online teaching portfolio.
"It includes sample lesson plans, student artwork and even videos of my teaching in action to be able to provide to school districts during the interview process," she says. "I am using this time to make myself the most marketable that I can, so when that perfect job opportunity does come up, I'm ready!"
She's also keeping in contact with professors she's developed relationships with in the art education program. During a recent video conference, Dr. Christina Chin, associate professor of art, discussed with her the challenges and rewards of student teaching during a time when in-person instruction isn't a possibility.
"I was impressed that she was already researching and gaining knowledge to be able to better assist the art education students who will be student teaching in the fall," she says. "I am proud to be a Bronco because the professors and staff have all become artists of sorts by finding creative ways to support and educate students—even in a pandemic. I'm excited to hang the brown and gold flag in my future art room!"
For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.