How Career Services Can Help Drive Enrollment

Learn how Illinois Institute of Technology drove their highest enrollment in about 40 years by centering their recruitment strategy around career readiness.

Apple Podcasts badgeSpotify Podcasts badgeYouTube Music badge

Amid a national decrease in higher education enrollment, Illinois Institute of Technology drove their highest enrollment in about 40 years in Fall 2022 by centering their recruitment strategy around career readiness

Thy Nguyen, Associate Vice Provost for Student Engagement and Career Services at Illinois Tech, and his team partnered with colleagues in enrollment management to build a virtual career center full of resources both teams use to recruit, enroll, and retain students—and set them up for success after graduation.

Why? Because today’s learners (and their parents) care deeply about the return on investment in higher education. Rather than operate in siloes, Illinois Tech’s career services and enrollment teams combined resources to tell a compelling story about the ROI of a degree from their institution. 

In this episode, Thy shares:

  • How IIT recognized the need/opportunity to make career resources the lynchpin of their recruitment efforts
  • An overview of the partnership between career services and other teams across campus (and early results)
  • Specific strategies and tactics used by enrollment teams to promote career resources
  • How creating a campus culture of career readiness has impacted retention efforts in addition to new student enrollment
  • How IIT uses outcomes data as a key selling point in recruitment marketing

Resources from the episode:


Ashley Safranski: Welcome, everyone. My name is Ashley Safranski. I lead marketing here at uConnect, and I am super delighted to be joined by my friend, Thy Nguyen, of Illinois Institute of Technology. He and I are going to have a great discussion about how IIT really positioned career services, career resources, information, et cetera, and really made it the focal point of their enrollment strategy. And as a result, saw record enrollment because of it. So, Thy, do you want to go ahead and introduce yourself?

Thy Nguyen: Yeah. Thank you, Ashley. I’m really happy to be here. Again, my name is Thy Nguyen, Associate Vice Provost for Student Engagement and Career Services at IIT. Been at the university for just over three years now, and it’s certainly been a blur. And we’ll dive in a little bit more into the areas that I oversee as well. But in summary, they include not only career services, but many of the student life functions at the university, including residence life, campus life, now pre-college, and some of the wraparound support services through one of our scholarship programs. And really what we’re trying to do is connect the dots on all those things as it relates to career services, career development, enrollment, and retention. So looking forward to the conversation, and great to see some friends, as I look at the participants as well, that are joining in.

Ashley Safranski: Yeah, I love it. Thanks, Thy. So Thy, I am super pumped for this conversation, because as you know, as you and I have been chatting, I worked 10 years or so in new student recruitment at a large public institution within an enrollment management function. And even though it’s been five years or so since I was last on campus, even at that time, questions about value, ROI, outcomes, job placement, career-ready, whatever, you name it, far and away the number one thing that I personally and our staff was asked about, and we tried to talk about. That was five years ago.

Fast forward, now, and I think we would all agree that it’s heightened. The prospective students and parents, they care about it even more so now, which was hard to believe, even as I think about back then. It’s the prevalent thing for, will I pursue post-secondary at all? And then if I do decide to, where? So I think this conversation is super timely and I’m just delighted to have you here.

So you kind of mentioned, Thy, a little bit about what you oversee and the different functions in your role, but I always love to kick things off with just a little bit of background and context setting. So maybe you can talk a little bit about your career services team, where you’re situated organizationally, IIT in general, just anything that you think would be helpful to share.

Thy Nguyen: Yeah, thanks, Ashley. Happy to give a little bit more context and details behind that. So the career services team here is right around actually eight people, but I like to think really the career services team is actually 20 plus people because when I look at all the areas that roll up to me so to speak, we’re all focused on one thing in many ways and that’s the student experience. And really I think at IIT or Illinois Tech, that’s how we’re really trying to define career services and career development. It’s about the experience.

We believe that the myriad of experiences students can gain through what we often think about internships and co-op is important, but also in other ways, research, being involved in student organizations, leadership, volunteering, the list goes on and on. So that’s how we like to think about it. In terms of where we’re housed, we are housed within the enrollment management function. That is relatively new.

I believe that change was made right before I joined as well. So in many ways I think it was a very strategic move to think about it. I don’t think we knew or I knew exactly how it would be positioned or what it would look like before I joined and once I joined in those first few weeks. But it quickly took shape as well in terms of the focus on how to position career services and how it, in this case, ties into the enrollment management and recruitment functions.

Ashley Safranski: We’ll get into this a little bit too. I think at the surface it’s easy for someone to hear like, oh, well you’re under the enrollment management umbrella, so of course there’s alignment. But I think, as you and I have talked, and I think anyone who’s worked on campus knows, totally, it’s not just a given that there’s automatic collaboration and partnership based on where you’re situated. So we can dig into that a little bit.

Can you share just even a little bit about your journey and your background? I know you spent a number of years at Northwestern, but I would love just to hear, you oversee so much now, but just the progression to how you got to where are now.

Thy Nguyen: Yeah, happy to do so. I think in many ways it’s somewhat traditional, and in some ways non-traditional. I started at Northwestern, at least in my higher ed career. Spent 11, 12 years there, actually building my career and worked both within a student affairs organizational setting. So because we’re talking a lot about organizational setting today, I think that’s important. And that was within the central career services space. At that point in time I was known as university career services.

And then moved over to the academic side, where I was with the McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern, and being a part of the co-op and internship programs there. So really being on the academic side in addition to the student affairs side. And then roughly 10 years ago, it goes so fast, made the move to my first director-level position at University of Illinois at Chicago, UIC.

And I had a wonderful experience there in terms of really working with the team and integrating career services there within a large public university setting. And that really led me to Illinois Tech, IIT, just over three years ago. So a little bit of private university, well, actually a lot of private university experience and quite a bit of public university experience as well. The only thing I will say is it’s all been in Chicago, and I love it. But I keep getting a little bit further from home in terms of my commute, so that’s probably the hardest thing these days.

Ashley Safranski: Oh, yeah. No, that’s great. I appreciate you sharing that. Pretty remarkable career so far. So let’s work backwards. So we’re talking about record enrollment, which is just what a fantastic outcome, and kudos to you and the whole team at IIT. I think amid everything that’s going on and all of the headlines that we all read, to be one of the few institutions that can say, “Hey, we increased enrollment this past year,” I think is pretty remarkable. So hats off to you all.

I think it’d be great just to start with some stage setting. What was the problem? I think we know the problem, but how did you all think about the problem that you were trying to solve? How was that problem identified? What was the timing like? So if you think back, what was it, a year, a little over a year ago, Thy?

Thy Nguyen: Mm-hmm.

Ashley Safranski: Okay, so maybe-

Thy Nguyen: Exactly.

Ashley Safranski: … that’s the place to get going.

Thy Nguyen: So this started really, I mean, definitely about a year ago. And like all of us probably on this call, we were coming off of, well, we still are COVID. And all of our enrollments were impacted by that. And not only deferrals, but a lessening of the application pool and so forth. And students really, I think taking a hard look at higher ed in a really difficult time. And I think as a team, and when I say as a team, the enrollment team plus some, we realized that we needed a new strategy. That what we were doing wasn’t going to work in this environment.

And what’s interesting is we had this framework that was sitting around and we were starting to build on it called Elevate. And it’s been in existence for, probably, at least five years, and I certainly didn’t come up with it, one of my dear colleagues did. And we decided to jump on it and really reframe what Elevate meant for the university. And I think the reason we did that is, looking at the students that attend IIT, we realized we have a fairly high percentage of first-gen students, a fairly high percentage of students that are Pell eligible. And I’m obviously talking about the undergrad population.

But even at the grad population, it’s definitely more on the international side, there were some common themes. And the most common theme was students were thinking about jobs and careers, and thinking about social mobility as well. And we’re one of the leading institutions in the country from raising a family’s socio-economic standing, at least in the state of Illinois, one of the top. And so we thought we had something that we could really jump off of and that was Elevate, which is really focused on everything co-curricular in terms of the experience.

And where we landed, and it’s still continuing to evolve as we operationalize things, is we’re guaranteeing experiences for students. We’re tracking it to the best of our ability. And we’re going to continue to pour resources into that as well, in making sure that students get that experience at Illinois Tech, in ways that are interesting to them. And it’s all about career readiness as well.

On top of that, and this started when I started Illinois Tech, we also moved in a position through uConnect’s help, where we really wanted to focus on career outcomes as well. And that was kind of the first move we made even before anything else. And now we’re all in, in terms of really making sure that we publicize our career outcomes, they’re front and center. And now we’re moving into a position where, even though they’re strong, we want to continue to improve our career outcomes and get buy-in from the colleges at the university and how they’re going to help us to do that as well. So that’s a major focus for us going forward, amongst other things.

Ashley Safranski: Yeah, absolutely. I want to talk more about outcomes within, when you were identifying, “Okay, enrollment, like many institutions we’re struggling and we’ve identified that, hey, our students care about career readiness, we have a high percentage of students who need additional resources.” And maybe just dig deeper into what was needed to make this institutional decision that we’re going to go all in on career readiness in terms of new student recruitment, and legitimately make our whole pitch, center the whole strategy around career and career resources? Who was a part of that? And what did those conversations look like and sound like?

Thy Nguyen: It was definitely a team effort. It was definitely the associate vice provost or president for our undergraduate enrollment at the time, it was certainly me, it was our AVP for strategic initiatives, or VP for enrollment, the top leadership as well, the president and provost. In some ways it was a big bet, but I think it was a safe bet.

We had some inherent strengths, certainly, being in fields that are high demand, but I don’t think we were doing a good job of talking about it. And it’s a competitive space, I mean, even in Chicago. And we knew that we needed to really talk about something that distinguished ourselves as well in terms of the student experience.

I think the other advantage we had was I like to think of ourselves as kind of a Goldilocks type of institution. We’re not too big and not too small. And what that allowed us to do, I still think it could be done, even if you’re small or you’re big, but it allowed us to quickly shepherd resources and get buy-in as well, organizationally.

It’s a complex organization, but still small enough where a lot of people and you can really connect the dots. So I think it all came down to really the relationships that we already had built in. And to your point,” Ashley, it’s easy to say, Oh well we’re housed in enrollment management.” Well, that’s a super big division here at the university, probably one of the biggest at the university. And just like you could be housed in other areas like student affairs, you could not know people, not talk to anyone in other areas. So regardless of where you’re housed, I think there needs to be a lot of intentionality in thinking about that strategy, and how you position career services, career outcomes when it comes to the overall recruitment strategy.

Ashley Safranski: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for digging in a little on that. I think there’s two sides to all decisions. There’s like, we’ve made the decision about the strategy, which is great, we’re going to do that, sounds like the right plan. And then there’s execution, which is a whole thing. Just getting to the decision is half the battle.

Can you talk us through how you thought about executing on that strategy? What was it like partnering with admissions and recruitment or admission counselors? Technologies that you all really relied on or just anything that gets into the weeds a little bit.

Thy Nguyen: I will say it was a whirlwind, especially at the beginning, because as you might recall actually, we did it relatively quickly. I don’t know if it was in record time, but when we made the decision to go all in with uConnect and to focus on Elevate, we were fighting a deadline. And that deadline was the admission, application process, which was last January. So we didn’t really start the build until November I believe, because I think we really agreed to things in October. And it was a fast build, so you had to shepherd a lot of people really, really quickly.

And I think what made it work is we had the right people in place within my org, a few key people within career services and the campus life team were central to making this work. So I don’t know if it’s a little bit of happenstance or we had good vision, but we had the right people with the right talent to help move it along. And then getting our office of technology services on board, too, quickly.

Because a challenge that we were running into is we were a little bit off cycle in terms of we have this project management function at the university, which actually works well but we were off cycle in terms of wanting to get this done. But folks quickly realized that this was a priority for the university, and rallied around it, in terms of focusing on the strategy, getting what we call the portal up and syncing it up in terms of their mission strategy as well. So lots of meetings, almost daily. It was a quick build and it was certainly fast. We had to pivot multiple times as we figured out what we can do and can’t do and so forth as well.

Ashley Safranski: So lots of meetings, that doesn’t shock me at all. But I think that’s great. I think it would be helpful, maybe, I might just pull up because we were talking about this mysterious platform or page, and Thy, maybe as I do that, you can talk about when we refer to Elevate, like our Elevate portal, platform, whatever, uConnect, we can just show what that looks like. So I will share my screen and maybe you can talk through it a little bit.

Thy Nguyen: Yeah, so let me start with Elevate, because I see that question in a chat, and that’s definitely a good, relevant question. So Elevate, one way to think about it, it’s elevating your future. And so it’s just as much of a catchy term as it is what we believe in. And it’s really about making sure that students have access to, in some ways, a marketplace of opportunities and experiences. That’s own way to think about it.

But where we’re taking it a little bit further is making sure that there’s a proper mentoring and advising that coincides with that marketplace to ensure that students are mindful of all the opportunities that are available. So one of the things that I like to talk about when I frame Elevate for various folks is that I think universities in general are really good actually at offering experiences and opportunities. I think we’ve done that well for many, many years.

I think what we’re not good at is making those resources apparent to students as well. And this is our attempt to do that. And we quickly realized that uConnect was going to be a big part of that strategy, that this could be our central portal or landing pages for the experiences at Illinois Tech. So as Ashley scrolls, you can kind of see the major categories here, and we define it by resources. And you can see, from an enrollment standpoint, this is very strategic, in terms of having these breakdowns by admitted undergrad, current undergrad, and so forth as well, and then major stakeholders.

Success team, this is something we’re still building out as well, but making sure folks were aware of the resources that are available at the university. And then I think what many of us are more knowledgeable about is the actual opportunities. But what we’re really trying to do I think in terms of career services is thinking about career services a little bit differently. Hence, you see study away or study abroad there, research, we even have featured classes as well.

And then what’s really unique is what we call Blueprint, that’s under “Develop your plan.” And this was developed in-house and we’re using uConnect, the Elevate portal, to house it. And Blueprint is really a document that starts the planning process for students, where they can start envisioning how their co-curricular experiences can coincide with classes and so forth. And so we’re utilizing that and all this information is fed into Salesforce as well, once they fill it out, so we have a record of it.

And so we’re just getting going on it. I think it all looks good, but operationalizing it is hard work. And I have to admit, we’re still doing it, but we got to stay focused on that. So that’s a little bit on the Elevate landing page. But this has gained a lot of traction at the university, even now, certainly, at the beginning. We had town halls at the very beginning, recently we sent out information on our career outcomes to the deans, just as a reminder, that got good traction as well. So there’s a lot of awareness of the site currently, and of what we’re trying to do.

Ashley Safranski: I think you really hit a nail on the head when you said, typically, traditionally, I think what’s being done really well is there’s not a shortage of resources or opportunities or experiences. It’s how to find them, how to navigate them, and make sure that students have equitable access, they can access those resources 24/7, 365. So I think that’s a really important thing, is I think about, if I put my admissions and recruitment hat back on and I put myself back on campus, we as recruitment staff, were just inundated all the time with talking points for specific departments or colleges or resources, or, “Show this when you talk to a student interested in business, but here’s an outcome for a cool story to talk about for a student from the history department or whatever.”

It’s super hard even as an internal staff member to keep track of all of these different resources, opportunities, data points, et cetera. So I would love to hear how was the portal received from the admission staff? I know if it were me, “I’d be like thank goodness I can just go to one spot, and I can basically start all of my conversations from here.” But would love to hear more about that, and just I think, what types of trainings and conversations did you have with the admissions team on how to use your portal?

Thy Nguyen: There are numerous conversations, and I would call it more strategic sessions. I think one of the things we realized pretty early on is we needed the admissions team buy-in to make this work as well. So certainly at the leadership level, there was involvement there at least in terms of the ideation and so forth that happened. But then it came down to the execution and getting this off the ground. And one of the things we did actually, now, I remember fairly well is as we were building the site, we were updating the admissions team of what we were doing. We were also talking to them about their ideas. And to a certain extent, before we went live, they were some of our first beta testers as well.

So they were a core group. Certainly, I think some of our students who worked for us in various areas, they were also beta testers as well. But we were very intentional about making sure that they were there, and they offered some really valuable input in terms of how they saw it as well. And then, I can’t remember exactly the timeline now, but right when we went live, or shortly after we went live, probably a little before, we sat down with the entire admissions team as well and walked them through the vision for the site, how to utilize it, and some things to pay attention to as well. So there’s some training that went into it.

Ashley Safranski: Yeah, absolutely. So it definitely sounds like it was built in partnership, right?

Thy Nguyen: Mm-hmm.

Ashley Safranski: From the jump and they were a part of the process versus, “Hey, here’s this thing that you need to talk about.” I think that always helps getting people along with the cause. There are some good questions about promoting, how is enrollment promoting the site? And I know I was going to ask you about how is the portal, or how are you promoting career resources at different stages of the admissions funnel? So there’s trying to just generate inquiries and applications to securing deposits. And just like anything else, I think there’s different strategies and tactics used, so I’d love to hear more about how they’re promoting it and then any specifics related to different points of the funnel.

Thy Nguyen: So I’ll start with prospective students and how we promote it and how we are promoting, and then I’ll pivot to current students as well, if that’s okay. So I like to think we were pretty strategic when we launched in thinking about it as prospective students. We actually went live for prospective students before we went live for current students. So that was a part of our overall strategy and timeline. And we wanted to make sure that the content was synced up to really connect with those prospective students.

And in terms of the admissions information going out to those students, we were very strategic as well in terms of the timing of when we made students aware of the Elevate site, or even the Elevate initiative. So it was very strategic and very much based on timing as well. And that continued through much of the spring semester. We, actually, because of timing and because of where we were in the semester, we really didn’t make a big push to current students until later in the spring. That’s partially probably because of bandwidth and staffing, but, also, strategic in that we wanted to focus on prospective students first, before we felt ready for current students.

And the way that we envisioned it, and these things constantly evolved, is we see the Elevate portal or uConnect as kind of a cycle in terms of where it’s going to focus as well. There’s always going to be a focus on current students, but where we really are thinking about content, delivery, and where we’re going to make a push is going to change throughout the year.

So fast forward to now, November, which is hard to believe, because it’s still pretty nice in Chicago, and we’re definitely focused on current students right now. And making sure we keep Elevate front and center for our current students. So one of the things that we just recently did is we’re having Elevate month, and we’re tying it in to National Career Development month, which happens to be in November. So we did a big kickoff, actually in October, tied it in with Family Weekend, got a bunch of T-shirts.

Ashley Safranski: Always, got to have the T-shirts. Yeah.

Thy Nguyen: Yeah, with the Elevate logo, one that has a little bit more austere look to it, nice design, a little bit more cartoonish, serve all audiences. And held a big kickoff in one of our red facilities that we called The Bog, invited families and students there. Had a chance to talk about Elevate there, and then kind of continued that theme throughout the weekend. And now through this month as well, we’re hosting a number of career services events, large and small. And we’re framing it all around Elevate, and that’s how we keep it front and center.

And certainly the portal is a big part of that. Folks know about it, even folks on the technical side these days. I was just on a call this morning, more about single sign-on and some changes we’re making, and the Elevate portal was one of the systems we were looking at. So it’s really interesting to see how far we’ve come in just a year, where it’s just kind of talked about normally as other systems on campus from, in this case, more of a technical, security side of things.

Ashley Safranski: I mean, that’s fantastic. I mean, I think that really lends itself well to people have to know about the resources and they have to have access to the resources, and it lends itself to just making sure that career is deeply embedded into all aspects of the student journey from prospect through graduation and, hopefully, and beyond. So I think that’s really great.

I’m watching time, we still have lots of questions, so I want to dig into outcomes data, I think that’s a really big topic. And I’m going to pull up your outcomes data on your portal, as you call it, here in a moment so folks can see. Can you talk about outcomes data and how specifically you know all are using it as part of the recruitment process? And how you think it’s really benefiting and helping students to visualize. Go from just hearing stories like, “Oh yeah, you could do this or that,” to, “Oh no, actually our students are doing this and that. Take a look.”

Thy Nguyen: We’re using it I think in a very intentional way in terms of telling the story for prospective students, and even current students and other stakeholders at the university. So one of the challenges I think in the career services space is talking about career outcomes. And we wanted to make it easy, easier for an external audience to really see the career outcomes and be a little bit more transparent about it.

So the uConnect outcomes pages allow individuals to filter by year, school, program, internship status, in this case, if they completed an internship or not. And this is all collected through our first destination survey data. So we follow them in these guidelines. So it’s connecting data through survey, and then secondary where you’re scraping LinkedIn and so forth as well. And then we’re using National Clearinghouse data, OPT and C P T data to fill in the gaps.

So what this allows us to do is, as you can see, let folks know where our graduates are landing, mean and median salary, top hiring companies and so forth. And if we circle back to the enrollment side, for our admissions counselors, I think it’s a pretty easy story to tell in terms of, “This is where you need to go to look for more information as well.”

So that’s how we started using it and in many ways we’re just getting going on it. We recently sent this information to the deans, again, as I mentioned earlier, as a reminder and you got to kind of keep these things front and center. And I think the plan is once we have 2022 data ready to go, we’ll host a town hall or a meeting for the university, at least the deans and leadership to talk about outcomes as well. And that’s just a part of how we’re utilizing it. So we’re kind of hanging our hat on that in many ways. We’ve got some pretty specific goals as well as far as where we want to go in terms of our career outcomes rate. So we realize a lot of factors that go into it, but that’s our focus.

Ashley Safranski: Yeah, absolutely. And I think having access to outcomes data, as an admissions recruitment person, absolutely can help tell the story. I think, when I realized that this data exists in the way in which it’s shown, I’m like, “Where was this when I was on campus?” Because it’s just so not uncommon to be asked by a parent of a student, “How much money is my student going to be making two years after they graduate?” And at the time you’re like, “What a crazy question, how would you expect me to be able to answer that?” And to now see, “Hey, there’s resources, let’s pull it up. And, oh, you’re thinking about this major, let’s look over here,” is incredibly powerful, I think, across the board, but especially as I think about having those conversations with prospects.

Thy Nguyen: And the way I think about it in terms of career services and I think as many of us who have been in the field for a while, I think we’re operating in the fact that career services, I think, needs to think about things differently. And it’s more about career knowledge just as much as it is career services. And not only do we want to offer the best services for our students in terms of advising resources and so forth, we also are a knowledge center as well. And I think that’s the number one way in my mind that you can position a career services center at a university is being a source of knowledge.

And if you have something that other folks don’t have, and you realize that’s an important part of the overall strategy, that’s something we can really connect with and leverage in terms of the overall strategy. And I think that’s something that we’re doing here at Illinois Tech, and we’re continuing to refine it. But it allows us to tell a story as well, which is really important in the kind of work that we do.

Ashley Safranski: And I think to your point about being a knowledge center, too, I think recognizing that there’s strength in numbers, and the more that we can enable and support other stakeholders all across campus to have meaningful career conversations, the better. The students are better off for it. I think, all career services teams would probably agree, it’s not possible for us to meet one-on-one and serve every student in the way that we want to, thousands of students, the ratio, just the numbers don’t work. And so I think it’s being really comfortable with saying, “We’re okay with being the facilitators of career services and career knowledge.”

Thy Nguyen: Exactly. Exactly. It’s about scale in many ways, and that’s what we’re trying to do to uConnect and other resources and avenues. It’s thinking about how you connect with students through technology, through ways that make information more accessible. And that’s engagement, to me. It may not be how many of us who grew up in the field traditionally have measured engagement, but that’s engagement. When you look at, okay, how many students are looking at the portal? How many are diving into a particular area? That’s engagement.

Ashley Safranski: Yep. Yep. Absolutely. So before we turn over-0, I’ll open it up for open Q&A here shortly, what tactical guidance or advice would you give to other career services leaders who see the benefit they understand and there’s a lot of agreement? How do you start planting those seeds on campus to say, “Hey, we can help. We really help”? And how do you start initiating those early partnerships and collaborations with a department like enrollment management?

Thy Nguyen: That’s a really good question. I think a part of it has to do with timing as well. I think timing is everything. And so just an example, if your university happens to be going through a large scale strategic envisioning type of session, where you’re thinking about your vision and mission, that could be a good time to really frame the role of career services, and how you can be a part of that overall strategy. So I think to a certain extent, that’s the timing element.

The other piece is looking at just the overall culture of the institution as well, and thinking about what’s perceived about career services? And then what’s the real narrative that you want to tell in terms of your story? Because I think it’s important to constantly be telling your story, because if you don’t, someone else is going to do it for you, in my experience. And so what’s that real narrative there? And then take that narrative and think about how that narrative can tie into the overall strategy as well. In this case, when it comes to enrollment. You could do the same thing for retention as well in my mind.

And then really I think from there what we’ve done is being able to hone in on specific themes, and in this case it’s about the experience and guaranteeing experiences. And this is the hard work, and then how do you operationalize it? Yeah, so the operations are a part of the strategy as well. Not easy, and we certainly don’t have it perfect, not even close, but we’re continuing to iterate and refine it as we go along.

Ashley Safranski: Yeah, absolutely. Definitely a process. And I know you and I have talked about there’s always the work to be done. And I think, you even acknowledged, “Hey, we take a step back and look at, we had a good year for enrollment, but there’s always the next project to be working on.” I think that leads me into just a question about, no, it’s never fun to talk about enrollment in terms of revenue, but it’s just the fact of everything. The other side of the coin is, okay, so you’ve enrolled new students, you got to retain the ones you have. Can you speak just briefly about, if you all are looking ahead to double down on retention using this Elevate, the portal, or this concept?

Thy Nguyen: We are. We are. It’s a big part of our strategy actually. I would say in some ways we’re just getting going on it, but we believe that experiences lead to community, and when you look at the whole George Kuh and high-impact practices, connections to community, which can happen through experiences is a big part of the retention process. So that’s one way in which we’re using Elevate to really focus and double down on retention.

So I think what it comes down to, I think, is students need a sense of belonging and experiences are one way to do it. It could be through student employment, working on campus, it could be through research, student orgs and leadership. And that’s all about experience. And as we know, by the time the students get to interview for an internship or a job, they’re going to be asked to articulate those experiences as well.

And the stronger the experiences they have and the more that they’re able to articulate those experiences, they’re going to be better off. And I think that’s really the goal. So, yeah, I didn’t say this but someone said this to me recently is, I think to a certain extent you have to think about things in terms of revenue as well. And the two primary drivers of revenue at a university is enrollment, and then retention as well. And I think if we think about those things, and it’s not in either/or, you can really align some of your strategy in terms of how you serve students programmatically and so forth to hone in on those areas.

Ashley Safranski: Yeah, absolutely. I do see some questions in the chat, and in the Q&A box that I’ll get to. I think one of my last questions for you Thy, and I feel like I keep saying, “One of my last questions,” but I mean, what a cool journey that you all have been on in this last year. And obviously lots of work to be done. But would love to hear about how has this partnership or this initiative that you all kind of embarked on in the last year, how has it changed the role of career services at IIT? And for you, too, specifically, when you started on campus three years ago, how has your role changed? And what types of conversations or meetings are you a part of now?

Thy Nguyen: I think it’s changed drastically, my role and the team’s role as well. And I got to acknowledge the team as well. This has been a huge team effort. So it certainly wasn’t just me. A lot of thought leadership went into this and a lot of hard work. I think it puts us at the center of the conversation at the table for all things related to strategy and so forth. I’m surprised sometimes that I’m on the same email string as the top leadership at the university about some key things, provost and president and so forth. I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing, but that happens often. And then in terms of strategy as well, we’re right in the middle of it in terms of how we think about where we’re going to go going forward in terms of an organization and how we continue to reposition ourselves.

So it means that we’re in the middle of a lot of things. So it certainly has changed a lot for me in terms of how my role is viewed, and going forward. And I think, though, it also has changed how career services is viewed as well. And I think we’re at the point now where it’s more so, maybe at a tipping point, where folks will say, “Oh, we see what career services can really do and provide. I get it now.” And I think that’s where we are at this stage. And the leadership, and I’ve heard this, will say, “Okay, we’re not doing this without career services. They’re going to be in the middle of this as far as where we’re going.” And I think there’s that realization, so that’s good to hear.

Ashley Safranski: Yeah, absolutely. And I mean think we go back to my question about making the case and starting those conversations. I think there’s absolutely a story and a narrative to be told. And I think, just hats off to you all and IIT, and the work that you’ve done, and I really am just so appreciative of you coming on and talking about your story.

So we have 14 minutes left and we have several questions. So you’re on the hot seat now.

Thy Nguyen: Yeah, I can tell. I can tell.

Ashley Safranski: So you’ve kind of taken a look. So I’m going to jump right into it. And everyone, if I haven’t asked a question, you’re welcome to put it in the Q&A box or in the chat. I’ve been trying to keep tabs on things, but I’m going to go with one that’s just right kind of near the bottom. And I love to see, someone says, our AVP of admissions is on the webinar with US career services folks, so love to see partnership already-

Thy Nguyen: That’s great.

Ashley Safranski: … in the works. Robin’s asking, “How is admissions helping to build the pages on the uConnect site? So is there any direct involvement?” I know you talked about early collaboration, but maybe the ongoing part. And then is there any data that you can kind of point to or that you all looked at to kind of say. “The uConnect platform or your portal is directly related to the increased in enrollment”?

Thy Nguyen: Yeah, there is. So we have an ongoing dialogue with admissions in terms of building the site and what they want to see. So it’s with the staff, but often my counterpart as well, so at the leadership level in terms of that. So that’s ongoing. The data, we do have data on why they chose to attend Illinois Tech. Frankly, students probably don’t know that they’re looking at uConnect. Really what they’re looking at is Elevate. And so we have data that says, “”Okay, Elevate’s a part of it, of why they chose Illinois Tech.” But there’s also many other data points as well in terms of why they chose the university.

So I think it was really more about this was a part of our strategy, it was central to our strategy, in terms of why we saw the increases. Certainly, there’s a myriad of other reasons of why we saw the increase. But we know that we’re going to stick to this in terms of the Elevate story, co-curricular experiences, guaranteeing experiences, that’s what we’re going to be really focused upon for subsequent years.

And we had a successful first year, but we’re just getting going. And I think, one year is not a trend, and so I think it’s going to be really interesting to see where we land next summer or late in the spring as well at this stage, both at the undergraduate and to a certain extent at the graduate level.

Ashley Safranski: Well, I’ll send the calendar invite for webinar part two for a year from now, and we can talk about how year number two went for you all.

Thy Nguyen: Yeah.

Ashley Safranski: Excellent. So let’s see, there’s another question. You also mentioned career readiness, what did your university change in regards to that initiative?

Thy Nguyen: I think just some awareness of career readiness I think is the first thing. We certainly honed in on a lot of things that NACE has worked hard on, and focusing on that in terms of where we want students to focus their time, and where we want our students to gain our experiences. And so I think it’s just as much about using the language of career readiness and thinking about career readiness in terms of everything that we’re doing. So in the classroom and outside of the classroom, and how this ties into career readiness. I think those are some of the things that we’re really, really doing. So it’s a big part of the conversation too, in terms of talking about career readiness.

Ashley Safranski: Have all of these initiatives involved or included the involvement of faculty?

Thy Nguyen: They have. They have. So I would say one of our biggest partners is certainly on the academic affairs side, our Office of Academic Affairs, but also with faculty as well. So one of the things that we actually did, initially, when we were rolling things out last spring, I don’t know if I mentioned the audience, but the town hall that we did last spring was specifically for faculty as well and staff. But that was the audience and we had good numbers attend. It’s a little nerve-wracking, I mean, even when you virtually, anytime we were doing that. And certainly I’ve presented on this in various committees and so forth as well at the university level. So faculty are definitely aware.

I think the challenge with anyone is, I continue to tell this story because you will continue to get questions about what is Elevate? How has it changed? And the good news is people are talking about it, but you have to work hard to constantly make folks aware of where it is now versus what Elevate was five years ago.

Ashley Safranski: Yeah, absolutely. Can you share any insight into your funding model for uConnect? Are you relying on grants, operational dollars, both? Is there funding cost sharing among different departments? Anything that you can chime in on that?

Thy Nguyen: Right now it’s operational, in terms of how we utilize it. We’re in the position here where, certainly, in terms of career services, we’re in the position where we can generate revenue as well. And so I think down the road we’ll be looking at models where it’s a combination of operational and revenue that helps pay for the expense or subsidize things. Because of the space we’re in at the university, I realize that there’s different flavors of career services offices at a lot of universities, so we’re really kind of the central office. There’s a law school and our business career center is a strong partner with us, but we’re kind of in the position to really drive things forward. So that’s a part of how we’re organized as well. So that’s why a big part of it’s coming out of the enrollment operational side of things at this particular stage.

Ashley Safranski: Yeah, no, that definitely makes sense. There was a question about, and you’ve kind of spoken to this, but I think as it relates specifically to other divisions and other departments, how did you all go about getting buy-in and participation from others to get those different experiences to populate in your portal? So the study abroad, events, classes, et cetera?

Thy Nguyen: That’s a good question. I think it’s being able to tell the story again and the value is really the key. And making sure that the team is all on point in terms of what that value actually is. So really kind of having your talking points and being able to hone in on it I think is important. So the offices that roll up to me, there’s a number of them, even I have to work hard to make sure that I’m constantly talking about the value as well of Elevate, of uConnect and what we’re trying to do. And I think you focus in on that. You connect it to the experience again. So really being able to stay on point. So even though you could think, “Oh, well they report up to me, of course, they’re going to align.” It’s doesn’t quite work that way.

Ashley Safranski: Internal marketing and selling, right? Is you’re-

Thy Nguyen: Yeah.

Ashley Safranski: … always, and you’ve talked about that earlier, just be repetitive. You continue to talk about the value prop, the message, the mission, et cetera. So that makes a lot of sense.

Thy Nguyen: A good example of that is last weekend we did a virtual global gathering and we had a good number of alumni attend from around the world. It was all focused on Elevate, well, not all of it, but a good portion of it. So two of our key staff members presented on Elevate from the career services at campus life side to almost a 100 alumni from around the world. And then I presented in terms of Elevate and the alumni connection, within alum as well. And even our president and our vice president for enrollment had Elevate in their talking points. So it’s the ability to stay on message, and really make sure that we’re sticking to that with our audiences. And so I think that’s something that we’ve done pretty well.

Ashley Safranski: That’s great. Last question, and I know you have a meeting immediately after this, so I’ll get you off here [inaudible 00:54:05]-

Thy Nguyen: Yeah, I do. I do, to my dismay.

Ashley Safranski: Of course, there’s always something to run to. You mentioned this way back early in our conversation about when you all were preparing to build and launch your portal that you were able to partner with a group like IT on campus. Any need tips and tricks for just partnering with an IT department to kind of like, “This is a priority. How can we get things moving along quickly?’

Thy Nguyen: I think it comes down to the relationship. And you got to decide who is going to be that point person or persons on the relationship side with IT. In our case, we had a really wonderful project manager on the IT side, who helped drive things along. So I think we were organizing the right way. I think it’s being able to know that it’s a collaborative process, that they’re really trying to help you. They may not understand everything that you’re trying to do, but making sure they’re part of that process as well.

Especially in our case, when it’s really a fast build, and we were working against some deadlines as well. So really focusing on the relationship that you’re in that space with them, explaining what you’re trying to do. And then them working with you and on the uConnect side as well, in terms of those technical elements to make it all work. But I think being there in that space is important

Ashley Safranski: Yeah, absolutely. Well, if you have one last thing, it’s just very related, how were you able to get offices other than career services and faculty to see the value of uConnect and going all in on it? Did it come from above or did you drive everything?

Thy Nguyen: It was collaborative, so I would say it was from the ground up. A lot of folks were involved. So I like to think that it was shared in terms of this vision, and it coalesced around this. So a little bit organic, but realizing that we had something to coalesce around. And I think that’s what we did and that’s what we’re continuing to do.

Ashley Safranski: Fantastic. Well, I feel like that’s a great way to wrap things up. Thy, thank you so much for your time and being willing to hop on and just talk about some of the great things you all are doing at IIT. And congratulations on record enrollment, but always looking forward, right? Always something else to focus on.

Thy Nguyen: Yeah.

Ashley Safranski: Good luck you all, and best of luck wrapping up the semester.

Thy Nguyen: Great. Great. Well, thanks everyone for joining in. Thanks Ashley for having me. Delighted to have this conversation with everyone. I know everyone here. Just have so much respect for the work that everyone’s doing here in this field. Having been in it for such a long time now. It’s wonderful to see folks join in on this topic.

Ashley Safranski: Cool. And Thy, can people connect with you on LinkedIn?

Thy Nguyen: Absolutely, yeah. Connect with me LinkedIn. I’m pretty visible there, so feel free to connect. Always happy to share more insights as well. I know we didn’t get to every question today.

Ashley Safranski: Great. All right. Have a good one everyone, and rest of your week. Take care.

Thy Nguyen: All right, thank you.

Latest episodes

  • 3 Ways to Improve Engagement with Gen Z Students

    Josh Taylor and Hayley Hollenberg of the University of Kentucky Gatton College of Business and Economics share three specific strategies their team is using to better engage Gen Z students with career services.

  • Career Readiness Efforts with Identity-Based Populations

    Larry Jackson, the Senior Associate Director for Career Education and Engagement at UC Berkeley, discusses the strategies and initiatives his team has implemented to improve career readiness among identity-based populations on campus.

  • Best Practices for Supporting First-Generation Students

    Yasi Mahallaty, the Senior Manager of Strategic Innovation at CareerSpring, talks about how career services can support first-generation students.

Subscribe to the Career Everywhere newsletter

Weekly best practices, tactics, and strategies directly from the innovative career leaders implementing them every day.