Oberlin Overhauls Career Readiness Through Peer Mentorship, DEI Framework

A significant consideration when students commit to any college is how that institution can serve as a stepping stone to a successful future. At Oberlin, the primary bridge to full adulthood is an office called the Career Development Center — and naturally, it’s pretty important. A few years ago, the career center’s offerings were both lacking and underutilized. Now, though, the career center provides targeted programming for students in every year at Oberlin and has built new networks for peer leadership and support. It is also one of the only departments of its kind among Oberlin’s peer institutions to actively center social equity and racial justice in career development. In so doing, the career center has set a precedent for the workplaces, and workplace readiness, of the future.

Enhancing career readiness was a major component of the One Oberlin final report, and the Career Development Center is one place on campus where Obies can see One Oberlin implementation in action. In the past four years, the career center has gone through a breadth of change. In addition to smaller workshop offerings, résumé reviews, and career consultation, the career center now has structured programming designed to serve students throughout their time at Oberlin. After conducting a Climate Survey in 2016 to assess student needs, in 2017 the career center debuted the Peer Advising Leader program for acclimating first-year students to college. The following year saw the first Sophomore Opportunities and Academic Resources program, targeted toward students in their second year of school as they consider the curricular and co-curricular opportunities that could best prepare them for their dreams and goals. That same year the career center began Career Communities, a program that matched third-year students with funded summer internship opportunities. And last week saw the culmination of the brand-new Senior Launch program, a series of workshops that concluded with a Connections Fair, giving students at the end of their Oberlin journey an opportunity to network with parents and alums. 

The PAL and SOAR programs in particular are especially notable for their commitment to connecting younger students with mentors — whether those peers are helping them navigate campus life or internship applications. In bolstering these offerings, the career center helped also to develop stronger connections between students, creating new avenues for mentorship and community engagement. These programs have helped students both acclimate to school and feel more confident in considering our futures. In focusing on mentorship as a key component of their resources, the career center put its faith in students and successfully tapped into one of our school’s biggest strengths — Obies supporting Obies. 

This year, PAL, SOAR, and the new Junior Practicum were all expanded into month-long programs to support students during the pandemic. Both SOAR and the Junior Practicum offered internship placements for students as part of their programming. Supporting students in securing internships, both logistically and financially, is a huge part of making sure that Oberlin is on par with peer institutions and giving students the best possible experience. 

But Oberlin’s Career Development Center has most notably distinguished itself by integrating Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion into career readiness for all students. In recent years, each of the aforementioned programs has focused on how we can thrive in professional environments across lines of race, class, gender, and age. This year’s SOAR, Junior Practicum, and Senior Launch sessions have featured workshops including issue-driven panels exploring how to be good citizens, affinity spaces to dialogue about race in the classroom and the workplace, and lectures deconstructing notions of professionalism that center whiteness. While these efforts have sometimes involved missteps and necessitated recalibration, the career center has this year created a new benchmark for thinking about postgraduate careers — one that centers philosophies of change-making and inclusion. These efforts to address power and oppression are equipping students to retain their values in navigating post-Oberlin opportunities. The career center has also institutionalized conversations around inclusion within the department through the role of Senior Assistant Director for Career Readiness and Inclusive Excellence, held by Shelby Pykare. 

The career center’s growth in recent years reflects strong, decisive leadership in multiple ways. We would be remiss not to pay homage to the tremendous leadership of Dana Hamdan, who has helmed the Career Development Center since 2018. This new programming was developed under Hamdan’s guidance, and she will be leaving a vibrant, growing department behind when she takes a position with Brown University this summer as Senior Director for Strategic Engagement and Chief of Staff in the Division of Campus Life.

Liberal arts colleges often face critique for what are seen as impractical course offerings, or less-than-ideal job prospects post-graduation. But we also know that liberal arts colleges are tremendously vibrant incubators of ideas that produce thoughtful, engaged, and creative people. In many of these new changes, the Career Development Center is moving toward making Oberlin the best of both worlds: a place that prepares us for exciting futures, and also one that encourages critical thinking in entering the workforce and the world.