Lifelong Success Approach To Career Development: An Interview With Indiana Wesleyan University Career Director

By Jill Randolph
May 13, 2010

The following is an interview transcript with Stephanie Oden, Director of Career Development with the Center for Life Calling and Leadership at Indiana Wesleyan University. Ms. Oden focuses on facilitating students' discovery of life calling and strategies for life-long career navigation. She also teaches in the Leadership Studies program and is the author of "Ready, Set, Engage: Create Dynamic Teams and Unwavering Customer Alliances." Formerly, she advised corporate and private companies on leadership development, succession planning, team engagement and customer relationship management. In her 20 years in the corporate sector, she served in a variety of leadership roles. Stephanie graduated from Auburn University with a Bachelors degree in Electrical Engineering, and received her Masters degree in Business with an emphasis in organizational leadership from Indiana University.

Indiana Wesleyan University, which has an undergraduate population of over 3,200, prepares each student to become a world changer through an integrated experience of intellectual challenge, spiritual growth, and leadership development. They call students to Christian character, expect academic excellence, equip them for success in their vocation, foster leadership development, and prepare them for service.

Indiana Wesleyan University's approach to career development focuses on finding a students Life Calling, which is a clear understanding of who and what a person is and the purpose for which God created that person. This becomes the foundation for life decisions. The Office of Career Development equips students with the tools and strategies to navigate career transitions and realign their career choices with their life purpose.

Interview Transcript

Jill Randolph: How has your university has changed from the past?

Stephanie Oden: Initially, the school started as a small liberal arts college, with limited career-development type of activities. Our focus was more on how we could provide students standard tools, such as libraries full of career help books. We wanted to also get students in touch with resume writing, and that was where our career development focused.

Although we still have our library of books we wanted more for our students than just jobs. The concept of life calling being a unique distinctive for the university was adopted about 10 years ago. The Center For Life Calling & Leadership was established and Career Development was placed in the center to help develop the concept of life calling and careers.

We developed the concept that people are unique because of their life's calling based on the conceptual model created by Dr. Bill Millard. We wanted to incorporate the concept of life purpose into students' lives and future careers. That is when the shift occurred, when we went from being a resume-writing center to being much more outgoing in our processes.

"We feel our approach to career development is very distinctive, and we link our students' skills, experiences and passions to what they believe they are called to do."

Today we talk with students about their life's calling or purpose, and how that ties into their major. A major isn't always someone's life calling, but it should in some way tie into it. We feel our approach to career development is very distinctive, and we link our students' skills, experiences and passions to what they believe they are called to do.

Jill Randolph: I recently read an article that discussed how the recession could actually be good for introspection, and people who have lost their jobs mid-career because of the economy can now ask themselves what their passion is, and hopefully they can find a job that relates to it. It goes along with the adage that if people do what they love, then success will follow. If people are passionate about what they do, then it's not work to them, and they will be more likely to be successful. They'll be rich either in that they love their job, or they will be successful and wealthy, and hopefully it's both.

Stephanie Oden: Hopefully both, correct. If people learn that they have a calling and can succeed with many different jobs, it opens them up to new opportunities, including situations like the one we are in right now with the economy. People are not what they do, and that is one of the messages we communicate to our students.

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

Stephanie Oden: There are many websites available, but one of the simplest ways students can get help is by simply asking questions. The best place to start is by asking questions to faculty or peers, or by doing a search on Google, and then the student can investigate the sites and careers that are of interest. The website is one of the best occupational sites available.

The most straightforward and meaningful book from the standpoint of linking personality and career choice is called "Do What You Are", and it is an excellent resource.

Jill Randolph: Which tools do you have in place to help students along their path to help determine who they are?

Stephanie Oden: The best tool I have is the students themselves. One of the approaches I have found to be successful is not to put aside students' dreams, but instead determine what about their dream job seems most satisfying or interesting to them. Once we complete that task, we then look for other job opportunities that have those same characteristics, and we point the students towards those other potential careers.

For example, someone who wants to become a performing artist may enjoy being in front of loud crowds and dealing with large groups of people. One of the things that type of personality could relate to, for example, is being a large event planner. They will be in front of large groups, and they will still get the excitement of making sure everything goes according to plan.

I teach students how to extract the elements they really like about certain careers, so digging more deeply is very important. I help them integrate that with faith, character and service. They need to learn how to extract the things they really like from the positions they're considering, and then be aware of the transferrable skills of each job. Connecting that with who they are called to be is the "sweet spot".

Jill Randolph: Do you think this will ensure that students aren't boxed in or potentially disappointed if they don't get that one specific job?

"We want students to be prepared so that if they have to change careers five years from now, they will understand that they have transferable skills and will be able to find a job that matches their purpose. Job searching may be uncomfortable, but it's not a hopeless situation, especially when one knows he or she has transferrable skills."

Stephanie Oden: Exactly. The key is transferable skills. I offer a lot of experiential training, one example is when I gave random job postings to a group of students and then asked them to pick the job they wanted the most. This forced them to find a job that matched their transferrable skills and interests, where they could be successful, and then apply for that position.

We want students to be prepared so that if they have to change careers five years from now, they will understand that they have transferable skills and will be able to find a job that matches their purpose. Job searching may be uncomfortable, but it's not a hopeless situation, especially when one knows he or she has transferrable skills.

The concept of preparing for a career instead of looking for the first job is different from what I experienced as a college student. One of our university distinctives is focusing on connecting faith, character and service to life purpose. No one talked about calling when I was in college especially in the career development realm. At Auburn, I only used my student development office to find a co-op position. I had no idea about resume writing seminars or any other of the opportunities.

Our Career Development Office is located in the main heartbeat of campus and actively markets our programs. We attempt to be innovative and meet students where they are. For example, we have evening hours for resume help with trained specialists.

Jill Randolph: Do you think some students might not visit career services because they don't think they will need your advice until they are seniors or they have anxiety about starting their career search process?

Stephanie Oden: There is a lot of anxiety, and in some ways, students avoid the office because of fear. They know if they start thinking about what they are going to do after graduation, they may have to make some decisions and do some work. Career planning, resume writing and interviewing are not things students can study for. Nor are all the answers readily available. This process is completely different, and oftentimes they avoid it.

The other aspect of getting to students is starting earlier, before the anxiety of "the rest of their lives" sets in. We have started being more intentional about communicating our services to sophomores. We can help them gain experience that will make their resume look better during their senior year.

One of my clients is a sophomore art therapy major who is already looking at the internships she can do in the art therapy field. She has already found a dream internship in a field where experience is preferred and positions are not readily available. Job searching is not such a scary process for students who have completed internships and have some experience to include on their resume. The goal is to complete an internship by their senior year, its and evolution of a process.

Jill Randolph: Your approach must also help students discover which careers will be good for them early on in college. Having a focus makes the whole process much easier and less daunting.

Stephanie Oden: Definitely. It's important that students make a target list and eventually a choice, even if they may change that decision later on. Making a list of potential career paths is less daunting, but there is still some work involved. The students have focus because they have a goal. I assure them that one job does not equal a career, which helps them feel less anxiety with making a wrong choice.

Jill Randolph: What advice do you give to students who are not sure what they want to do with their lives after graduation?

Stephanie Oden: I have some students who come in during their senior year who are just starting to think about a career. We have a conversation and I ask them what they like to do. I also have them tell me some of the things they believe they are good at, so we start down that path and work our way backwards.

I give these students a list of positions and tell them to look at the trend information for in-demand jobs and I ask them to decide if any of those jobs may be of interest. If, during the process, the students realize they don't like eight of the options, at the very least, those students will discover the options they don't like and start to focus in on what they do like.

The next step is investigating the requirements of the jobs that interest each student. We start by looking at the skills and experiences required, and from that point we go into a bit more detail. I help students determine their interests by giving them a list of skills, which is sorted based on those that are scientific, analytical or creative.

I think almost every career development office uses a tool like this, or one similar, where students list some of the things they think they are good at, and circle the skills at which they think they are especially well versed. We use that tool to help decide the direction we are going to go in, based on the student's interests and strengths. Usually, students start by deciding what they don't want to do career-wise. Either way, we can start moving towards the student's career interests.

There is data that supports the claim that within three to five years after graduation, most graduates won't be working at a job related to their major. Knowing that, how do we really measure what is success and what is failure? I know my direct path wasn't in career development, so I can directly speak about a path that's not a straight from A to B; I think my path went A, B, Z, Y, C!

Jill Randolph: That is what I really like about "Do What You Are", as it doesn't just focus on one or two careers related to particular personality types. It gives 20 careers that may potentially be good fits for people because their personality incorporates those facets.

"People should want more than just a job, they should want a position where they can work at something fulfilling and make a difference."

Stephanie Oden: I agree with you, that is why I like that book too. It doesn't narrow options down, and it gives students a wide range of jobs they can do based on their personality type. Students can also look up other personality types so that they can perhaps find another career they are interested in. I found it to be one of the best resources for students as they complete the career development discovery process. Before I let the students see the book, however, I tell them that no book or personality test is meant to be the complete answer to what they should do with their lives.

I also encourage students to use experiences they have had to help move them to the next phase of their lives. Internships are a great segue, and on-campus and volunteer opportunities are also helpful. Students should never doubt the fact that they can get into their dream job.

To help students on their paths, we work on their 60-second elevator pitches, which never includes simply stating that they want a job. That is not an appropriate answer for any student who has used my services. People should want more than just a job, they should want a position where they can work at something fulfilling and make a difference. By having students practice their elevator pitch, it gives them more confidence as well.

Jill Randolph: What about students who are shy about tooting their own horns? If they are afraid to verbalize their skills because they feel like they will be bragging about themselves, how do you help them overcome that?

Stephanie Oden: I encourage those students to practice in smaller groups. We have events on campus with employers in attendance, which gives students an opportunity to practice talking about their career goals. I have found that when I give students purpose and parameters, they are less shy and don't feel like they are bragging.

I tell our shy students that they need make an impact and that they have to sell the best part about themselves in 60 seconds. By telling them that their pitch is only 60 seconds, the students know they won't have to say too much about themselves because they don't have much time, which gives them a concrete goal and helps them focus. Parameters also help the students who are good at selling their skills not to talk too much.

Jill Randolph: What do you think is the one area of the job search process students struggle with the most, and what do you recommend to your students to help them overcome that weakness?

Stephanie Oden: The biggest problem I see is that students don't ask about the things they are unsure of. For example, we had a career fair with a normal registration process, with questions asking the students' name, major and home state. We added one additional question that asked for the students' marketable skill, and most didn't know what their most marketable skill was.

Many of them avoided the question, and when they were asked why didn't they answer that question, a lot of them then asked us what a marketable skill is. It's okay not to know, but it's not okay not to ask or research the meaning, especially if a position requires a person to know the answer.

I think students are afraid to ask questions, and it goes back to the fear of the unknown and the fear of giving the wrong answer. All throughout school, students either pass a test or fail. Real life however, is not like that, so it is preferable for students to ask questions rather than to ignore something, which may potentially lead to problems. I create environments where it's acceptable figuring out the answer is a part of the success.

Jill Randolph: I agree. If students don't ask any questions or misinterpret an interview question because they don't seek clarification, they miss opportunities to tell employers what makes them the ideal candidate.

Stephanie Oden: Exactly. If students talk about their accomplishments and what makes them an asset to the company, that's not bragging.

Jill Randolph: There are currently many unemployed people applying to jobs, including those for which they maybe overqualified. What do you recommend students highlight about themselves in order to outshine the competition?

Stephanie Oden: The thing I love about Indiana Wesleyan is that it makes answering this question very simple for our students. Our mission statement is to produce students who are strong in character, scholarship, and leadership, so our students' experiences are rich in terms of leadership, scholarship and character. That is one thing that makes our students and graduates stand out, especially against the unethical business practices we hear about in the news.

Another advantage today's students have over a lot of other candidates is that they are computer and Internet savvy. Recent graduates have a strong grasp of various types of technology, which is a unique self-marketing proposition. They have the ability to communicate effectively using current technology and they can also bring their energy and enthusiasm to the work force.

Those are things I recommend students today highlight about themselves. At the same time, students should highlight some of the longstanding qualities companies are always looking for, including innovation, problem solving and critical thinking.

Jill Randolph: Do you think your students tend to look for more humanistic or eco-friendly career paths, or do they try to make a positive impact wherever they work?

Stephanie Oden: I have one business major who wants to be an event planner, and the key for a career like that is networking. I have another business major who is interested in sales because she likes selling. I know there will be opportunities for her to make positive and ethical impacts.

"I also tell them to make a list of everyone they know, and to start to practice their 60-second elevator pitch on all of them.."

I also tell them to make a list of everyone they know, and to start to practice their 60-second elevator pitch on all of them.

Also, most of my business students are going after careers requiring soft skills or business development. I have had students research to find out which eco-friendly career their transferable skills would be most suited to as a way of helping them expand their list of opportunities. I will also add that because the focus is on fulfilling a life purpose, it helps the students make a positive impact wherever they work.

Jill Randolph: Companies like Starbucks and Ben and Jerry's are known to treat their employees well, and they treat their vendor partners well because they believe in fair trade. Do you feel there will be more up trending of initiatives like that?

Stephanie Oden: That is my hope. I am very optimistic, because I see the potential in students, and I hope they are getting the information they need to make the right decisions. For example, when I give career development sessions, I talk to students like they are all in business and the product they are selling is themselves. We use a business model concept in the class, which focuses on life skills, careers and leadership. We have conversations, staff meetings, and projects where students have the opportunity to market themselves. The students are essentially networking in this class, and I love it when they get so honed in on each of their peers' 60-second pitch that they start recruiting for each other. I attempt to model for them through their experiences what authentic leadership looks like.

Jill Randolph: In a bad economy, a lot of people are forced to change career paths. Do you have any advice to help students down the road, when this may happen to them?

Stephanie Oden: I recommend that students get involved with professional associations and stay involved to some degree. Not only does being active with professional associations help with networking, but it also exposes students to employers in their field of interest and possible mentors who can help the students with the next phases of their life.

Jill Randolph: Besides joining a professional organization, what other advice do you give to students regarding networking?

Stephanie Oden: I definitely recommend that students create a profile on LinkedIn to start digitally building and tracking their network. I also tell them to make a list of everyone they know, and to start to practice their 60-second elevator pitch on all of them. Almost every college student is asked what he or she is going to do after graduation, and each student needs to be able to tell people what he or she wants to do career-wise and inquire if the contact knows of anyone who can help with their path. This should become very natural for students.

I also encourage students to type their area of interest into a web browser to see if there are specific names that keep coming up, which may be potential networking contacts. New developments in the field may also show up in search results, which students can communicate during interviews, to show their interest in and knowledge of the field. These are tips that haven't changed over the years and it is still important for people to be knowledgeable about current events and how they apply to the big picture.

Jill Randolph: What do you recommend to students about using employer's job description buzzwords?

Stephanie Oden: A lot of students think they shouldn't include buzz words in resume because they have been taught not to copy other people's - or in this case, the employer's - work. However, students need to realize that most companies are looking for buzzwords in resume to show a potential match, so it's best if students use the same words the company used to describe the needs of the job posting.

Speaking to employers in a language they understand is a key to getting in the door. It is equally important to remember that it is being able to help companies solve their problems in a unique way that will help them be successful.

Jill Randolph: What do you recommend to students regarding having a work-life balance once they start working full-time?

"Indiana Wesleyan is unique in that we strive to look more closely at students' life calling or life purpose, with a focus on faith, character and service. We prepare students not only for their first job, but also for life-long purposeful career navigation."

Stephanie Oden: I tell them that balance doesn't exist because everything will not be equally weighted. They have to look at what is important to them in terms of their physical, financial, community, spiritual, and work life. People need to decide what they want from each of these areas, and then make a conscious decision that some things won't get as much energy as others. Everyone's balance will be different.

Some people decide that they want to be the president of a company very quickly. They will have to realize that an intense focus like this may mean less time for physical exercise, or they may have less of a social life. Or the decision to pursue advanced degrees may cause balance to shift. The thing about balance is that it will be specific to the individual. As students work to be balanced and excel, sometimes the simple things get lost in the shuffle. I remind students to take time in their journey to be gracious.

While today's students are very well versed in the latest technologies, they also need to remember the importance of traditional manners and that "please" and "thank you" are still important in career development and everyday life.

Indiana Wesleyan is unique in that we strive to look more closely at students' life calling or life purpose, with a focus on faith, character and service. We prepare students not only for their first job, but also for life-long purposeful career navigation.

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