Recent Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) surveys and canvassing revealed some student discontent with certain aspects of the Career Center, namely inconsistencies in the Peer Career Advisor program, difficulties securing appointments with professional counselors, and misconceptions concerning the Center’s role on campus. In light of this polling, The Argus interviewed both students and Career Center employees in order to illuminate current campus opinion on the Center. Although many expressed frustration with the Center’s current process, students and employees are hopeful that the new director, Sharon Belden Castonguay, will address these issues and improve the Center.
Relocating from the Butterfields to 41 Wyllys Ave. in January of 2012 and recently securing a new director to start this month, the Career Center has undergone a transformation this year.
Former Director of the Career Center Michael Sciola left his position in July 2012 to be the Associate Vice President for Advancement and Director of Career Services at Colgate University, and Associate Vice President for External Relations Gemma Fontanella Ebstein took his place as interim Director. The University recently hired Belden Castonguay as the new director, and she will assume her position later this month.
President Michael Roth expressed his excitement for what Belden Castonguay will bring to campus.
“I understand that s he’s really raring to go and is excited to be here,” Roth said. “[She] is particularly adept at making the connection between a liberal arts curriculum and careers after college. I think that she will be a strong advocate for connecting Wesleyan students to the alumni network, which is a great resource for jobs after college, as well as helping people find ways to present themselves as compelling candidates for good jobs.”
Prior to Sciola’s departure, he and Fontanella Ebstein had been reassessing and reorganizing the Career Center’s infrastructure utilizing existing resources. Fontanella Ebstein explained that the goal of the reorganization was to have each staff member specialize in his or her unique strength rather than have all employees attempt to fulfill every function.
“Everybody was making things happen, including the counselors,” she said. “Counselors should be counseling, mostly. I didn’t really feel like they should be managing anything to do with the budget or implementing programs; an operations team could do that. Centralizing operations and communications under Associate Director Anne Santaniello was probably one of the more significant moves.”
In addition, Fontanella Ebstein effectively swapped the roles of Associate Director of Career Development and Campus Outreach Persephone Hall and Associate Director for Jobs and Internships James Kubat; Hall had previously focused on employer relations, while Kubat had focused on counseling.
“We basically switched their primary areas of responsibility,” Fontanella Ebstein said. “They both continue counseling, but Persephone now oversees the counseling staff, and Jim oversees a very small team of employee relations and internship staff.”
Fontanella Ebstein also moved former Employer Relations Coordinator Rachel Berman to her new position as Operations and Communications Coordinator.
The Peer Career Advisor Program
Berman oversees the hiring, training, and management of the Peer Career Advisers (PCA). The PCA program has existed since 1984, becoming more solidified in the ’90s and undergoing another remodeling this past summer.
“We really see them as our interlude between the professional staff and the wider campus community, and we expect that they play that role as campus liaison,” Berman said.
Kevin Curtin ’13, who has worked in the Career Center since his sophomore year when he was an employee relations assistant, and joined the PCA team this year, described the PCAs as a means of dividing responsibilities and time more effectively between professional counselors and student employees.
“I think the best way you can describe a PCA [is] as someone who triages all of the incoming student interest in the Career Center,” Curtin said. “We can tackle a lot of the nuts and bolts stuff before we usually recommend that the student go on and meet with a full-time counselor.”
Berman noted that each PCA specializes in an area of career development, including education, business, non-profits, finance, and many others.
“It is not just business and finance training; it’s all across the board,” she said. “We have our PCAs represent different industries—each [has] different specialties—and that develops naturally based on what their own interests are, but that’s something that I do look at when hiring.”
After assuming her new role during this past summer, Berman enhanced the training process in hopes of creating a paraprofessional program with increased responsibility. All PCAs come to campus before the start of the academic year for intensive one-week training, which includes listening workshops, role-playing exercises, and written assignments that target speed and accuracy in correcting résumés and cover letters for students.
“My goal in training them is, every time that you come into the Career Center, every person is going to have a different opinion on your résumé, but we should all be giving the same consistent advice and the same consistent feedback, which is really, really important,” Berman said. “We want to have our messaging be the same.”
The First Meeting: Counselor or PCA?
WSA Vice President and Chair of the Career Center Committee Mari Jarris ’14 noted that some students have expressed frustration with inconsistencies in this area.
“We’ve heard that [a] freshman or a sophomore will come in and ask a PCA to review her resume, then she comes in the next week with the changes made and she gets contradictory advice,” Jarris said.
The WSA Career Center Committee was involved with the search for the new director and will meet with Belden Castonguay when she comes to campus to propose a list of recommended improvements for the Career Center. One such recommendation is the standardization of advice dispensed by PCAs.
“Our student outreach found that many Career Center visitors feel that PCAs are dispensing contradictory advice, a sentiment that discourages the continued use of PCAs among students,” the recommendation stated. “PCA advice should be standardized and uniform. The WSA-CC recommends a standard rubric—designed by career counselors—for PCAs to use when advising students with their résumés, cover letters, and basic internship research, to ensure that the most basic questions are being answered in a consistent fashion. Acknowledging unavoidable variance in advice, students should be placed with the same PCA for additional meetings whenever possible.”
Curtin explained that while these inconsistencies might be frustrating, they can in fact be constructive, facilitating a dialogue between students, PCAs, and counselors.
“Much like when you are submitting a super-important piece of writing, you don’t get just one trusted person’s opinion,” Curtin said. “Subjectivity, I think, is a really important part of analyzing Wesleyan student résumés because I feel like, if there is a certain group that would be the poster children for a not-one-size-fits-all approach, it would be Wesleyan students.”
According to Berman, freshmen and sophomores seeking initial career advice are first encouraged to meet with a PCA, who can introduce them to the Center’s resources. This allows professional counselors to reserve their time for students—namely upperclassmen—who are looking for more specific, personal advice and assistance.
“Because we don’t have as many career counselors as the demand requires here, what we’ve done is have PCAs take over the drop-in hours as the first line of defense,” Berman said. “We have professional staff members backing them up…but we do have them really trying to meet with first-year students and sophomores as well, particularly as a first line of, ‘Welcome to the Career Center, this is what you can do here.’”
Amanda Simmons ’13, who has worked as a PCA for three years and helps to oversee some of the program’s operations, explained that PCAs now offer 30-minute “office hour” appointments; before the reorganization of the Center, they only offered 15-minute drop-in appointments. The goal behind this change, Simmons explained, is to better prepare students for their future meetings with professional counselors.
“The counselor shouldn’t be seeing too many typos in your résumé—[with them] it’s more, ‘How can we use this resume to get you the specific job or internship or fellowship?’” Simmons said. “We take care of those easier steps, so during your half-hour- or hour-long appointment, you can really get as specific as you can, rather than general questions like, ‘How do I write a cover letter?’”
According to Fontanella Ebstein, changes like these allow the Center to better allocate its resources.
“Given limited resources, it made more sense for the counselors to have the one-on-one appointments with the students, versus the drop-ins, which are usually 15-minute conversations to point students in the right direction or take a quick look at a résumé,” Fontanella Ebstein said. “Kind of entry-level things, if you will.”
Yet some students have expressed dissatisfaction with fellow students being the front line at the Career Center. Olivia Mason ’15, who went to the Center in December during drop-in hours, said that while her PCA was clearly trained and qualified, she was not able to answer questions that a professional counselor would have been able to address.
“Honestly, the questions that I had were not questions that [the PCA] would have been able to answer,” Mason said. “I wanted to know more about some Cardinal Internships, in terms of how to get in contact with the alum and maybe a little bit more information about the internship itself, and it didn’t seem like she had any knowledge of that. She knew how to get to that knowledge, but so did I—you look online and there’s a little blurb—and I wanted an actual Career Center adult to be like, ‘This is the deal.’”
Last semester, while the changes to the PCA program were being implemented, the Career Center surveyed 110 students following their appointments with PCAs. Students indicated their satisfaction on a scale from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” and were asked about their overall satisfaction and the PCAs’ knowledge, advice, and demeanor. According to the survey, most students (between 72 and 88 percent, varying by category) strongly agreed on these counts, indicating satisfaction with PCAs.
Additionally, students were asked if they would meet with the same PCA again or recommend the PCA to a friend. Seventy-seven percent of respondents strongly agreed that they would see the same PCA again, and 75 percent strongly agreed that they would recommend the PCA to a friend. No students disagreed or strongly disagreed with any of the statements about which they were surveyed.
Simmons pointed out the discrepancy between the positive survey results and comments heard around campus.
“It’s interesting because I know feedback from campus has been mixed, but there’s been extremely good feedback [in the survey],” Simmons said. “There were one or two ‘neutrals’ of all of the questions, and nothing lower than ‘neutral.’ Based on that feedback, it’s hard to look at something and say, ‘You really need to work in this area.’”
Berman explained that the surveys are anonymous on the part of the respondent, but that they are filled out for individual PCAs and are then used for a performance review at the end of the semester. Yet Mason, who completed the survey after meeting with a PCA, noted that it was not conducted under ideal conditions and did not address her primary concerns: ultimately, she would have preferred to meet with a professional counselor.
“They handed me a sheet of paper, but [the PCA] was standing two inches away from me, and I don’t want to offend someone who’s my peer,” Mason said. “Every problem that I had with her was not her fault. She helped me with what she had been trained to help me with, and so she did a good job at her job.”
Simmons noted that the PCAs are fully qualified for the work that they do, but professional counselors can sometimes offer specialized advice.
“We are really well trained, and I feel confident with the advice that I give,” she said. “I’m happy to tell someone I don’t know the answer to their question and refer them to the counselor that does…But obviously if someone’s paying this much money to go to this school, and they want to meet with a counselor, they should be able to meet with a counselor, and that’s not ideal.”
The Root of the Problem
Jarris linked an understaffed Career Center to these frustrations with the system of PCAs.
“[The current system] kind of sends a negative message to underclassmen, too, but on the other hand, if getting seniors a job is a priority, it makes sense,” she said. “I think that it’s good that they’re trying out new models, but that would definitely not be a satisfactory permanent structure to have.”
In its recommendations to the new director, the WSA Career Center Committee suggested that the Center clarify what students should expect from their meetings with counselors or PCAs.
“To improve the efficiency and make better use of the limited Career Counselor availability, the Committee suggests that an explanation of what the student hopes to gain from the meeting is incorporated into the online appointment system,” the recommendation reads. “If the question is simple and can be answered by a PCA or an online resource, the Career Center scheduler should direct the student to those options and preserve the limited time Career Counselors have available.”
Angela Mann ’13 has utilized the Career Center since her freshman year and began frequenting the Center during her junior year for advice about internships, cover letters, and résumés. Mann noted that she also views the understaffing at the Center as an obstacle for students requesting counsel.
“I just think the central problem is a lot of demand [and] not sufficient supply,” she said.
Fontanella Ebstein associated the lack of staff members to sufficiently meet student demand with the recent relocation of the Center and acknowledged that an increase in professional staff is necessary.
“The foot traffic [and] the drop-ins have increased; the demand for counseling appointments has increased—which is great, that’s exactly the point of moving the Career Center—but the staffing hasn’t changed to meet that demand,” she said. “We put in the request for another position, which I think will at least be [partly] direct counseling, but I’m going to leave that for the new director to decide. I think the biggest growing pain is the increased use by students, which is a wonderful thing.”
“Not a Placement Agency”
Curtin emphasized that ultimately the Center can be most helpful to students by facilitating a dialogue about the career process.
“We are more than a résumé [and] cover-letter office, but we are less than a list of internships to force onto students,” he said. “I think coming in with the expectation of, this will be an iterative, discussion-based process would both help students and help us.”
Fontanella Ebstein also addressed students’ misconceptions about the Career Center’s role on campus.
“The Career Center is not a placement agency,” Fontanella Ebstein said. “Many years ago, that’s really what a career center on a campus was. It was all about job placement, not helping you to understand what possible careers you might explore. It was about just finding a job when you graduate. Now, [with] the whole internship piece, it’s bigger than that.”
Fontanella Ebstein added that with the evolution of the job market over the past few decades, the Career Center’s role has shifted toward helping students better apply the skills they learn at Wesleyan to a future career.
“It has evolved into more helping students understand themselves and understand how what they have done at Wesleyan as an undergraduate can be parlayed into work, whatever that work might be,” she said. “Now, there are a lot of career development opportunities.”
Dean for Academic Advancement and Dean for the Class of 2013 Louise Brown noted that in her years working with students, she has noticed this trend as well.
“Over the years, I would say that some students have had the expectation that the Career Center would get them a job, which is not, if you look at the mission of the Career Center, what they do,” Brown said. “They work with you to help you identify what you want to do and facilitate ways for you to make connections and to get those kinds of jobs, but they don’t guarantee you a job. I think there’s [sometimes] been the expectation that that’s what would happen.”
The New Direction
The search for a new director of the Career Center began in the fall with national advertisements, phone interviews, and on-campus interviews of six candidates, and culminated in presentations from three finalists. The finalists were allowed to give their presentations on whatever topic they chose; Fontanella Ebstein explained that this was considered in the evaluation process and that Belden Castonguay clearly meshed well with the University.
“[We] wanted to see what they chose to present because that tells a lot about a candidate,” Fontanella Ebstein said. “Was it some canned presentation they had done elsewhere? Had they done their homework and really tailored it to Wes? Or was it something really interesting we would have never thought of? They did a presentation for students, and students asked questions, and we just observed. You could just tell by the interaction where the better fit was.”
Students were encouraged to attend the open forums. WSA President Zachary Malter ’13 commented on the student role in the process.
“We made sure that there was a cohort of WSA people at all of those meetings because we knew otherwise that it could happen that no students showed up because no one was being held accountable for coming,” Malter said. “We submitted feedback to the office, made sure it was considered, and I think there was a significant student piece to the decision making.”
Jarris noted that the students involved in the decision-making process were very excited about what Belden Castonguay would bring to the University.
“We were really impressed with her,” Jarris said. “She was by far our favorite candidate.”
The WSA plans to remain in communication with the Career Center as Belden Castonguay assumes her new role.
“We’re hoping to establish a close relationship between not only WSA but also the broader student body and the director,” Jarris said. “We have concrete ideas, but we’re also excited to see what she does, especially with staffing and whether she builds on the PCA model or has new ideas for the structure of the Career Center.”
Malter added that Belden Castonguay was selected based on her ability to address some key areas with which students had expressed discontent to the WSA.
“One of those things was graduate school: we wanted somebody with a greater depth of knowledge that could offer better insight to the process of applying to graduate school, choosing graduate school, understanding that landscape,” Malter said. “Another thing we get a lot of complaints about [is] the lack of development of the Career Center for students who are not in finance or consulting. We took all of those issues in mind, and we set very high expectations for the position because we understand that the quality of where students end up after Wesleyan is incredibly important, and it’s what people in part pay to come here for.”
The WSA Career Center Committee’s recommendations to Belden Castonguay are a reform of the PCA program, an expansion of the Center’s online resources, clarification of pre-meeting expectations, better advertising and communication with students, interest-specific peer counseling, simplification and streamlining of the Center’s resources, and reorganization of the website.
Belden Castonguay, former director at the Graduate Career Management Center for the Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College in New York, N.Y, summarized her goals as they currently stand.
“I would like to see Wesleyan become known for not only excellence in academics, but also the career development of its students and alumni,” she wrote in an email to The Argus. “In the short term, I’ll be evaluating the Career Center and its relationships both on and off campus to see what changes are necessary to ensure efficiency and best use of resources; in the long term, I’ll be looking to build a career management program that helps students define their initial career goals and learn how to build a professional network, use social media effectively, get into grad school, land a job, and adapt to an ever-changing world of work.”
Mann, too, expressed her hopes for the Center’s future.
“I think in general the Career Center has definitely improved—over the course of my Wesleyan career I can definitely see that change,” she said. “It’s going somewhere good, I can see that, but it’s just not there yet.”