Center for Student Professional Development offers new take on the traditional career center

The Center for Student Professional Development hosts industry career days so that Vanderbilt students can meet with prospective employers. (Steve Green/Vanderbilt)
The Center for Student Professional Development hosts industry career days so that Vanderbilt students can meet with prospective employers. (Steve Green/Vanderbilt)

Last year Vanderbilt’s career center changed its name—but the transformation went well beyond a new sign over the door.

Now called the Center for Student Professional Development, the new name reflects a fresh direction for the office, located in Vanderbilt’s Student Life Center. Director Cindy Funk’s intention was to take the traditional approach to college career counseling and flip it on its head.

“We are very different from any other college career center because we are here for the whole journey,” Funk said. “So many times in academia, we get stuck in the status quo. Career centers are thought of as where seniors go to get advice on interviewing or writing their resume. But we’re doing so much more than that.”

For the past year, the center has been reaching out to students, including first-year students, through new activities in cooperation with campus partners such as The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons at Vanderbilt, Student Life, the Office of Greek Life, Alternative Spring Break and VUcept. “Our involvement early in the Vanderbilt experience is meant to reinforce that it’s not just about picking the right major or getting a job at the end of all this,” Funk said. “It’s about discovering who you are, finding out what your story is and being able to tell it well.”

Joe Tropeano, a sophomore from Marlboro, N.J., sought out the center in his first months at Vanderbilt—earlier than most students—determined to find an internship for the following summer.

“Getting something when you are a freshman can be difficult, but through the center I got an internship with a nonprofit in New York City. It was a great experience,” Tropeano said. “And with the center’s help, I will be joining the Vanderbilt Internship Experience in Washington this summer.”

Tropeano, a human and organizational development major in Vanderbilt’s Peabody College, not only landed the internships he wanted but has been working at the center for the past year as a peer coach.

“I have seen so many students come through the door with these great resumes with so many experiences,” he said. “We have worked with them to clarify their interests and find internships and ultimately employment.

“I’ve learned so much,” he continued. “[rquote]It’s a great reflection on Vanderbilt that we have a center that integrates itself into the community and leverages all of the available resources to make sure students have the best experience possible.”[/rquote]

Vanderbilt students tend to be high achievers, and finding their place on a campus full of other high achievers can be daunting, Funk said. Some wind up questioning how they stand out. In addition, they will inevitably encounter a class or activity in which they don’t perform to their usual levels, causing even more anxiety and self-doubt.

“It may be their first time to feel the sting of failure,” Funk said. “They’ve been programmed to succeed, and suddenly they don’t know who they are. We want to be there to let them know we understand and that it’s normal.”

The center offers well-attended programs such as industry career days, employer information sessions, coaching sessions, workshops and field trips to local businesses. Less conventional, but no less effective, are the center’s activities that involve life mapping and soul searching.

“We do this exercise called the Wandering Map, where participants plot out on a blank sheet of paper all of the activities and events that have defined them,” Funk said. “Then we talk about them and make connections as to what drives the student, what their passions are. We want to see them taking advantage of all of the opportunities available to them at Vanderbilt so they will be ready to follow their purpose when it’s time to leave.”

As graduation nears, many students feel a sense of sadness, fear or loss when they think about moving on—especially in light of an unpredictable economy and uncertain job market.

“Having strong life skills such as resiliency, self-awareness and flexibility are more important than ever,” Funk said. “We want students to know that it’s OK if they don’t have it all figured out. We can help them get a transition plan together, even if they don’t know where they want to be in three to five years.”

Of course, traditional factors such as dressing appropriately for job interviews, writing a proper resume and having good written and verbal communication skills are as important as they’ve ever been.

“Students have grown up communicating casually through email and texting,” Funk said. “Most don’t know how to interact with a potential employer. Many don’t realize that improper attire or a bad cover letter can put them out of the running, even if they are the best candidate.

“Our goal is to build a broad range of skills throughout their time at Vanderbilt so that students know who they are, what they want and how to get it,” she said. “When they leave us, they will know their story and be able to tell it well.”

Measuring Success

52% Students reporting full-time employment by graduation (up 15.4% over the previous year)

52.3% Graduating seniors who cite the career center as having a significant role in their finding a job

70.2% Student satisfaction with career center services (up 17.1% over five years)

38% Increase in student participation in industry career days and career fairs

26% Increase in employer participation in industry career days and career fairs

Top Industries Employing Vanderbilt Graduates

Consulting, Management and Human Resources: 21.9%

Finance, Real Estate and Insurance: 20.3%

Engineering and IT: 17.1%

Education, Community Organizations and Nonprofits: 16.6%

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