Career Success Spotlight: Students Rising Above

June 19, 2017

By Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation

Earlier this year, NCAN hosted a Career Success Spotlight webinar with Students Rising Above (SRA), a member based in San Francisco. Aliza Heslop, SRA’s career development program manager, and Vanessa Barbic, online program manager, presented on various facets of SRA’s career success programming. NCAN presented the webinar to further our work with Strada Education Network on helping members integrate college and career success.

SRA started as a scholarship program in 1998 and eventually expanded into a comprehensive year-round program that provides college readiness support, tutoring, one-on-one mentoring, paid summer internships, career coaching and job training, access to healthcare services, and financial assistance. Students apply in their junior year of high school and if accepted, enter small cohorts in which they stay through 12th grade and college until they get their first job. The academic, socioemotional, college application, and career development supports result in a 90 percent college graduation rate within 4.5 years.

SRA decided to move into career development about 10 years ago because staff saw students were obtaining jobs that did not require a college degree. After implementing the series of interventions described below, SRA is now in a place where 87 percent of students are in career ladder jobs within 12 months of college graduation.

Heslop noted that career development can work if programs meet students where they are, understand what they need, and help them build their skills as early as possible. “We actually started off pretty small with our offerings, and through the past decade have grown more and more and provided more and more services," she explained. "So it’s not something that you have to or really can do overnight, but small changes can make a really big impact on your students and their success after graduation."

The career development program at SRA involves a three-pronged approach: in-person workshops, online services and resources, and one-on-one coaching. Students are required to participate in one in-person workshops every year during the five years in which they work with SRA. These workshops cover topics like resume writing, interview preparation and networking, and target students’ current year in high school or college. SRA also hosts career exposure events, which are opportunities for students to visit work sites across fields and industries, where they network with employees and get a feel for the workplace.

To reach students all over the country, SRA delivers career development resources through technology. The SRA “College and Career Hub” contains webinars, videos, and quizzes. SRA hosts live webinars throughout the year that tackle tough questions (e.g., interview topics, making the most of summer internships). For topics students will need to revisit (e.g., writing a cover letter or targeting a resume), SRA has pre-recorded videos that are age-targeted and require students to pass with 100 percent to ensure that they’ve properly digested the material.

One-on-one coaching takes place in multiple ways. SRA maintains a very big network of career mentors, advisors, and full-time staff. Advisors train to have important career development conversations with their students. To help them with these conversations, SRA created a section on the SRA Hub solely for advisors, which includes tips on how to have those career development conversations with students. SRA requires that students have meaningful summers and build up their resume every summer of their college career, and provides advisors with information on getting that message across to their students. Three staff members who are dedicated to career development provide services throughout the year that include interview preparation, career assessment, job and interview advice, and application review. They support students for up to a year after college and during the transition into the workforce.

SRA provided some tips and tricks for members interested in engaging in career success work:

  • Start early

  • Context is key

  • Scale with technology

Barbic and Heslop recommended introducing career development to students as soon as programs start working with them. For SRA, that means the senior year of high school, at which point students are five to six years away from transitioning into the workforce. The purpose at this point is to give students context around why thinking about career development is important. They pass along the message that employers are looking for applicants to have internships and work experience. Heslop noted that students come into their program with a very limited knowledge of the careers that exist, so their first step is providing exposure and expanding that career horizon for them.

Three of SRA's biggest initiatives for career development information include live webinars, pre-recorded videos, and a resource library.

SRA staff like a lot about webinars over in-person workshops. Students can access webinars wherever they are, and the webinars scale to accommodate as many students as are interested, and there's no need to find a suitable space for an in-person gathering. The webinars average 30 minutes in length, sometimes less, and students can ask questions in real-time. When advisors notice students asking the same kinds of questions at various points throughout the year, they can host a group webinar to answer them all at once.

For those topics that advisors are asked perennially, SRA maintains an online video and quiz section in the SRA Hub. For example, students often have similar questions on key career development pieces (e.g., internships, interview preparation, resume skills, and finding jobs). Some programs might host an in-person all-day workshop on these key questions, but SRA doesn’t have the resources or staff to do this and instead offers pre-recorded videos with quizzes to ensure students are absorbing the information and understanding the concepts.

Students log into the SRA Hub and see a series of videos and quizzes associated with the year they're in. After registering for the video and quiz, they review 30 minutes of content and then take a quiz on the content they just saw. Students are required to get a 100 percent to pass the short quiz with five or six questions. SRA staff pay for a service to maintain this section, but in the past have hosted the content on YouTube or Powerpoint.

Through the videos and quizzes, SRA staff learned there are certain topics that are best fits for certain years along the college to career path. They also learned that although career development is critical for students, sometimes they might take a shortcut and not absorb critical information. The quizzes serve to hold students accountable for the information they need. If a lot of students are getting the same item wrong, that might indicate either a bad item or a lapse in services teaching students about that topic.

The third career development resource is a searchable online resource library. "If you want to scale and you have limited staff, it’s really hard to provide in-depth services 24/7," Barbic explained. "Having a streamlined way to communicate already built out is efficient and helps get things rolling."  SRA's library now contains almost 400 articles created in-house. "It didn’t happen overnight," they note, but they started by meeting students where they have their most critical needs. Interview resources were one of their first steps because they saw students not performing well in interviews.

Barbic and Heslop also touched on training staff to provide career development services. They noted that most of SRA's staff have no background in career services or development. Starting out, they recommend drawing upon staff members who are willing and want to participate. They recommend identifying one person to be the career development point person or manager to get things up and running.

After identifying students' needs, a program can begin training staff on basic elements of career development. Although the point person can’t personally have conversations with 500 students about interviews, he or she can train the staff, and it makes it a lot easier to scale a program when additional staff have the ability to deliver career development services in small ways.

As an aside, Barbic and Heslop noted that informational interviews are one of the first things they discuss with students. Informational interviews can be a low-stakes way to get a foot in the door, as well as a reality check for what a given profession is like. SRA provides templates to students to use for requesting an informational interview and for thanking the interviewer for their time.

For programs without any staff with career development experience, Barbic and Heslop recommended the National Career Development Association and the American School Counselor Association, which maintains a framework for career development for school counselors.

Asked what the highest needs are for first-generation, low-income college students in the career success area, Heslop said, "In my personal experience it’s lack of frame of reference. Students haven’t been exposed to a broad range of careers." Students may know common careers like police officer, social worker, lawyer, doctor or teacher, but one of the biggest needs is helping them understand the multitude of careers out there to help them build options.  

Another topic that arose during the webinar was about making sure to talk with students about diversity and inclusion in the workplace. "Imposter syndrome happens in the workplace too," the staff said, and programs need to reassure students that they belong in whatever work experience they may be pursuing.

In closing, our presenters offered one last piece of advice: "Part of this whole process, if you’re new to this, is first identifying where your students are and what they need, and then building from there."

Thank you to Aliza and Vanessa for a wonderful presentation and insight into Students Rising Above's excellent career development services. Find more on the program on Twitter at @SRAProgram and @SRAHub, and be sure to look out for more Career Success Spotlights and resources posted to NCAN's Career Success page.

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