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Crafting a Career Curriculum

The current climate raises expectations that higher education align more closely to career preparation. Stevenson University used a catalyst from outside the institution to further enhance its ever-evolving career framework for students.

By Sharon Markley

*In many ways, higher education is at a crossroads where the exploration of the liberal arts intersects with matters of practical job preparation. The tension between these two approaches to education increases as unemployment among college graduates persists. Stevenson University President Kevin J. Manning notes, "There has been an historic dispute about liberal arts values versus career values, the argument being that they are mutually exclusive—but they're not. They need to come together."

In fact, Manning's vision since his inauguration 12 years ago as president of Stevenson, Maryland's third-largest independent university, has been that the liberal arts and careers do mesh. And they can do so with great success, giving students both the knowledge and the skills they can apply to not only their first jobs or graduate courses, but also to subsequent professional challenges throughout their lives.

Case in point: A Career ArchitectureSM process at Stevenson University (ranked in the 2013 U.S. News and World Report rankings as an "Up-and-Comer" school) that helps ensure that graduates not only learn their liberal arts subjects but move quickly into the workforce. Of the 785 students who graduated during December 2010, May 2011, and August 2011, 735 responded to a survey tracking their future paths. Seventy-five percent reported that they were working in jobs, 17 percent were going to graduate school, and 8 percent were still looking or not looking for work.

Stevenson's academic programs support both the university's liberal arts focus and career goals for students; every major is applied or has an application focus.

The Career Architecture concept commits the university to providing career-focused education and to offering programs that ensure its students' success in an increasingly dynamic job market. While the primary benefit of the study of the liberal arts has been to help students formulate a philosophy related to self, to life, and to others, university leaders believe that individuals cannot rely on this alone. The career framework includes cocurricular experiences and opportunities for students to discover their core values, and to learn how they will deeply integrate values with their career selection.

"In today's socioeconomic climate, expectations regarding career preparation with respect to higher education are accelerating more and more," says Paul D. Lack, executive vice president for academic affairs and dean. "The public focus is, 'Are we doing our job in preparing students for the marketplace?'"

The Career Architecture model has helped Stevenson in being able to answer this question positively. But, Manning and his leadership team thought the model could be improved upon. In particular, even though the university's degree-to-job ratio was outstanding, the office of career services had not been highly rated in student surveys.

In 2010, after seeking outside consultants to assist with this goal, the university engaged IDEO, a global award-winning innovation and design firm. While the firm often works with corporations, its hallmark belief is that "innovation happens through networks of inspired people ... ." However that inspiration is achieved, the goal is to explore innovative solutions and achieve their creative implementation.

It is possible that the only way to negotiate today's complex higher education challenges is to engage in such truly innovative education practices. In whatever ways an institution chooses to initiate and develop new ideas, Stevenson's experience with enhancing its career framework may provide some inspiration and energy to get there.

Laying Out Leadership Plans

In fall 2010, with the support of a staff project manager, Manning brought together a diverse group of key university stakeholders to work with the consultants on an initiative to dramatically enhance career services for students. The goal of the project was to identify innovations that would help Stevenson become a national leader in career education. While a survey conducted at the start of the project indicated that some students were not engaging early enough or finding relevancy to their majors in the services offered by the university's career center, the survey did prove that students recognized the university's commitment to helping them find meaningful internships and employment in their field of work upon graduation.

Supporting Innovation

Stevenson University supports the development of innovative solutions by:

  • Implementing an innovation methodology that has been translated into its own "curriculum" to educate and support the Stevenson community.
  • Using a toolkit that targets resources to facilitate the work of campus innovation teams. 
  • Offering ongoing professional development programs to faculty and staff to expand capacity for innovation through leadership and effectiveness.

The career services model was clearly working, but was it performing at the highest level? With IDEO's help, Stevenson set out to answer that question through a rather innovative approach to problem solving.

Along with all other members of the president's cabinet, Tim Campbell, executive vice president, financial affairs and CFO, was a willing participant in strategizing the best approach to maximize the results of the IDEO engagement. He says, "The results of this project were central to the value of a Stevenson University education." He would also sit in on brainstorming sessions and, later, oversee implementation plans developed at the conclusion of the project.

Initial project costs were negotiated and preapproved based on strategic initiatives determined in the business planning process that prioritized the university's goal to become a national leader in career education. This IDEO project was an obvious fit and related costs were built into that year's budget. The results and suggestions generated by the project were absorbed into that year's operating results and built into the costs of the subsequent year's budget through the same planning process.

"The university has a long history of innovation," says Campbell. "As a community, we are accustomed to responding to challenges creatively and strategically, and bringing in IDEO made perfect sense."

When the project team was in place and its goals clear, Manning engaged the entire university in a yearlong intense study of the Career Architecture model and the university's career services center, which was responsible for spreading the message to students about their experiential learning options, internship opportunities, and other networking suggestions. Led by Duane Bray of the IDEO team—which consisted of four dedicated IDEO representatives—and the university staff project manager, a core team consisting of 12 Stevenson administrators, staff, and faculty researched internal and external best practices, identified opportunities for improvement, and worked to inspire innovation around career services at the university for all constituencies.

The team found that enhancement in key areas was not only possible but necessary to enable students to develop a more values-based, strategic approach to their academic and professional careers, develop improved career-preparation skills, and help them network meaningfully with experts in their specific fields through mentoring opportunities and internships.

Building on a Solid Foundation

Working with the project team, consulting firm representatives would start with the Career Architecture model already in place, make recommendations to strengthen its various elements, and provide additional insights into the university's work and culture. Because much of the career framework is facilitated by the career services center, that area became a central focus of the team's activities.

Understanding the baseline. The career framework was already a well-thought-out, multistep concept that could be summed up as a model that carefully mentors students through a process of learning who they are at the core—knowledge that helps them make effective use of the model's framework of theory, practice, and mentoring.

"Look at the university's tagline, 'Imagine Your Future,'" says Lack. "That is the liberal arts foundation: imagination. If you are ignorant of the larger world around you, how can you imagine your own exciting future place in it?"

Stevenson's academic programs support both the university's liberal arts focus and career goals for students; every major is applied or has an application focus. For example, students can study biology, but they can also learn about biotechnology and how it might define a career path. Even classic liberal arts courses, such as English, have been redesigned to offer practical career applications.

Because of this, says Lack, Stevenson is past the debate taking place at other universities regarding the role of career in the mission of the institution. "More and more universities will be embracing this career focus because of public expectations and political agendas. It's all about the economy."

"One may see this approach to facilitating student growth as common sense, but few universities are putting it into practice within this framework," says Anne Scholl-Fiedler, the university's newly minted vice president for career services. "At Stevenson, we engage students in their first year, starting with orientation and then continuing with the First-Year Seminar."

The First-Year Seminar is a course designed for all new students to help them identify specific strategies for academic and personal success, including an introduction to the Career Architecture model through the Lego Challenge (see sidebar, "Lego Challenge Helps Students Visualize Curriculum Framework"). Students begin to identify their strengths and create teams in which each member uses his or her specific strength to create a tangible model depicting the Stevenson career process as it pertains to the academic discipline.

Students also learn key skills that employers want in the workplace: communication, teamwork, creative problem solving, analytical thinking, and innovation. In 2012, a total of 783 students organized into 44 teams participated in the challenge.

Scholl-Fiedler continues: "During each subsequent year, students conduct personal assessment and do other reflective work."

Establishing further definition. The team helped to enhance three components of the Career Architecture project.

  • Personal direction. This component helps students learn to understand themselves and encourages them to look inward rather than outward to think about their future. "That's what's going to navigate them through their lifetime," Scholl-Fiedler says. An outcome of the IDEO project was the redesign of the university's career services space to accommodate new staff who would bolster counseling efforts. Stevenson added six new positions, including a vice president (Scholl-Fiedler), three industry specialists, a manager of information technology, and an employment coordinator. Including the new staff members, the university's career office now houses 11 employees plus 1 graduate student intern. Future growth includes the addition of another industry specialist in the coming fiscal year. At that time, the model will be fully staffed. The cost of the additional positions within the career services office was justified in the university's budget due to the new staff's alignment with Stevenson's vision to become a national leader in career education.
  • Professional know-how. This component incorporates the professional training available to students, with exposure to a broad range of experiences. The career center had encouraged students to find experiential learning opportunities such as internships, research, and other extracurricular activities that align with their interests, strengths, and values. The rationale for this approach is that such experiences enable students to be successful across multiple jobs and industries so they can meet the changing demands of the economy. The addition of employer interviewing areas, as suggested by the project team, provides somewhat of a "reality check" to the employment dynamic. Another key element of implementation has been Stevenson Career Connections, an online recruiting and mentoring tool for students. Every student has the option to upload his or her resume and related career documents into Stevenson Career Connections and have the materials reviewed by a staff member in the center who makes recommendations for enhancements. This contact management system allows staff to personalize outreach to students and employer contacts. Staff can store progress notes in the system and generate multiple reports that assist with assessment. Under development is the Career Architecture Guide, a print and online resource with practical information on each of the elements of the Career Architecture process.
  • Discipline expertise. The career center encourages students to build relationships, develop networks, and find mentors who can provide advanced learning and further guidance. Numerous networking opportunities throughout their Stevenson experience allow participants to enter the workplace as competitive candidates. The project team's answer to strengthening this area was (1) the addition of industry-specialist staff positions designed to provide meaningful and relevant career services links to each of Stevenson's six schools, and (2) the creation of a designated "learning commons" where mentors, students, and other professional contacts can casually meet and discuss possibilities.

Immediate Results, Future Prospects

Overall, the innovative modeling helped Stevenson refine its architecture, situating the student at the center of the career planning process and integrating the three essential tasks of effective learning: theory, practice, and mentoring. In addition to these enhancements to the career services center work, the university realized two other outcomes.

The team developed the "Stevenson Promise." This is the communication piece developed to support the campus community's work in making the student experience the best possible. The promise reinforces staff and faculty commitment to meet students where they are, wherever they are, by delivering on the three components of the career model. The "promise" document, proudly displayed on desks in the career center, goes on to express the university's commitment to empowering students to map their vision of the future and hit the ground running as they embark on their journey, while giving them the tools to make intelligent course corrections as they're out on the road. Activities such as the Lego Challenge help deliver on the promise—guiding students to better understand their values, goals, strengths, and weaknesses.

The work also cultivates self-confidence that comes not only from the classroom, but also from exposure to a wealth of experiences, people, and situations out in the world. The promise affirms the faculty and staff roles in imparting skills and tools that students will need to navigate professional challenges and opportunities, while helping them build the expertise and relationships needed to be competitive and connected in their fields at the outset.

Core teams assigned to specific challenges go through steps of storytelling, synthesizing of ideas, brainstorming solutions, establishing prototypes, and testing those concepts.

The innovative style of the consultants increased the university's capacity for creative thinking. The consultants used a straightforward innovative process consisting of a number of elements. For instance, the "storytelling" technique of gathering research and telling the story within the core team allows for more conversational meetings. Storytelling is a practice of human-centered design, making the research and benchmarking much more meaningful than mere data and survey information.

This process dynamic has changed the university's approach to overall problem solving. That's because in large part the study of career services has led the board of trustees, the president's advisory board, the cabinet, and various campus departments and student groups to engage in a new process for conducting brainstorming workshops. The approach focuses stakeholders on attaining transformative change and sustaining an ongoing environment of innovation not only in career services, but in all areas of the university.

This process of identifying areas of improvement and developing innovative solutions is supported in three ways:

  • The innovation methodology has been translated into its own "curriculum" to educate and support the Stevenson community. Core teams assigned to specific challenges or problems go through steps of storytelling, synthesizing of discussions and ideas, brainstorming of solutions, establishing prototypes or pilots, and testing and refining those concepts. If results are positive, implementation takes place, along with assessment of outcomes and results.
  • A toolkit targets resources to facilitate the work of campus innovation teams. The university developed a "playbook" that offers managers a hands-on guide describing various techniques, including ways to: form a diverse and effective core team, conduct research, perform internal and external benchmarking, synthesize ideas and themes, point toward areas of innovation, effectively incorporate the process of brainstorming, and finally, move toward rapid prototyping and implementation.
  • The university offers ongoing professional development programs to faculty and staff to expand capacity for innovation through leadership and effectiveness. A dedicated facilitator is on staff and available to assist teams with their creative thinking. Managed by the president's office, interactive workshops have produced several concrete outcomes: (1) The university launched a culture initiative through the human resources office aimed toward the continuous alignment and affirmation of the university's values with its experience; (2) An advancement initiative changed annual alumni homecoming activities from a graduation-year orientation to that of academic area or degree major affiliation (attendance at recent alumni homecoming events has increased significantly as a result); and (3) "The Stevenson Way" culture project is moving forward to further unite the campus community around values of learning, community, integrity, and excellence.

One especially significant development that came out of the innovation project was the commitment to hire Scholl-Fiedler. It also seemed like perfect timing for Stevenson to adopt a theme for the 2012–13 academic year of "The Year of Career"—although, since its inception in 1947 as Villa Julie College, the university has infused its career-focused mission throughout the educational experience.

The overall experience of working on Stevenson's "curriculum of innovation" has shown that innovative thinking and creative problem solving will enable higher education to better respond to today's complex challenges. Through the development and implementation of a distinctive methodology for innovation, an institution can shape and support a culture that will generate the energy and creativity necessary for dramatic and powerful outcomes for the institution and its valued students. Some of the most pressing issues facing higher education today—disruptive technology, branding and value, institutional culture, financial aid, student engagement, internal communication, and facilities use and planning—could benefit from this kind of creative scrutiny.

For Stevenson University, the project work with IDEO has benefited students through the enhancements to the original Career Architecture model. At the same time, the entire campus community has adopted an approach to innovation that positions the institution to respond more effectively to the pressing challenges in higher education. The university and its students are well prepared for the tomorrows that are just beginning to be imagined today.

SHARON MARKLEY is assistant vice president, public affairs and strategy, Stevenson University, Stevenson, Maryland.

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Lego Challenge Helps Students Visualize Curriculum Framework

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A long-standing tradition at Stevenson University, Stevenson, Maryland, is an annual Lego Challenge, where freshmen learn and articulate their understanding of the university's Career Architecture by building models from the small block toys they remember from childhood. It's always a fun event for students and judges alike—and this year, it became even more purposeful.

Students in each Stevenson First-Year Seminar class spent two sessions exploring the career framework concepts and then divided into groups that voted on a concept and model for the Lego Challenge that represented their understanding of the process. The groups pitched their concepts, and students voted on the model that the group would then produce.

"Given that college students today are such visual and active learners, the challenge is an ideal way to thoroughly understand what the university's career model  is all about and internalize the concepts through building models," explains Virginia N. Iannone, assistant vice president, academic support services.

This year, a new element of the challenge was a self-assessment to help students determine their strengths and interests. Students shared their results and then agreed to take on the role that would build on their specific strengths and interests during the challenge. For example, if a student scored highly on the artistic category, he may have been part of the group that sketched out the model. If a student tended to have more of the enterprising characteristic, she may have been a group leader.

"By successfully completing the challenge, students are exhibiting skills and behaviors that will help them succeed in the workplace, such as communication, teamwork, creative problem solving, innovation, and analytical thinking," Iannone says. "With the help of career services, we are breathing new life into the challenge and integrating some career and academic best practices into the challenge—today, it is far more rigorous than ever."

Another exciting addition this year: Stevenson commissioned the renowned Lego artist Nathan Sawaya to create an original sculpture representing the university's Career Architecture that was unveiled during the challenge on November 9. The university kept the artwork, which may be displayed at future challenges, among other venues. To learn more about Sawaya and see his work, visit www.brickartist.com.

SHERRY BITHELL is assistant vice president, publications, Stevenson University, Stevenson, Maryland.

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