It was a month before classes began. I was three months and one career development conference into my role as a new counselor at the Career Center. I found myself in a planning meeting for a career program targeting the university’s African-American student population. As a final project for an academic course, two seniors gathered psychosocial and developmental theory to support a proposal for a career program and/or networking event. The event was tailored to the needs of the university’s career-ready African-American students. Enthusiastically supportive of any opportunity to engage students from diverse backgrounds, I hopped on board to lead the team’s effort.
During the remaining months of summer and into the fall semester, I worked closely with the two student leaders. With the support of the office’s employer relations staff, we intentionally chose to host the program during the evening of our annual fall job and internship fair. The students and I first referenced their proposal. Then, we considered additional career needs of the targeted population to establish the program’s objectives.
We eventually defined the program’s major objectives as:
– To provide an opportunity for students to learn about a range of companies;
– To create a safe and intimate space for students to build relationships with employers and practice networking skills.
We then developed the program to include two major components.
– Speed networking session to introduce students to attending companies;
– Career conversations session to provide opportunity for organic engagement and informal networking.
I was inspired by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Career Center’s Conexiones: Latino/a Student and Alumni Networking Event. So, I encouraged the students to consider a culturally-relevant title for the program. The students affectionately named the program: Kuungana Networking Night, Kuungana meaning “connect” in traditional Swahili language.
Fast forward four months, the Kuungana Networking Night occurred, connecting and engaging attendees in intimate conversations with over 12 employers. Students and employers applauded this event as an effective method for building connections. The program’s unique offering and intentional model of engagement has since served as a launching pad for discussions. It created dialogue around the unmet career needs and opportunities for increased engagement with the university’s African-American and other minority student populations. The office’s newly created diversity and inclusion team is actively considering additional methods and strategies to engage students from diverse backgrounds in an effective career program.
Planning and executing the Kuungana Networking Night was a personally and professionally defining and share-worthy experience. From its idea stage to witnessing its full execution, I retained the following takeaways for creating authentic and culturally-responsive career programs:
Collaboration is key and student-buy in is essential
We implemented this event in close collaboration with the university’s Office of African-American Affairs and African-American student groups across campus. I attended a Black Presidents Council meeting, as well as the African-American Peer Advisor’s training meeting to share the event. Student leaders were also encouraged to share promotional materials with their members. Presidents and members of ethnic professional organizations were invited to greet and “host” employers. These individuals included the National Society for Black Engineers, Black Student Commerce Network and others. These relationships encouraged buy-in from the students and incentivized student attendance. Promotion for the event even trickled into a group chat shared amongst the university’s African-American student population. (We hadn’t planned that, but it worked!)
Culturally-relevant themes make sense and representation matters
Since the event’s inception, it was important to develop a culturally-responsive approach to engaging the students. Thus, the Career Center and the program’s collaborators needed to identify:
– the stakeholders in the event;
– where the program’s message was originating;
– and the targeted audience
It was also important to incorporate appropriate themes and images to validate the program’s intended audience.
Students deserve a space to bridge awareness and bond through connections
The effectiveness of this event lied in its capacity to increase students’ awareness of potential opportunities while also providing a space to engage in one-on- one conversations and develop meaningful connections. Intentionally incorporating space to both bridge and bond was especially helpful in encouraging students to expand their awareness of potential career options while also confidently communicating values and interest in relation to company. Removing formalities and chaos often associated with career fairs enabled students to learn and practice without pressure.
During the planning and execution, I gathered a number of additional takeaways that will inform future programs similar to the Kuungana Networking Night. I’m excited about the continued discussion and effort that our team is contributing to support the ranging career program needs of our university’s diverse student population. I’d love to continue the conversation with you. If you or your team has best practices for creating authentic and culturally-responsive career programs, please feel free to reach out. Thanks for reading.
This post is part of our #SACareer series, addressing careers in student affairs, careers outside of student affairs, and the work of career services professionals. Read more about the series in Jake Nelko’s intro post. Each post is a contribution by a member or friend of the Commission for Career Services from ACPA. Our organization exists to benefit the careers of career services professionals, student affairs professionals, and anyone supporting students in the career endeavors. For more information about how to get involved with the Commission for Career Services or the #SACareer blog series, contact Cristina Lawson at email@example.com.