For students at Western Michigan University, getting that 4.0 GPA might be their only goal. However, it comes at a cost. They may be missing out on careers because of it.
Internships, work experience, and mentorships are all transferable skills that universities can’t provide.
“What you learn in the classroom is not enough,” said Sharickah Jones, career advisor for the Career Zone at WMU. “The knowledge of it is not enough; you have to have that hands-on experience.
Located in Ellsworth Hall, The Career Zone opened in fall 2012 as a part of Career and Student Employment Services. The office is open on Monday through Friday from noon to 5 p.m. It’s a friendly open office where students can feel comfortable to get resume and interview help, but it’s not a place for handouts.
“There are definitely students that come in and expect us to have a contract for a job right there waiting for them. They expect us to call companies and see if they’re hiring,” she said. “I think it’s a great dis-service to the student and that’s actually not what we do.”
The Career Zone’s purpose is to lead students in the right direction. While the University’s programs also try to help, ultimately it’s up to the individual to take the extra steps to seal a career path.
“There are not enough courses where you are getting hands-on experience in the class, mostly it’s just internships where you actually have that experience,” Jones said. “I believe that the curriculum does prepare you to be successful once you’re in that role, but the steps from your senior year when you walk across that stage to when you’re in that role, there’s a whole period of time where you have to network, you have to search for jobs.”
Recent graduates will search, network and interview with employers in the weeks that pass after graduation. This time is where self-motivation kicks in.
“If an employer has a stack of 50 resumes—equally qualified individuals, same background and same educational experiences—but you can’t interview, you don’t shake their hand firmly, you don’t ask for business cards, you don’t answer the questions detailed enough for them using the STAR method and things like that, you’re going to be out of the running,” she said.
Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Tim Greene, said that graduates should have two things when they leave WMU: an official transcript and a portfolio of experiences.
“When they go to an employer, they can say, ‘Not only am I book smart, but I also can demonstrate that I can do it, I have a passion for it and I know how to work through problems in my area,’” he said.
Graduates of WMU should expect to get more than just a major and a minor from a university education.
“Some of the curriculum is also going to recognize that you need a foreign language, because you’re built to be a global communicator,” he said. “We’ve got the general education area that gives you that breadth outside of your specific area. Then we’re going to go beyond that. We’re going to talk about internships, co-ops and working in your area in industry, in government, in some other entity outside of the university so that you get that experience.”
Administration and students agree that a university education alone isn’t enough to start a career. Phil Van Allen, a senior studying secondary education, said his teaching internship made him feel prepared to graduate.
“The university did well. They did a good job making sure we had a chance to practice certain situations. We had a chance to practice what we might face. They can’t hit on everything; you just never know what you’re going to face in a classroom.”
The College of Education requires an internship for its students. The internship isn’t competitive; the college finds the placements for them. Van Allen is a student teacher at Loy Norrix High School.
“The experience I’ve had in the classroom doing my internship: there’s no way to put a value on it,” he said. “How I would’ve gone into a classroom without an internship would’ve been terrible, I would’ve not made it as a teacher.”
In the College of Education, students are required to take a seminar that pairs with their internship. Here they learn how to write cover letters and resumes. Some departments don’t require seminars either.
Catherine Bacik, a 33-year-old non-traditional student studying English, knows that some students aren’t prepared.
“You don’t have school. You don’t have parties every night. You can’t see your best friend every day,” Bacik said. “When reality hits, you realize just how unprepared you are.”
She recommended that the university offer a one or two credit course on careers. Majors that require an internship often include career preparation in their seminars that couple with the hands-on-experience. The English department doesn’t require an internship.
“The student also has to be the one who wants to do it,” she said.
The university can only offer as much help as students are motivated to receive. It’s up to students to decide how much value they want from their degree.