GREENVILLE, SC (courtesy furman.edu) — The Malone Career Center is no more at Furman. Does that mean the university has given up on helping students find jobs? Far from it. Very, very far from it.
The Malone Career Center is now the Malone Center for Career Engagement. That seemingly subtle rebranding belies the significance of the profound changes to the office’s operation and vision that will begin rolling out this summer—changes that Vice President for Student Life Connie Carson believes will give undergraduates professional development assistance unprecedented in the school’s 191-year history and make Furman one of a handful of national leaders in a rapidly evolving and competitive race to show a return on the higher-education investment.
“We’ve restructured the entire office, and we’ve shifted it into a higher gear. We’re going to be on the leading edge in career and professional preparation,” Carson said. “And that in itself is a big deal, especially for liberal arts institutions.”
Traditionally, career services offices assisted students with resumes and interview skills, answered questions and perhaps pointed them to hiring companies. The new Malone Center will still do that—but it will also do much more through the use of a “Customized Connections” concept, variations of which have been implemented by schools like Stanford University.
“We are changing our name from the Career Center to the Center for Career Engagement, and that term was adopted to reflect our new mission which is to more effectively engage students in career and professional development activities,” said John Barker, assistant vice president for career and professional development.
Beginning in the fall, students will be steered toward “Career Communities” populated with employers, alumni and organizations based on their majors and career interests. In addition to a top-notch education, they’ll be exposed to a network of real-world mentors, advisors, connections, graduate-school admissions officers and employers springing from a collaboration with the academic department on campus.
That’s quite a far cry from hosting a job fair for seniors. Barker is the architect of the initiative, which he saw as imperative after reading a 2014 article from Stanford and George Mason universities that outlined how the career education models for universities was changing. In response to increased scrutiny—particularly on liberal arts institutions—to justify the cost of a four-year degree, top schools were doubling and even tripling career center staff members and investing dollars numbering in the millions into resources to better serve the professional development needs of students and increase effective outcomes, i.e. jobs.
Then the director of career services, he realized Furman was at a crossroads and it must take a decisive step in this direction.
“Every year, I get calls from the media wanting to know what are your graduates doing? They sometimes question whether the investment is worth it. There has been a lot of scrutiny on outcomes of a college education in recent years,” Barker said. “That’s when I started having conversations with our VP, Connie Carson, saying this is what’s going on nationwide on the career center landscape. Top schools are evolving to better meet the needs of their students, and if we want to remain as one of the leading institutions in terms of career preparation we are going to need to adapt.”
Carson listened, agreed and carried the torch to Elizabeth Davis, shortly after Davis became Furman’s 12th president in 2014. She also agreed, and Barker went to work.
He was elevated to his current position, and a new position—director of career engagement—was approved and filled last month by Lauren Payne. Two future positions have been proposed to further support the new model and will be considered based on need.
Barker says that their new operational model recognizes that everyone on campus can and should have a positive effect on students’ lives, both personally and professionally, and the entire university should be operating as one with that goal in mind. Creating a campus ”ecosystem” of professional preparation is one of the primary goals of the new Customized Connections model.
The idea is that rather than working as a stand-alone resource housed in the student affairs division, the Malone Center for Career Engagement will collaborate with departments across campus to better engage students in new “academic-career integration” initiatives. To that end, a dotted-line reporting channel between The Center for Career Engagement and George Shields, the vice president for academic affairs and provost, was created.
“The rationale there was if we have that connection between my office and academic affairs it then becomes easier to sell across campus and get buy-in from different constituent groups,” Barker said. “I think this happens at most college campuses: You’ve got student life on one side, academic affairs on the other side, and a lot of times the philosophy is never the twain shall meet. At Furman, we’re breaking down those walls, and the ultimate beneficiaries—and I always come full circle with this—will be our students and our alums.”
Since the fall, Barker has been meeting with department heads, the provost, deans, faculty members, and others to inform them of the changes and gather input while also talking to personnel at Stanford, Wake Forest, George Mason, Carleton, Richmond, Rollins and others. From this research Furman’s unique model was crafted. “By the time fall term gets here, we’ll have some pretty defined career communities that we’re going to start building together,” Barker said. “We’re excited about all of this.”
Payne comes to Furman from the University of San Diego, where she was the associate director of the career development center. She was attracted to the revolutionary vision of the Customized Connections model as well as the larger goals of The Furman Advantage, which was launched last year.
“My big role is going to be building these career communities as part of that model. We’re going to, over the next few years, be building very industry-specific career communities,” Payne said. “It’s really well aligned with The Furman Advantage as far as trying to create additional resources for these students so it’s not just a career center. We’re building a community of mentors, whether those mentors are alumni or faculty, parents, community members.”
The Furman Advantage is a groundbreaking initiative that will guarantee every incoming student the opportunity for an engaged learning experience that is tracked and integrated with their academic and professional goals.
“I think the liberal arts education really is equipping our students for today’s jobs,” Payne said, “but I think we need to do a better job helping students see how a liberal arts education applies to today’s job market and also a better job of helping them articulate the value of a liberal arts education.”
Like The Furman Advantage itself, full implementation of the Malone Center for Career Engagement’s ambitious objectives will take time, but Barker says the ball will officially be rolling by the summer—even if nobody knows the exact path it will ultimately take.
“The exciting thing for me–and somewhat scary at the same time—is that we really don’t know exactly what our customized connections model is going to look like six months to a year from now,” he said. “We will be evolving and adding programs and initiatives as The Furman Advantage similarly evolves. I do think this is going to keep Furman on the leading edge of career and professional development programming across the county. We’ll be with the top schools that have already started to do this.”