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In the Spotlight: New Beginnings
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An Interview with Katie Snyder, Career Counselor

California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly SLO)


As a member of the Freshman Focus Team (FFT) at Cal Poly Career Services, Katie Snyder works primarily with first-year freshmen to help them with career exploration, development, and planning. In this interview, Katie shares her experience with career programming for first-year students and general tips for working with the incoming class of freshmen, as well as some advice for other new professionals based on what she has learned in her first year of full-time employment.


MPACE: Katie, can you tell us more about the Freshman Focus Team and your role?


Katie: As a Freshman Focus Team (FFT) career counselor, I work with freshmen to help them resolve uncertainties about their choice of major, explore how their interests and strengths can translate into a meaningful career, and introduce them to career possibilities and resources that can jump-start their career planning. Most student affairs professionals know the benefits of a freshman utilizing their campus career center early on, but the challenge is that many freshmen do not know or think that career services can help them quite yet – and some students may know the benefit but are too intimidated to make that first appointment.


Instead of patiently waiting for first-year students to seek out our services, FFT is constantly looking for ways to develop freshman-friendly programming that engages students early on, meets students where they are (both literally and developmentally), and ultimately provides a framework for them to see Career Services as an approachable and supportive campus resource. We really are shifting the campus landscape for students, parents, faculty, and employers to recognize that meaningful career development can occur as early as freshman year.


MPACE: What are some examples of freshman-friendly programming that FFT has developed?


Katie: In addition to offering typical career center services, our FFT counselors have implemented some fantastic programming that engages first-year students early on. We start the spring before our freshmen even arrive by participating in Admitted Student Panels, but the real fun begins during SLO Days (summer orientations) and our nationally-acclaimed Week of Welcome (WOW), where last year we introduced over 3,500 incoming freshmen to Career Services through early programming events such as Change of Major workshops, StrengthsQuest workshops, supporter panels, and office tours.


We continue to engage freshmen throughout the year by partnering with faculty to present career-related topics in their introductory classes, developing freshman-focused workshops such as a 4-part Pizza and Personality Series and a 3-part Freshman Internship Series, and offering events in the residence halls such as etiquette dinners, Cookies with Career Counselors, and a Freshman Career Resource Fair. Perhaps my favorite FFT program is our two career groups – the Major and Career Exploration Group and the Jumpstart Your Career Group – both of which are exclusive to freshmen. These weekly groups provide peer support, resources, and career-related stress reduction to students ranging from the early stages of self-awareness and career exploration all the way to career readiness and the job/internship search.


Through all of these meaningful services and intentional programming, FFT was able to engage with 92% of freshmen during the 2015-2016 year!


MPACE: As we approach the start of the academic year and welcome a new cohort of incoming freshmen, what tips do you have for career counselors who would like to do programming and counseling with freshman students?


Katie: Although it may depend on your particular college and student population, I would be more than happy to provide some general tips:


  • Hold their hand, but not too tight. As counselors it is our responsibility to support, guide, and empower our students, but we also need to gently challenge freshmen to reflect, enhance their self-awareness, and occasionally step into uncomfortable spaces and try new things. Freshman year is a critical point for students to start developing self-sufficiency, decision making skills, and an overall professional brand, and a career counselor can be a great catalyst for this.
  • Be patient and meet them where they’re at. This is their first year of college, a pivotal transition where so much is happening, and we can’t assume that all freshmen are ready to jump into career exploration or planning. Sure, I’ve had students who are ready to jump into resume writing, but I’ve also had students who just want to process their first year. The latter is still a great opportunity to build rapport, pick up on career-related nuggets (like classes they’re enjoying), and naturally move into a deeper conversation about career development.
  • Provide online resources, appropriate referrals, and strategies to connect with others. We can certainly help students in appointments and workshops, but it’s a good idea to encourage the student to keep the momentum going. Whether it’s through a resource like LinkedIn Alumni Tool, a conversation with an upperclassmen, or tips on setting up Informational Interviews, these actions can all greatly help a freshman explore and start building a network. My advice: don’t overwhelm them! Collaborate with your student to identify 2-3 manageable and meaningful action steps they can do after your meeting.
  • Embrace “Planned Happenstance.” I truly believe that once freshmen understand that career exploration and networking can happen anytime, anywhere, they are less intimidated by “career development” and see their careers as more of a fluid, natural adventure. Encourage them to be curious when they meet new professionals, to try new things like volunteering or joining a club, and to see unplanned events/interactions (and yes, even failures) as potential opportunities.
  • Freshman-friendly programming. Your career center probably offers workshops and events, but consider the following from a freshman’s perspective: the location (is it across campus or is it near their residence hall?), the title and description of the event (is it a “Resume Workshop” or is it a “High School to College Resume Workshop”?), and of course the actual content of the event itself (are you offering workshops specifically for freshmen that encourage exploration, self-awareness, and anything with “101” i.e. “Resumes 101”?). Don’t be afraid to ask students what events they want to see and whenever possible try to incorporate food, fun, and activities.


MPACE: Speaking of newcomers, you are a new working professional. How has the transition from grad student and intern to full-time professional been? What advice do you have for other new professionals and/or recent grads?


Katie: After the initial month of wondering how people got through a week of full-time work and wanted to do anything other than watch Netflix on the couch all weekend, I finally got into my groove and learned my optimal working style. Here are a few observations and tips I would tell other new professionals:

  • Work-Life Balance. Many of us discuss self-care and balance with our students, but we need to practice what we preach in order to avoid burn out. The happier and healthier we are in our own lives, the more present and effective we will be for our students. Whether it’s going on walks during lunch, setting reminders to stand up every hour, making time to socialize with colleagues, or establishing a short routine to practice mindfulness after work, these small acts will have a drastic impact on your ability to do your job well and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
  • Supervisor. Make sure you have someone (supervisor, colleague, mentor, etc.) who can support you in the transition to a full-time professional in a supportive and transparent way. I am fortunate to have a supervisor who is the epitome of the “hold their hand, but not too tight” concept. Whether I am asking her about my professional wardrobe, to navigating delicate team dynamics and campus politics, to tips on speaking up in meetings, I have felt the perfect amount of support while being gently challenged to develop as a professional and as a counselor.
  • Try new things, but don’t take on too much! There are certainly a lot of things new professionals can jump right into. Although I encourage this as a way to expand your skills and excel in your role (and prove your worth as a new employee), I also warn against spreading yourself too thin. Think: quality over quantity. Find yourself a few cool projects, committees, or other involvements, then give yourself time to thrive in those capacities. Remember, you’ll have plenty of time to do great things and no one is expecting you to be a wizard your very first year!
  • Self-reflection. We encourage our students to reflect on their experiences– so should we! When you transition from being an intern to working 40 hours a week, you start to notice and better understand your work style and strengths. Take the time to observe what you do well, what your colleagues come to you for, and what comes naturally to you (especially when it is busy and stressful). Instead of spending your energy on weakness-fixing, focus on your natural strengths and dedicate time to developing them. When you are able to utilize your strengths in your job, work doesn’t feel like “work” anymore and becomes very enjoyable! 

Katie Snyder, M.S. is a Freshman Focus Team Career Counselor at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly SLO). She can be reached at ksnyde04@calpoly.edu or on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/in/katie-snyder
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