Podcast

Career Everywhere in a Liberal Arts Environment

Sharon Belden Castonguay discusses Career Everywhere in a liberal arts environment—particularly as it relates to working with admissions, academic affairs, and advancement.

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Sharon Belden Castonguay, the Executive Director of the Gordon Career Center at Wesleyan University, discusses Career Everywhere in a liberal arts environment—particularly as it relates to career services working with admissions, academic affairs, and advancement.

Sharon shares how Career Everywhere can be implemented in a liberal arts institution like Wesleyan. She also digs into specific ways career services can partner with each of what she calls the “three As” (admissions, academic affairs, and advancement) to embed career throughout the entire student journey. 

“On a liberal arts campus, Career Everywhere means that the community is helping students make sense of what they’re learning inside the classroom, outside the classroom, within their major, and outside their major,” Belden Castonguay says.

“It’s helping them connect the dots so students leave with a coherent narrative about why they chose the course of study they did, why they chose to do all of the other things they did… the Korean dance class, the medieval poetry class, why they played intramural lacrosse, why they were involved in activism, why they were volunteering in their community. We’re thinking about putting all of that together in a way that is meaningful to them.”

Resources from the episode:

Transcript

Meredith Metsker:

Hey everyone. Welcome back to the Career Everywhere podcast. I’m your host, Meredith Metsker. Today, I am joined by Sharon Belden Castonguay. She’s the executive director of the Gordon Career Center at Wesleyan University. Thanks for being here, Sharon.

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

Thank you for having me.

Meredith Metsker:

Yeah, I’m really excited to talk to you today about Career Everywhere in a liberal arts environment, particularly as it relates to working with, as you called it, the three A’s, so admissions, academic affairs, and advancement. Now, for a little background for the audience, Sharon is an adult developmental psychologist who has worked in career services for 25 years, leading both undergraduate and graduate career centers. She’s worked for a variety of prestigious universities around New England and New York, including Boston University, Harvard, Baruch College, and now Wesleyan. Some of you may recognize her from her 2018 TEDx Talk video called The Psychology of Career Decisions, which has been viewed nearly half a million times on YouTube, which is pretty awesome.

If you haven’t watched it yet, I highly recommend it. I’ll be sure to include a link in the show notes. Another fun fact about Sharon is that she once got to interview Mark Cuban about the value of a liberal arts education. Long story short, Sharon is an incredible leader and just an absolute force in the field of career services. I feel so fortunate and excited to have her on the show today to talk about Career Everywhere in a liberal arts environment. Before I get into my questions, Sharon, is there anything else you’d like to add about yourself, your background, or your role at Wesleyan?

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

Sure. Thank you. I am a proud liberal arts college alumna myself. I graduated from Smith, as you indicated, I worked before coming to Wesleyan solely in big universities, mainly with graduate and professional school populations for many years. In terms of my role at Wesleyan, I’d just like to add that my proudest accomplishment from my almost 10 years at Wes is the team we’ve built. If I am a force, as you say, it’s because they are a force, did incredible work to prepare our students for what is ahead of them, and of course, building the necessary relationships around campus that make that happen. I pat myself on the back every day for hiring and retaining such great people.

Their great work is seen in our numbers. We typically have about 90% of students engaging with us on Handshake, and about the same percent of students use our office before they graduate. That’s all students across demographic groups, major departments, however you want to slice it.

Meredith Metsker:

Wow, you said 90%?

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

Mm-hmm.

Meredith Metsker:

That’s incredible. Wow. Yeah, definitely a testament to you and your team. Thank you for sharing that. Now, to kick us off, I’d like to ask you a question I’ve been asking all of our guests so far on this podcast, and that’s, what does Career Everywhere mean to you?

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

To me, the term refers to the relationships that we develop all over campus to make sure all of our partners, all our constituents understand the value that we provide in the career center, while at the same time feel excited and not nervous when students seek their guidance about career decision-making. For us, it’s a both/and, we want faculty and staff to be comfortable having these conversations while also asking, “Hey, have you been to the Career Center lately?” Both those things are important because even if students are having these career conversations everywhere, students should see us as a safe space where they can have conversations that they might be uncomfortable having with someone who hasn’t taken a vow of confidentiality.

All of the conversations that happen within the career center are confidential. They are behind closed doors. I always laugh that we buy Kleenex by the case because students bring so many experiences and identities to the table when they discuss their futures. It’s our job to help them uncover how that might be playing out, maybe without even their awareness. Sometimes when you’re having those conversations with somebody who you know can’t share that information, you can go a little deeper. At the same time, you want to get a lot of different opinions. You want to have a lot of different people’s ear around campus about what that future could look like. It really is a both/and not an either/or.

Meredith Metsker:

Okay. I love that. I think that’s a perfect segue into our topic today, which involves working with a lot of different groups to make sure that everybody can have those career conversations with students if called upon. On that note, let’s talk about Career Everywhere in a liberal arts environment, especially using those three A’s admissions, academic affairs, and advancement. Sharon, could you first give me an overview of what Career Everywhere looks like in a liberal arts institution and why it’s important?

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

Sure. It plays out, I have to say, in very different ways on different campuses, even campuses that on the surface look very, very similar. I recently finished a term as the president of the Liberal Arts Career Network, which is a 40-school consortium. In that group, we benchmarked everything we do against one another so that we’re all aware of best practices and trends among our peers. But I’d say the common denominator is that we all attract students who want to be broadly educated. They see the value of studying subjects that might not on the surface seem directly relevant to career outcomes. That’s true even among students who might be choosing a more “practical major” like computer science. They don’t want to just take computer science.

They want to take computer science and Korean dance and medieval poetry and government. But Com Sci aside, many of our students only have a vague idea of the utility of their majors. I think that’s led to this public notion that broadly educated, liberally educated students aren’t actually prepared for anything after graduation. We argue the opposite, which is that in a world where jobs are disappearing and being invented every day, students are best served with a curriculum that teaches them how to think analytically, creatively, and more importantly, just how to learn new things quickly. Learning how to learn is the number one skill you can learn right now.

To answer your question, on a liberal arts campus, Career Everywhere means that the community is helping students make sense of what they’re learning inside the classroom, outside the classroom, within their major, outside their major. Helping them connect the dots so that students are coming out with a coherent narrative about why they chose the course of study they did, why they chose to do all of the other things that they did. The Korean dance class, the medieval poetry class, why they played intramural lacrosse while they were involved in activism, while they were volunteering in their community. Thinking about how are they putting all of that together in a way that is meaningful to them.

Meredith Metsker:

Okay, you got me reflecting on my college experience. I was a journalism major, but I did other things, of course, including marching band and pep band, where I learned a lot of leadership skills and things like that that I still use to this day. It all plays into it.

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

It all plays into it. That’s right.

Meredith Metsker:

Okay. Now, I want to dig into the three A’s that you mentioned, so that’s again, admissions, academic affairs, and advancement. In your mind, what role do each of those groups play in implementing Career Everywhere in a liberal arts environment?

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

Yeah, so let’s start with admission, because I think particularly among schools with high selectivity, there was a time where we weren’t part of the conversation at all. A lot of the students we attracted came from families who had liberal arts educations within their ranks, and they had done just fine. They didn’t need the career center to convince them to apply. This was the kind of school they were going to apply to anyway. But as our campuses, all of our campuses have diversified. It is incumbent upon us to make sure that families who aren’t familiar with our educational model not only understand what it means academically, but are assured that their child won’t be living in their basement playing video games six month after graduation.

That’s the common trouble. That they will in fact be prepared to get into medical school, law school, business school, PhD programs, to go directly to work. That really, whatever they want to do, we are preparing them for the future. For the admission office, it’s become far more common for them to be coming to us and to helping to collaborate on that messaging. If I look at how many events a year I did with admission a decade ago versus how many I do now, it’s like night and day. It’s different for academic affairs. I think that’s an area that looks really different across different campuses. At Wesleyan, we’re part of academic affairs, but this is one of those models that plays out differently as the reporting structure.

There are institutions where the career office might be part of enrollment management. There are campuses where it might be part of advancement. At Wesleyan, we’re part of academic affairs, but that’s only been true since 2020. It doesn’t mean we’re part of the academic curriculum. I report to the provost, but we’re fully separate from the academic curriculum. Students are in no way required to use our office. They are in no way required to complete an internship. They’re not required to work on campus. They’re really not required to do any of those typical leverage that people pull to try to get students engaged in their career conversations.

For us, that makes Career Everywhere and the philosophy behind it even more important, because we need to make sure that students are aware of us and what we have to offer them. Part of that starts with the work we’re doing for admission. If you ask me just from a mercenary standpoint, what kind of skin in the game do you have working with admission? I want to convince the students while they’re still perspectives that they should be using the career office. It’s not just admission coming to me and saying, “Hey, we need you to be working with us to make sure that these families are really comfortable paying 80 plus grand a year to send their students to Wesleyan.” It’s about me saying, “Okay, I’m talking to institutional research.

We’re picking apart our data on engagement and on outcomes and on student satisfaction. They’re telling us the students who start using the office in their first or second year are much more satisfied with their experience with the career center.” I look at that and I think, well, okay, I don’t have in our type of environment, where there’s not a lot of requirements put on students, they’re not required to go to orientation. They’re not required to do much of anything outside what’s necessary as part of their major. That’s just the culture of our campus. That means we have to think really strategically about how we’re attracting students in getting them in. For me, working with the admission office is part of our overall marketing strategy of getting students aware of us early and often.

Of course, the next step of that then becomes working with everyone they come in contact with once they get to campus. We’re looking for every way that we can partner with individual faculty, with major departments, with our academic centers on any kind of programming that will help students get in the door. In terms of advancement, that work is very broad in scope. For a long time, we reported to advancement. We were part of that office. It’s not an uncommon model. I’m not sure if it’s the most common model among liberal arts colleges, but it’s not uncommon. The idea there is that if you have a really tight relationship with alumni parent relations in particular, then you’re helping smooth the road for students that are looking at different paths where you might have a critical mass of alums.

At Wesleyan, advancement includes fundraising, grant management, and alumni parent relations. We work with all those areas on various initiatives, from raising money for things like summer grants for internships for students, to targeting alumni to host career tracks at their workplaces, for our online job shadow program, hiring students for jobs and internships. It really runs the gamut.

Meredith Metsker:

Okay. I can definitely see how Career Everywhere fits into all of those things, like before students even get on campus and then also well after they leave when you’re working with alumni. Okay. Great. Well, that was an awesome overview. Thank you for that. I would love to dig into how you work.

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

Sure.

Meredith Metsker:

How you and your team work with each of those groups. Why don’t we start with admissions? I know that’s a big one for a lot of our listeners, is how does career services work with admissions efficiently and effectively? Let’s start there.

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

Right, and this one, I’ll put it out there, it can be a sore spot for people like me because it’s really so crucial to have a relationship with your admission office that allows for consistent messaging. There is nothing worse as a career director than finding out that your admission office is making promises that you can’t keep. Thankfully that does not happen at Wesleyan.

Meredith Metsker:

Oh, I bet.

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

I’m very grateful for that. But I hear about it from my colleagues from other institutions. I think it’s just so important to understand where you both are strategically. What is the vision of your current head of enrollment, whatever the title of that person might be, whoever who’s in charge, how are they looking to attract students? Who are the students they’re looking to attract? What is the type of messaging that they feel like they have to have? How can they leverage some of the things you’re already doing? It’s so important that they understand where you’re coming from as well so that you’re actively supporting each other’s message and each other’s work. I came from a business school environment immediately before coming to Wesleyan.

I think what’s interesting about having had that experience is that on a business school campus, where your outcomes from both the admission office and the career office go straight into the rankings, you have to work closely together. In my last job, my office as the director of the business school career center was literally next door to the director of admission, and she and I talked constantly. I came to Wesleyan knowing that a liberal arts environment is going to be night and day from a business school environment, in terms of how the career center was positioned, received, used strategically in their marketing, and it was night and day. It was completely different. But I came in primed to do this work with the admission office.

They’ve started working with me over time in a lot of different ways. The obvious is just directly speaking with prospective families. They have a number of events that they do over the course of the year where they’re bringing folks to campus just regularly through the standard programming. Some of the big holidays or big days for them when kids are off school, they’ll have me come in and give a talk. They’ve also started doing a number of online recruiting events, some of which are specifically targeted at students who are very unlikely to visit campus. They might be from rural areas, they might be low income and for whatever reason don’t want to take advantage of the program we have to bring low income students to campus.

There’s a lot of reasons why they might be asking me to come in and talk to a lot of these different groups and different modalities. Sometimes it’s just me talking about the career center and what we offer and outcomes and how students do internships and things along those lines. Sometimes I’m serving on a panel with the, say, director of our resource center. One of our class deans or other people around campus that are providing those necessary services. But one of the things that I think is really important about the messaging in those events is that we are incredibly transparent about our outcomes, and invite them to ask any question they have if they have concerns. We put our outcomes on our website. We follow the NAEP standards for reporting, and we really, really encourage that conversation.

I don’t shy away from that conversation. I’m talking about all the wonderful work that we do and putting a rosy glow on it. But then, I’m slapping up pie charts and numbers, because it’s usually a parent who’s an engineer or something that has the biggest questions. They like to see the analytics, they like to see the data, and I want to be able to meet those families where they are as well. We also started working with admission, actually even deeper. Just within the last couple of years we were asked to take on campus employment. We now, out of the career center, run, we administer is a better way of putting it, campus employment. All the students that are on work study funding, which is the tie to the admission office, because that gets really run by the financial aid office, but is inclusive of the students who are not on federal work study who are also working on campus.

That might be students who are on institutional aid, international students. There’s other groups and other words that aren’t technically work study, but about two thirds of our students end up working on campus at some point. It’s actually a huge population, but it also gives us one more tie to the admission office since they do administer the financial aid portion of that. It’s resulted in both myself and some of the folks in my office who work on the campus employment side getting to join some of their working groups and things like that. It’s really looking for all of those ways to be tightening that relationship with admission.

Meredith Metsker:

Okay. It sounds like there’s two main things that you do to partner with admissions. You collaborate with them on events. You speak at a lot of their events and visitation, things like that. Then, you also work with them on campus employment, which I think is the first time I’ve heard of that arrangement. That’s really neat.

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

Yeah, it’s not directly linked to admission so much as financial aid, but for us, financial aid lives within the same office. In terms of on a small campus, it’s all the same people. I think of it as a big Venn diagram of folks that are working together on different initiatives.

Meredith Metsker:

Right, and that’s another group that’s very, very important to prospective students.

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

Absolutely.

Meredith Metsker:

And current students too.

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

Yeah.

Meredith Metsker:

I would love to hear a little bit more about what you talk about in these presentations with parents, with prospective students. You mentioned that you talk about what the career center can offer, but could you just give us a little more detail on what you’re talking about in those events?

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

Right. Well, absolutely, because I think that there’s this misconception, particularly on the part of parents who might have gone to colleges that had career offices back 30 years ago or whatever. They have this image in their head of this little office on the outskirts of campus where there were some nice person in there that helped them update their resume and show them what kind of paper to print it out on before they started sending it out. These old fashioned views of what we do. To really talk about, we’re encouraging students to start coming into the career center starting from their first year. It’s not because we expect them to know what they want to do for the rest of their lives. It’s actually the opposite.

We want students to come in lost and confused because we know that most of our students did not start college with a specific career goal in mind. That those who did, and I’m thinking particularly of the large number of pre-meds that we have coming in, I have this running joke where so many of our students are pre-med, either because both their parents are doctors or they’ve never had a doctor in the family. But either way, if they did well in science in second grade somebody said to them they should be a doctor, and that’s never gotten out of their head because they’ve gotten such a positive response from every adult in their life ever since. Obviously, we send a lot of students to medical school and we have outstanding outcomes in that regard.

That’s one of the things I talk about, that our medical school outcomes are well above the national average, while also recognizing that that student who might be coming in pre-med doesn’t know what a biomedical engineer does. Doesn’t really understand what life is like if you’re working in public health. There’s all of these other things that you could be doing with that same set of interests. You just have never had the exposure. What I talk about is, what we’re trying to do with students is to force them to question some of those assumptions they came in with. Push them a little bit on how they’ve reached those decisions. Not to dissuade them, not to talk them out of taking organic chemistry.

But to encourage them, “Okay, well this is the set of interests that you have and this is how you’ve arrived at them.” You should consider going on this career track that we have coming up at a local hospital, where you can actually go in and meet some physicians and understand what that life really looks like, not from a patient viewpoint, what that looks like as hopefully. Each of our career advisors is responsible for doing career tracks every year that are aligned with their advising areas. The idea is to help broaden the student’s perspective of what they could be doing, not just with a major, because we really try to avoid that language. We don’t care what a student major’s in, even if they’re going to medical school, we don’t care what they major in.

But if this is your set of interests, we’re going to push you a little bit on those interests and try to get you to maybe look at some concentric circles outside that interest that you’re stating for us. Of course, I always say that most of our students are undecided. Then, the conversation goes more towards, what have you ruled out and why? When you’re looking at our course catalog, what are you most attracted to and why? Really helping them land on, what are some things I might want to explore further. When I’m talking about this into a room full of parents and their students, and it does tend to skew more towards parents, I have to say. What I’m trying to reassure them is that there are ample resources for students to be coming in right at the beginning so that they can take some time.

They’ve got some runway to really think about, what are my interests? If I land on something that I think I might want to explore further, say in a summer internship, what are all of the things that I need to do to prepare myself to do that? That they’ll have that support and that we have ways of students to be getting that support early and often. Whether that’s a nervous first year student coming in for the first time meeting with one of our student peer career advisors, or whether it’s the roommate of that student who’s unsure, who’s like, “I’m going to law school. I’ve been wanting to go to law school since I was eight years old.” They immediately schedule an appointment with our law advisor and immediately want to sign up for the track to a law firm in New York, this kind of thing.

Meeting every student where they are, but forcing all of them to really think about, where am I, where do I want to be? Making sure they feel supported. Not just up until graduation, but even after graduation, because we serve alumni and so do a lot of our peer schools.

Meredith Metsker:

Okay. I imagine that’s very comforting for prospective students and parents to hear that.

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

Yeah, it is indeed. Yes, admission loves it when we say that. It’s true, [inaudible 00:26:54].

Meredith Metsker:

I can imagine. Yeah. I can imagine, because it’s intimidating when you’re considering colleges. When you first start, you sometimes … I fall under the camp of I thought I knew what I wanted to do. I was an English major. I wanted to be a book publisher in New York City.

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

Oh, sure. Yup.

Meredith Metsker:

That was it for me. Then, yeah, after a year of English classes, I realized that I didn’t care for the way the classes were structured. I didn’t want to find the symbolism in the blue curtains. I didn’t care. I discovered what I really enjoyed was the stories and the storytelling. That’s what eventually led me to journalism. I was like, “Where can I still talk to people, hear stories, tell stories, do a bunch of reading, interviewing?” I probably would’ve gotten there faster if I had gone to the career center.

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

Well, it’s not only why we try to have those conversations, but why we try to engage a lot of people in those conversations as well. What I’m trying to avoid, and if I’m talking to anyone who’s maybe a little uncertain about these conversations, like, “Well, if a student is on a clear path, why would you want to talk them out of it?” Going to your publishing example, I remember talking to an alum. This goes back a number of years ago now, but this was an English major who had landed at the Plum Publishing job at the top publishing firm. It was the job that everybody wanted and the job she felt like she was supposed to have. She was miserable, and she couldn’t figure out why she was miserable. That is why we serve alumni, because we know for some students that’s what happens.

But at the same time, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. One of the other messages that we’re trying to send is that it’s not necessarily a bad thing to not have a five-year goal. If you’re not going to medical school, you probably shouldn’t have a five-year goal. Only because medical school lasts so long, graduate from medical school. But if you’re going out, especially going right into the work world and virtually any career area, it’s not going to be linear. If you look at the statistics now on people who are, traditionally aged students who are graduating, they’re going to have so many jobs, they’re going to have so many careers with so many different employers. It’s really about, am I going to learn something that I want to learn from this thing that I’m going to do?

Am I going to meet people that are going to broaden my professional network because that is going to be crucially important? Is it going to add value to my resume? I tell seniors, “If you can say yes to all three of those things, probably not a bad decision, but it’s not going to be appropriate decision.”

Meredith Metsker:

I love that so much because I’ve posted about this on LinkedIn a few times. I’ve never had a five-year career plan. I still don’t. What I do is I have my core values. If I am ever evaluating an opportunity, I’m like, “Well, does it have good storytelling opportunities? Does it have a good culture?” I have that list of core things, but it’s not a plan per se.

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

Exactly, and that’s so important. I think what’s nice about being in a liberal arts environment is that it gives those of us in the career world a certain amount of agency to have the conversation like that, because we don’t have academic departments that are concerned about their specific outcomes and are worried about siphoning as many students as possible into a particular major for a particular career path. That’s just not how our institutions operate. It does give us a certain amount of freedom in the career center to be having these conversations the way they need to be had right now. I worry about the students that have such a clear, well-defined goal because who knows if that job is still going to be there by the time they graduate?

Meredith Metsker:

That’s a good point. That’s a good point. Well, I think we’ve covered the admission side of things pretty well. Why don’t we go ahead and move on to academic affairs and how you and your team partner with them?

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

Yeah, so when we began reporting to academic affairs, I reorganized the office so that we have two to three person pods, as we call them, each led by an associate director. They handle different aspects of the office operations, but that includes liaising with our three academic divisions. We have one for arts and humanities, one for social science, and one for science and mathematics. Then, we also have a pod in the office that administers our campus employment program, employer relations, alumni, operations. We have all of these different groups. This organizational structure, it makes it clear who is responsible for building new and maintaining existing relationships with faculty.

This work overlaps with that partnership with advancement since on a campus as small as ours alumni are intimately involved with everything, from career related program to recruiting. That feeds into some of the work that we’re doing with academic partners as well. For instance, someone from the theater department reaches out and they’re interested in doing a panel discussion of their alumni. There’s different levels of involvement we have with those programs. We might have a department that comes to us and says, “We have a career related program that we’ve already put together. We’ve called alums who we know, we’ve booked a room in our building, but we’d like a little help with the marketing.” Great. We’ll put it up in the Handshake.

We can push that out. The level of sophistication that we can have with marketing is a bit better since we adopted uConnect. It feeds into our website as well, so that if a student knows they’re interested in say the arts, they can go onto that section of our website. They can see the related, not only jobs and internships, but the upcoming events, including with their academic department going right into that webpage. It’s not a mystery. They don’t have to go digging into Handshake for that kind of stuff anymore, which is nice. Then, in some other cases, we have our advisors who are saying, “Okay, if I look at all of the majors that are within my division, I feel like we have a really good relationship with this department and this department.

But I understand they’ve had some turnover and this other one. The person I used to work with most closely just retired. They’re doing an open house for prospective majors next week. I’m going to go. I’m going to network with the faculty. I’m going to try to build some new relationships.” The idea is that everyone in the office knows these are the academic departments, these are the centers, these are the staff offices, the athletic teams, like everything that I personally am responsible for or that my pod is responsible for. We’re going to be going back and forth between us to make sure, not like every semester you’re going to hit every academic department, but thinking about where have we had successful collaborations that we can build upon. Where have we never had a collaboration, and maybe we should start.

Can we use some of those success stories in some of the departments over here to be building relationships over there? I think one thing that’s great about Wesleyan is that we are pretty interdisciplinary for our type of institution. We have a number of interdisciplinary majors, and that helps these pods as well thinking about where all those crossovers and where can they be working with faculty. Another thing that is interesting about our campus is that a very large percentage of our students double major or they major and minor, or they’re adding a certificate program. When they’re doing this, they’re not always doing it in ways where they’re really closely aligned. We’ll have a student who comes in and sits down and you’ll say, “Okay, well, you’re a junior. What are you majoring in?” “Oh, art history and biology.”

That’s not uncommon at Wesleyan. No one even blinks at a combination, because that’s just part and parcel with being as broadly educated as our students are interested in being. It’s also not uncommon for the student not to want to actively use either of those majors after graduation. They might be interested in something else entirely, and that’s fine too. It makes it a really dynamic environment, both working ourselves with the students, but also working with the faculty because they know as well as we do that there may or may not be a correlation between the major itself and the outcome. Not everybody in the English department is going to go work in publishing or become an English professor. They’re going to do other things, and we need to be prepared to help the students figure out what that’s going to be.

Meredith Metsker:

Okay. I imagine that the kind of pod concept that you were talking about, so correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s a pod for each kind of academic department. Correct?

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

For each division. Arts and all the arts and humanities departments are under one division. All of our social science departments, so government, economic, social study, they fall under another division. Then, chemistry, physics, biology, math, computer science, they fall under another division. We have pods for each of the divisions, but our advising [inaudible 00:36:44].

Meredith Metsker:

Okay. I was thinking, I imagine it’s nice with the pods set up that you can really build more long term, in-depth relationships with the division that you’re working with.

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

Absolutely.

Meredith Metsker:

They get used to working with the same people in career services.

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

Yes. No, exactly. Each of our divisions has a divisional dean who is a faculty member. It’s one of those rotating positions where every few years there’s somebody that’s pulled from the faculty to become a divisional dean. It’s really building relationships with the divisional deans as well, and making sure that they’re then telling the departments, “Oh, hey, have you thought about partnering with a career center?”

Meredith Metsker:

That’s that Career Everywhere concept.

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

Career Everywhere, that’s right. That’s right.

Meredith Metsker:

Yup. All right. I’d like to move on to advancement now. How are you and your team partnering with them?

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

Yeah, and as I said, our advancement office, they cover a lot of ground. There’s a lot of different ways in which we do that. I would say that if I think about all of our peer schools as well, more broadly than Wesleyan, because for us it goes another way back to admission but a big way that a lot of us are partnering with advancement is on fundraising for new facilities, so I’ll start there. As career centers have become a bigger and bigger part of the admission messaging, it’s also become important to have a physical space that is representative of the new importance as part of that messaging and as part of the campus community. I remember my first week on the job at Wesleyan in 2013. It was this rainy day, and the woman who was the head of my advising team at the time said, “We’re going to take a walk.”

I’m like, “In the cold? In the rain? Seriously?” She said, “Nope, get your umbrella. We’re going because you need to see, you need to understand.” She took me to the old career center location because I inherited an $11 million career center, this big beautiful space right in the center of campus next to the dining hall. I always laugh that students can’t eat without seeing the career center. We used to be in the basement of a dorm on the outskirts of campus, and it was just representative of the importance on campus at that time. My predecessor, who proceeded to then move to Colgate and build an even bigger career center, just saying, he had done the work with advancement, doing all the fundraising, doing all the strategic planning.

Thinking about what could this look like working with the architect, how should this physical space be arranged? The way that the physical space is arranged, and we see this on our campus, and we’re seeing this on other campuses that are in the process of either gut renovating existing facilities, which is what happened to Wesleyan, or building afresh spaces that are allowing for community. The career center at Wesleyan is an event space, really. If you walk in, it’s like a two-story space. When you first walk in, there’s like a mezzanine level where the career offices are, where the advising offices are. There’s a coffee bar in the corner, and all of our tables are on wheels so that we can react on a dime to different types of programming.

We can whip all the furniture out and get a hundred people in for a reception. Then, we can whip it all back in and just have road seating in front of a huge screen if we want to beam in an alumni panel. If people all over the world talking about what it’s like to get a Fulbright, or to work in the foreign service, or something like that. Then, we can put them all back to just tables and with chairs around tables that’s more of a study space. We’ve actually become a really popular student study space. We welcome that because we want students to feel comfortable in the career center and not see it as a scary place. You can get free coffee in the career center. You get a lot of natural light.

Meredith Metsker:

That’s a big drop.

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

They have two-story window, so you have all this natural light and free caffeine and comfortable seating.

Meredith Metsker:

Next to the dining hall.

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

Next to the dining hall, right in the center of campus. The idea is you’re trying to really pave the way to make it easy for students to be engaging with us, even if they’re not quite ready to have a difficult conversation or even update their resume yet. But advancement was a huge part of that, going back to your original question. I would say the other big fundraising initiative that we’ve been actively involved in since even before my arrival, and that a lot of our peer campuses are as well, is in raising money for students to be able to be funded by the institution to take summer internships that might not be well funded. When you’re coming from a liberal arts campus, probably a disproportionate number of our students relative to say, it’s a more technical university.

They’re interested in fields that don’t pay their interns very well, if they pay them at all, legally or not. We have a college of film at Wesleyan. We have a lot of students who go into film, the arts theater, they’re interested in nonprofit work. They’re interested in social justice and activism. These are not things that are going to pay them enough money for the summer to live in New York or San Francisco or any other expensive city. We have a grant program where students can apply for summer grants to be able to do those internships. That does involve a very close collaboration with advancement because it involves constant, relentless fundraising. Another initiative that we started that I think was really, really important was we have a career development grant program, where students who … They just need a little bit of money.

I need to travel to get to an academic conference to present a poster or I have an interview at a Wall Street Bank and I have nothing to wear. They can come to us to up $500 during their four years at Wesleyan, and they can split it up however they like. We track it on the back end, to get things like an interview suit or a train ticket. Just those little expenses that for a high need student, someone who’s on a full ride at Wesleyan, they’re not going to be able to go buy an interview suit. That’s another big one.

Meredith Metsker:

Okay. How does it work in-

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

Go ahead.

Meredith Metsker:

Oh, go ahead. I was going to ask you how it works in terms of working with alumni.

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

No, I was going to move on with alumni relations.

Meredith Metsker:

All right. We’re on the same wavelength.

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

We’re on the same wavelength. In terms of working more directly with alumni, I think it’s partnering with them largely on programming. What we’ve really moved to over the years is having a specific list of programs, that really where the alums going to engage depends on, well, for starters, just how famous they are, I guess is where I would start. Because sometimes we’ll have an alum who’s a big enough name, where we’re like, we need to figure out a way of getting as many students as possible access to this person. A good example is Thomas Kail, who was the Hamilton producer, worked with Lin-Manuel Miranda. They’re both Wes alums. Tommy Kail had agreed to do a fireside chat for us. Basically, what that meant was we said, “Okay, webinar style.”

Because we want as many students as possible to be able to jump into that conversation. He had actually spoken physically in the career center before, this was during COVID that he did the fireside chat. But then we thought, well, we don’t want this to be an all adult thing, so we talked to the theater department and we had them recommend a student to moderate the conversation and actually ask the questions. For the students and alums there-

Meredith Metsker:

What a cool opportunity.

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

Yeah, exactly. Right. For the students, I think, who are watching, so even though they didn’t get a direct access, they got to see a fellow student moderate that conversation. For the really high level alums, and that’s typically a conversation with us in advancement about what is their level of engagement with some of these people who we know that the students really want to get at. That’s a conversation and a negotiation for that type of event. For those that don’t quite reach that threshold, but we might say, “Well, we’re not going to get 200 students who might be interested in hearing this, but we will probably going to get 40.” We don’t want to overwhelm the alum. We have basically different layers of programming for how many students we think is going to want to engage, up to and including one-on-one engagement.

We have different modalities that we do that as well. We’re working with advancement. Part of it is people that we work with and know. It could be folks who’ve worked with us on recruiting in the past. It could be our own former students who have graduated and done really well, and they’re turning 30 and they want to give back this kind of thing. But often it’s a conversation with advancement about, “Okay, here’s an industry where we’re looking at building some capacity. We’re putting an event together. Is there somebody you would recommend?” Maybe someone who’s become active in one of our professional networks. Something along those lines.

Meredith Metsker:

Okay. Got you. I’m curious, what advice do you have for other career services leaders in liberal arts institutions who want to better partner with admissions or academic affairs or advancement to implement Career Everywhere?

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

Yeah. I would say look for your existing champions on campus and start there. It can be hard on campuses that stress academics for their own sake, for career staff to find people who are willing to talk up their mission and work. But they’re out there, and I think particularly with younger faculty who made themselves, have had a hard time on the job market, it is a rough road out there for people who are looking for tenure track faculty jobs, and virtually any discipline right now. If you’re talking to someone who’s still pre-tenure, they remember how hard it was to find a job. Even if they managed to land a sweet opportunity on your campus, it probably wasn’t easy for them.

Chances are, if you have enough of these conversations and really build your network beyond the really vocal faculty, the ones who are standing up and railing at a faculty meeting kind of thing, because they’ve had tenure for 20 years, there can be some great champions there too. I’m not trying to throw them under the bus. Some of our greatest partners at Wesleyan are longtime tenured faculty, but I think if you’re starting afresh, I wouldn’t ignore the younger ones. You have to be careful how much you’re asking them to do, because they’re typically, if they’re pre-tenure, really overwhelmed with their responsibilities for teaching, for research, knowing that tenure timeline is on the horizon there.

You don’t want to ask them to do much, but to ask to just refer students and to just build the relationship over time, that’s great. I think if you happen to have a senior administration, your president’s office, your cabinet level folks that is publicly supportive of your work, that’s great, but it’s really not a substitute for grassroots community building. I don’t think just the director can do that. Especially if you’re someone like me who was a new director coming into a liberal arts environment from someplace else, I think it can’t just be you trying to build all those relationships. You really need to make sure that your whole staff is involved on campus. I do think there’s a lot of value add to knowing which relationships are falling to which people so that everybody is being held accountable to.

Meredith Metsker:

Okay, it’s that pod system coming into play again.

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

Yeah, it’s working for us.

Meredith Metsker:

All right. Well, I want to be cognizant of our time here, so I think I’ll start wrapping this up, but Sharon, is there anything else about this topic that you would like to add? Any questions I should have asked?

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

I’d just add that if I were to give advice to somebody who was just coming into a leadership position in a liberal arts career center, or even somebody who was coming in in any position to a liberal arts career center, I’d say to get to know the people who are doing your job at your peer schools. My peers at what admission would see as our competitor schools have been an amazing resource to me over the years. I can’t express how much I value those relationships. I really encourage my staff to get to know the folks that are doing their jobs at other schools as well. It’s the high tide lifts all boats mentality.

Meredith Metsker:

I love that. That’s great advice. Sharon, speaking of advice, if people want to learn more from you or connect with you, where’s a good place for them to do that?

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

Yeah, LinkedIn, I would say is the best place to connect. You can certainly find my email address on our website as well. If you’re interested in learning more just about my career education philosophy, I’d recommend the aforementioned TEDx talk or my class on Coursera, which is a blown up version of the TEDx talk. It’s called Career Decisions from Insight to Impact. That’s offered as a MOOC.

Meredith Metsker:

Okay, and I’ll make sure to include a link to that in the show notes for those of you that are listening. Then, Sharon, to close us out, so I like to do this answer a question, leave a question thing. I’ll ask you a question that our last guest left for you, and you’ll leave a question for the next guest. Our last guest was Joe Catrino of Trinity College, and he wants to know your best student story. Specifically he said, “I want to know that student story because I think we all have one or some variation of it. It’s that story that either made you want to get into this work, or maybe it’s kept you in this work.” What’s your best student story?

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

I’m laughing because I know Joe. In fact, he served on a panel I moderated a week before last at the AAC&U annual meeting at San Francisco, so it’s funny. What made me do-

Meredith Metsker:

Small world.

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

It is a small world. What made me do this work was that I had had four careers by the time I turned 25. When I took that first job in a career office, even before my 26th birthday, one of my friends from college said, “You’re the only person I know who actually enjoys looking for a job.” He wasn’t wrong. I think a lot of us in the field are by nature introspective and want to share lessons learned. I even did my doctoral dissertation on the early career experiences of Gen X. I think that every time I meet with a student, I’m trying to get at that, trying to get them to be introspective and to really think about who am I, what do I want out of life, and how is my work life going to play a part in that? That’s really actually what my Coursera course is, it is helping people unpack that.

If I were to synthesize this into one student interaction, which might be what Joe was getting at, I remember years and years ago I was working at a law school career office, and I had a student come in just in tears. There’s just tears running down her face. She was borderline hysterical. She had just gotten her first-year grades and they were terrible. In law school, that’s a really big deal, because it really affects the career outcomes if you don’t do well academically. She was talking about how miserable she was in law school, and she hated all of her classes and everything else. I finally said, “Let’s take a step back. Why did you decide to come to law school?” “Because I didn’t want to go to medical school.”

I think I mentioned this in my TED Talk too, for some students, especially students who appear on our liberal arts campus, as it comes down to, they’ve been given two or three options. They’re getting a broad education, but at the end of the day, the expectation is they’re going to do law school, medical school, or become an investment banker. It’s on us to help them broaden that, and that’s what keeps me in it.

Meredith Metsker:

Oh, I love that so much. I hope she went on to do amazing things.

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

So do I.

Meredith Metsker:

Well, Sharon, what question would you like to leave for the next guest?

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

I’ll ask what I think is a provocative question. A trustee of your college decides to give you $5 million for the career center, how do you spend it?

Meredith Metsker:

I like that. All right. I’m excited to hear the answer to that one.

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

So am I.

Meredith Metsker:

Cool. Yeah, I’ll be sure to share it with you. Great. Well, Sharon, thank you so much for coming on the podcast with me today and having this conversation. I think there are just so many golden nuggets throughout this talk, but I am really excited to see how our listeners and viewers respond. I think they’ll get a lot of actionable advice that they can immediately begin applying in their own career centers. Thank you very much again.

Sharon Belden Castonguay:

Thank you for having me.

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