Ivy Tech Career Director Interview: Community Colleges Offer Cost-Effective Springboard To Careers

By Jill Randolph

The following is an interview transcript with Rebecca Patten-Lemons, Ivy Tech Community College's Director of Career Services. Ms. Patten-Lemons has worked at Ivy Tech-Central Indiana for five years and has worked in higher education for more than 10 years. As the Director of the Career Center, she and her team provide comprehensive career services to students and alumni relating to internship opportunities, resume and interview coaching, and job placement. Ms. Patten-Lemons received her Bachelor's degree in Education and Urban Studies from Cedarville University and her Masters degree in Management from Indiana Wesleyan University.

Ivy Tech Community College is the nation's largest statewide community college with single accreditation and serves more than 130,000 students a year on 23 campuses throughout the state. The average class size is 22, so students are able to receive more one-on-one attention from instructors, at classes close to home.

Ivy Tech stakes claim to being the state's most affordable college where tudents can earn a degree for less than $6,000. The school has articulation agreements with many colleges and universities, so students can save money by completing the first two years of a four-year degree at Ivy Tech.

Interview Transcript

Jill Randolph: What do you think are the most important things high school students should do to get into the best possible college, and how soon should they start working on that plan?

Rebecca Patten-Lemons: Ivy Tech is a statewide community college in Indiana. We are big believers in starting at the community college level, not only because we want students to come here, but also because statistics show that college students who complete two years at a community college prior to transferring to a four-year college usually have both higher GPAs and graduation rates. At the community college level, class sizes are smaller, so students might be sitting in a classroom with 30 students as opposed to 150 in a university auditorium.

Further, because community colleges are usually smaller, students are more aware and more apt to use the supportive services available to them, including scholarship opportunities, tutoring centers or student clubs. If students utilize those services at a community college, they are more apt to seek out and use them once they move on to a four-year university as well.

"...statistics show that college students who complete two years at a community college prior to transferring to a four-year college usually have both higher GPAs and graduation rates."

Students should start on their plan while in high school, including exploring their career options, as well as different colleges and universities and their admissions requirements. Students interested in community college should also talk to admissions counselors to ensure the classes they take will transfer to four-year colleges or universities. Most community colleges have articulation agreements with the schools in their surrounding area. For example, we have agreements with Purdue, IU, Ball State and IUPUI and other schools as well.

It's always a good idea for students to gather information to help them make an informed decision. Further, students need to start early on - specifically in their senior year of high school - applying for financial-aid, completing application requirements and registering for classes.

Students can usually register for college classes much earlier than they might think. For example, our spring semester classes don't start until January, but students can begin registering in late October. Students who register first usually get the best classes, instructors and at convenient times, which should help freshmen have a positive academic experience during their first semester. In order to achieve that goal, students need to become involved in college a lot sooner than they may think.

Many community colleges also offer guaranteed admission into state schools for students who complete a two-year degree. Florida is an excellent example - if a student receives a degree from any community college in Florida, he or she is guaranteed admission at any other state school. A lot of universities are very competitive, so this is especially helpful for students who are worried about taking the SAT or ACT or who don't think their GPA is going to be high enough to be accepted into a university.

That is why I recommend these students spend two years at a community college first, as it is going to be less expensive and probably a smaller, more supportive environment to ensure greater success. If students complete their associate's degree, they are far more likely to be admitted to a university, even without taking the SATs or ACTs. There are options; students just need to be educated about the available choices.

Jill Randolph: Because of the huge increase in the popularity of community colleges, articulation with universities is increasingly popular. From my personal experience, the classes offered at community colleges are practical and students are usually taught things they can immediately apply to a job. What other benefits come from attending a community college?

Rebecca Patten-Lemons: A completed English 101 class, for example, is going to earn students three credits whether they are taken at Harvard, Indiana University or Ivy Tech. Students can spend $120 for that class, $450, or maybe even a couple of thousand dollars, depending on the school at which the class is taken. At the end of the day, however, students are going to earn three credits. They can spend less money and get the credit usually a bit more easily at the community college level, because of a smaller and more supportive environment.

"...if people are not in a career they are passionate about or naturally skilled at, they are not as likely to be promoted, and they are going to have lower job satisfaction."

We have a lot of students who attend IUPUI or the University of Indianapolis and come here for general education courses. As students can earn a two-year degree here for $6,000, community colleges oftentimes provide the most affordable option for a college degree as well. In today's job market and economy, the price aspect cannot be understated.

Jill Randolph: What are the different trends you are seeing with incoming students?

Rebecca Patten-Lemons: First, Ivy Tech is the fastest growing community college in the country, so we are seeing a large number of incoming students. We are also seeing a wide variety, including those fresh out of high school, people who have chosen to work for a couple of years before realizing they need more education in order to advance in their career, and mid-career students who have been downsized and realize they need to completely reinvent their career path for the future.

We see great diversity among our students, not only in race, age and gender, but also in a variety of professional backgrounds, from people who have never worked a day in their life to students who have worked for 20 or more years. They are all realizing they need an education or more education in order to compete in today's workforce.

We are also seeing that students are choosing careers of interest to them, which will also be recession-proof. It's hard to find anyone right now who doesn't have a friend or a loved one who has been laid off because of the job market. As a result, when students are enrolling here and choosing their major, they are trying to find a career that will have a market for many years, as they don't want to be downsized. We use statistics to help us predict those trends.

Here in Indiana, a great resource we use is called the "Hoosier Hot 50." It's published every year by the Department of Workforce Development, and outlines 50 careers in Indiana that are in great demand now and in the future. Certainly a student doesn't have to choose only from those 50 careers, but it does provide insight as to where the trends are, both now and in the future. Some hot trends are in the healthcare, information technology, computer or business fields, along with a lot in helping professions, including education and social work. We are seeing a diverse group of students with varying work experience, and a lot of the students are spending more time researching to ensure that the career they choose is going to be able to withstand a recession.

Jill Randolph: Do you think the students today are better at researching than in the past and are able to find information, or are they still looking to you for guidance?

Rebecca Patten-Lemons: A lot of students are either researching individually, or they have their homepage set to Yahoo or MSN. About every week, those websites will have something about a career or job search during a recession. What students are not doing as much is evaluating those trends compared to what they are passionate about and where their skills naturally lie.

For example, nursing is a great career, and it offers good pay, flexible hours and many benefits. Here at Ivy Tech, it is one of our most in-demand majors, and a highly competitive program to be accepted into. However, that doesn't mean that everyone who is in the nursing program is choosing it because they love to help people, or because they love to figure things out from a science and healthcare perspective. Many students are not passionate about nursing; they are only interested in job security.

"For two thirds of open positions in a company, HR will look at internship candidates first to see if they will make a good match before they post the position publicly."

Statistics show that in order to be happy long-term, students have to enter into a field that fits their personality, educational goals and skills, not only their salary or benefit preference. Statistics also show that if people are not in a career they are passionate about or naturally skilled at, they are not as likely to be promoted, and they are going to have lower job satisfaction. With today's job market, a lot of people are watching trends and choosing careers based on money and trends, but they are not always good about evaluating workplace trends compared to their passion and skills. Many websites don't talk about a personality fit; they simply focus on job trends.

Jill Randolph: If you had a wide cross-section of students looking for a new skill-set after being downsized, what advice would you give them to talk them off the ledge and put them on the right path?

Rebecca Patten-Lemons: In trying to talk people off the ledge, the first part is to realize that they are on the ledge. I acknowledge they are in a scary place and it is going to be challenging, but they can get through it, and they are not alone. Many people who have been downsized feel they are the only one, but by looking at unemployment rates, it is impossible to come to that conclusion. People in that situation need to realize there are a huge number of people in the same boat. After acknowledging that frustration, people can't lie dormant and act like a victim; they have to take control. Even when they feel out of control, they can make things happen.

The first step towards doing this is by taking advantage of available resources. For example, in Indianapolis, we have a great service supported through United Way, which provides people with various programs and non-profit organizations that can support them not only academically, but also by possibly paying some bills for them as well. It's so helpful for people to know they are not going to be on their own during a really scary time, but they have to know where they can ask for help.

We also encourage students and job seekers to focus on their transferable skills, including problem solving, communication, team building, managing and strategic thinking, which they might have used in the past. Those skills can be used in a different industry. People have to be creative in how they are viewing their circumstance.

At Ivy Tech, we offer many certificate programs and shorter degree options. We work with an organization called WorkOne, which many people across the country refer to as the unemployment office. They currently have money from the stimulus grant, which will pay for people who have been downsized to go to training. We work with them to identify training programs that last anywhere from four weeks to three months, and are focused on jobs in high demand right now. WorkOne is willing to pay for this training for people who qualify for the program, and those who have been downsized from a job usually qualify.

These training programs provide people an opportunity to be trained rapidly in a high-demand field where they can utilize some of their transferable skills and get back into the job market quickly. We have designed our certificate programs so our students can "crosswalk", as we call it, to degree options. Once students return to the job market after earning a certification, they can use that training and apply those credit hours toward a four-year degree.

Jill Randolph: What are other important things you think students can do to prepare to find a job?

Rebecca Patten-Lemons: Number one is to complete an internship. A lot of companies have implemented a hiring freeze, but very few have frozen their internship programs. We tell students that they not only need to gain work experience, but they need to have specific, industry-related work experience. In the past, our students didn't always listen to that. They would graduate, sometimes with a 4.0, after doing everything right, but then they would interview with an employer who said they wanted to hire someone with work experience.

Alumni can't gain industry-related work experience if no one will hire them, and the answer is for students to complete industry-specific internships while they are in school. In today's job market, we see alumni who are still working as interns because it's one of the few ways to get into companies that have put a freeze on hiring people for full-time positions. For two thirds of open positions in a company, HR will look at internship candidates first to see if they will make a good match before they post the position publicly. Internships provide students with an opportunity to network, to acquire new skills, and to demonstrate the skills they have learned through their college courses and other internship experiences.

"I have students who work for me who are great at text messaging, but a few couldn't write a letter with full words with proper spelling and grammar to save their lives. In the work world, people have to know how to communicate well."

Networking is another great way to find a job. It's important that students get to know staff at the career center at their college, who will help pair them with working professionals in their desired industry.

Jill Randolph: What are some suggestions you recommend to help students stand out from other job applicants?

Rebecca Patten-Lemons: Students need to make sure their resume and interviewing skills are effective. They may think they're in good shape, when in reality they are not. A great way for students to assess their skills and effectiveness is to visit their college career center. As the director of a career center, I talk to employers every day, and I always ask them what they like and don't like to see on resumes or to hear during interviews. Then when we talk to students, we tell them what we've heard so that their resume will hopefully edge out the competition that isn't staying on top of the latest trends of resume writing and interviewing, because trends change.

I also tell students to target their resume to every job opportunity to which they apply. They should be changing their resume a bit to fit the job description and the keywords. They don't necessarily need to change their work history, but they need to tweak their skills and profile so that it looks like they fit the specific needs of the job, which is one of the common suggestions employers are making right now. Employers can tell when students have one unchanging resume, so students really need to set themselves apart by customizing their resume to each job opportunity. I recommend a balanced resume, a high GPA, and experience examples that reflect social involvement and industry-related experience, whether it is through a job or an internship.

Young job seekers need to stress their soft-skills, communication, work ethics and dependability as well. Some of the young students who interview are already going to have points working against them because the interviewer may assume they are going to text message when they should be working and come in late, simply because of their age. This is not fair, but discrimination happens, so this makes emphasizing soft skills very crucial for those interviewees.

I have students who work for me who are great at text messaging, but a few couldn't write a letter with full words with proper spelling and grammar to save their lives. In the work world, people have to know how to communicate well. It's a great advantage that younger applicants are so technologically savvy, but they have to have balance. We have had students Google the multi-generations in the workforce right now to learn the values and communication styles of the different generations, because each is different. The millennials and the Generation Xers have to realize that people who are hiring or managing them in most industries are probably not going to be from their generation.

Therefore, younger applicants need to learn how to communicate and learn the values from different generations, because tailoring their message to the interviewer is going to resonate well with the company. I don't want to make a blanket statement that everyone from a particular generation is going to fit into one communication style or value system, but this does provide insight.

Jill Randolph: Have you heard from employers that networking is their preferred means of finding new candidates, or are they still using traditional methods most often?

Rebecca Patten-Lemons: I think they are using both. Statistics show networking is the number one method to find a job, and employers prefer that method. Resumes and online applications are static information, but if HR has a proven employee who recommends a job candidate, that is going to be a meaningful referral.

"If {students] are going to use social media professionally, they need to make sure their pictures and postings convey a professional image."

At the same time, people need to have a balanced job search. They still have to complete online applications, use various online job boards and use internships as a back door into many companies. They can't put all of their eggs in one basket. This is when it becomes clear that the job seeker needs to be in touch with their college career center.

I talk to employers all day long, and when I learn of a student or an alumnus who is very sharp, I will go out of my way to reach out to an employer and tell them I have a really great candidate who I think will be a great fit for their company. Employers love to receive those calls from career center staff, and when they do, they usually take notice. I won't make the call for job seekers on campus who never visit the career center, or who do very little or no job searching, because I am not going to put my name behind someone I don't know will prove me right.

At Ivy Tech, we have a special program called CareerStart, where we review each step of the job search process, from resume writing, interviewing, dressing for success and networking. As students go through this training and have proven they are strong job candidates, we actively work with them and go out of our way to reach out to employers and endorse them. We would like to help every Ivy Tech student, but we are not going to put our name behind everyone, because not all students are serious about their job search. Employers love to receive a CareerStart referral from us, because hired referrals have proven to be great employees. Services from career centers and alumni associations are great resources many students don't utilize.

Jill Randolph: What advice do you offer students regarding how to have a work-life balance once they start working full-time?

Rebecca Patten-Lemons: Some practical advice we give our students is to take advantage of every available resource. Certain students need to focus on financial resources or supportive services. Our TRIO program helps students who receive financial-aid, have a disability, or are the first person in their family working towards a college degree. As long as students fall under two of these three classifications, they can work with a TRIO advisor whose mission is to help students lift the barriers they are facing. TRIO advisors have money to help students pay their utility bills, and they can also give daycare referrals and help people out with private tutoring and registering for next semester's classes. A lot of our students just need to know that they have support from people who want to help them be successful.

We also encourage our students, no matter if they are working part-time or full-time, to seek out an employer that offers tuition benefits. There are two reasons for this, as employers who offer tuition reimbursement will limit their employees' financial burden, and they are likely more apt to offer flexible schedules to allow their employees to further their education.

I think students need to look at each other and use interdependence as well. For example, I know students who take the same English class with the same professor, but on different days. They are both single moms, so while one student is in class, the other is watching the children.

Lastly, people need to socialize with peer groups. If family and friends who believe in college education do not surround a student, that student is not as likely to be successful. Statistics show that when people are surrounded with others who are educationally motivated and career-oriented, they are more likely to stay in school and be successful.

Jill Randolph: Do you have any career-related books or websites you recommend to your students?

Rebecca Patten-Lemons: We like Career Realism, which is a great website with a lot of very pertinent information.

We also use a website here called InterviewStream, which is an interview simulator. If a student has a question, an animated person will come on the screen and ask, "Why should I hire you?" Students know it's a practice interview, but inevitably their heart will start to beat faster, their hands will become sweaty, and they will have the same nervous energy as they would in a real interview.

It's great, because the software teaches students how to handle their nervous energy, and their answer to the question will be videotaped as long as they have a webcam on their computer. This allows them to play it back and see what they look like, if they are moving their hands too much, and how many times they hesitate or say, "um". Students can then watch a 30-second video that tells them what an employer really wants to hear when they ask this question.

Thanks to the Internet, I think a lot of students can learn how to build a resume effectively. Students still are not always as strong on interviews, and that is also very important. A good resume will get them invited for an interview, and a good interview is what will land them a job. If they interview well, they are more likely to be offered a job and are also more likely to be able to negotiate a higher salary based on their interview performance.

We also encourage students to use Facebook as a professional networking tool. If they are going to use social media professionally, they need to make sure their pictures and postings convey a professional image. LinkedIn is another great website job seekers can use as a professional networking tool, where people can add recommendations for their peers. We complete references all of our Career Start candidates, so when employers check LinkedIn, they can read our recommendation.

Jill Randolph: How has your school has changed from years past?

Rebecca Patten-Lemons: In the last ten years, Ivy Tech has doubled in enrollment. Technology has changed both how we provide education and how we disseminate information. Our students can receive a text message now that tells them school is closed for a snow day. At the career center, we are doing much more with technology. While our enrollment has grown, our staff size has not matched that growth, so we need to work smarter, not harder. We are doing a lot of things online too, and InterviewStream is one great example. Students can now complete a mock interview without requiring a career counselor to coach them for an hour. We also have an online job board exclusive to Ivy Tech. We have a lot of employers that prefer to hire an Ivy Tech student or alumni rather than an unknown.

We also live in a more stressful environment today, and as a result there are a lot more barriers or factors working against our students and their success. I think most colleges and universities are especially focused on student retention right now. We have a lot of incoming students and we are shifting our focus to not only get them in the door, but also to keep them here and help them achieve their goals, whatever they might be. For some, it's going to be a six-week certificate, for others, it's a two-year career degree.

I think it is key for students to keep an open mind, a creative perspective, and to try things. If those things don't work, they need to dust themselves off and try a different approach or path. We are here to help them with what ever their educational and career goals may be, to provide those solutions cost-effectively and with personal attention.

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