Practical Strategies and Evidence-Based Approaches to COVID-19: One Institution’s Response
By Billie Streufert and Mark Blackburn
As the COVID-19 pandemic transcended the world, career practitioners encountered significant disruptions to vocational services. Extended institutional Spring Breaks rapidly converted to semi-permanent online learning environments. As a result, post-secondary career professionals needed to navigate new landscapes quickly. To ensure the safety of all constituents, employers made the difficult decision to end spring or summer internships. Seniors suddenly found themselves unable to participate in graduation ceremonies, much less in-person interviews. Students began to question more deeply the occupational outlook of their chosen career or major, anxiously wondering about the subsequent disruptions the labor market would encounter in the future.
While unprecedented and unique, researchers offer recommendations to guide the responses of career practitioners during this difficult time. Augustana University, South Dakota, used this literature to inform its response. Post-secondary professionals can use the following suggestions to formulate their own strategies and practices:
Lead with empathy. Whether it was graduation, senior art shows, athletic competitions, summer undergraduate research, or internships, students experience dynamic emotions when the activities they hoped for did not occur as they imagined. Career-practitioners' first task is to acknowledge this loss, which could be traumatic and is often disenfranchised or unacknowledged by society (Anderson, Goodman, & Schlossberg, 2012; Doka, 1989; Savickas, 2013). It may be more difficult to communicate compassion in print form. Like other institutions (Kansas State University, 2020), Augustana (2020a) published online videos so students heard directly from career professionals and sensed an affective social presence (Rourke, Anderson, Garrison, & Archer, 2001).
Leverage technology for seamless service delivery. Information Technology staff and vendor partners can provide ongoing consultation that permits career practitioners to tailor resources to their specific populations and ensure seamless, ethical service delivery (NCDA, 2015). For example, Augustana used the Waiting Room features of Zoom to preserve students’ privacy and prevent Zoom bombing (Redden, 2020). Alternative scheduling options were available to accommodate international students in different time zones.
Identify students in vocational distress early and connect students to resources continuously. Career practitioners proactively scale interventions to personally contact students who might be in distress and not have the energy to contact someone or the ability to identify when they need assistance (Glennen, 1975). To achieve this, Augustana’s career staff partnered with the Student Affairs Division to survey all students. Students rated their distress levels, reported the ways they wanted to hear from the institution, and noted the likelihood that they would return in the Fall. Students then received tailored resources from career services. By flipping the curriculum through this messaging, staff deepened students’ knowledge and prepared students for more personal support (Wheelan, 2016).
As institutions respond, one size does not fit all. Some students needed support as they transitioned to working remotely. Others needed permission to prioritize their health or tips on ways to advocate for their safety if they were working on-site. Individuals were also navigating their first virtual interviews or applying for re-employment assistance. Proactive outreach permitted staff to provide tailored, timely responses. Future follow-up surveys or session questions also confirm staff decreased students’ distress.
Restore a sense of scholarship. Experiential learning is a high-impact practice that permits students to better understand themselves and their options (Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2018; Krumboltz, Foley, & Cotter, 2013). While summer internships may not be possible for everyone, career practitioners can think creatively with others to reconstruct students’ reflective learning, agency, and meaning making (Baxter Magolda & King, 2008; Savickas, 2013). For example, Augustana’s Diversity Office hosted a case competition. The Business Administration faculty offered a special topics course that used timely common readings about leadership. Other institutions could sponsor online debates, creative projects, literature reviews, or data analysis to engage students. Students can also continue to conduct virtual informational interviews with alumni or introduce themselves to employers that interest them.
Teach students ways to manage their anxiety. Individuals make the best career decisions when they exhibit metacognition and examine the accuracy of their thinking (Sampson, Reardon, Peterson, & Lenz, 2004). Transitions are often not as difficult as individuals imagine (Anderson et al., 2012). Staff may need to support students as they shift any negative thoughts. For example, Augustana (2020b) reminded students that the circumstances were temporary and that the transferrable skills they developed in college did not expire. Staff is currently arranging an online event so students can hear directly from alumni who graduated during the recession and can affirm their ability to thrive.
Collaborate with colleagues. Career practitioners adopt a holistic systems lens (Patton & McMahon, 2014). Their role is critical as they connect students to psychological, financial, and campus resources that meet their basic needs (Maslow, 1993). While these areas may sometimes be siloed on campus, there is an opportunity for integration. For example, to ease students’ ability to navigate the new virtual environment during registration, Augustana’s career and academic planning office partnered with the Registrar’s Office, Financial Aid, and the Business Office to offer a single sign-on drop-in Zoom sessions. This approach pooled resources to offer a continuous, hassle-free connection for students. Similarly, collaborative marketing campaigns also avoided over-messaging to students. Career staff is currently collaborating with Alumni Affairs to provide scaled re-employment counseling to dislocated workers.
Examine ways new practices, policies, and structures marginalize students. Career practitioners are called to practice social justice (Pope, Briddick, & Wilson, 2013). Sometimes they may unintentionally create barriers that prevent others from achieving their goals. For example, some technology is not accessible to individuals with disabilities. Other students may not have access to a computer or the internet when they are off campus. This may prevent them from completing self-assessments or engaging with practitioners. Staff need to recognize and avoid any disparate impact of these decisions. For example, Augustana offered a scholarship for student with limited access to technology to ensure equitable, accessible learning environments. They also collaborated with campus and community-based organizations to respond to any housing or food insecurities.
Affirm students’ strengths and positive outcome expectations. If career-practitioners frame or focus on problems continually, they risk exhausting students. This may also convey students are deficient or that the future is bleak (Hiemestra & van Yperen, 2015; Lent & Brown, 2013). To foster self-efficacy and positive outlooks for the future, Augustana (2020b) affirmed students’ strengths and persistence in its publications, online events, and individual sessions.
Affirm students’ learning. The new online environment provides an opportunity for students to practice intellectual habits that transform them into independent, lifelong learners. Career practitioners can also use the COVID-19 context to teach students to manage their careers and practice adaptive behaviors. Students may acquire new interests, networking contacts, and coping skills while they also reconstruct their narrative and understand their experiences better (Lent & Brown, 2013; Savickas, 2013).
Practice self-care. As the volume and severity of students’ concerns increase, compassion fatigue may occur (Figley, 2002). To preserve their professional vitality, practitioners need to monitor their own stress and practice mindfulness or relaxation strategies (Thorne, 2007). The publications and events of the National Career Development Association (2020) can also provide renewal. Practitioners stay connected to rejuvenate themselves and to revisit the literature as their responses continue to evolve in the new COVID-19 environment.
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Billie Streufert, CCC, NCC, is the Assistant Vice Provost of Student Success at Augustana University, SD. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mark Blackburn serves as the Dean of Students at Augustana University, South Dakota, and may be reached at email@example.com.