Career Center Job #1: Equity
A fast-growing Boston high tech firm called Suffolk’s Center for Career Equity, Development & Success with a pretty typical request: The firm’s recruiter had heard glowing reviews of Suffolk graduates and wanted to make inroads with students who might become candidates for full-time jobs in coding, sales, and human resources after graduation.
But the newly reinvented Center for Career Equity, Development & Success had an atypical response.
“We asked them what kind of programs and support they had in place to ensure workplace equity that would foster the success of our students who may come to work there,” recalls Dave Merry, associate provost and executive director of the center.
An embarrassed silence followed. “They said, ‘What do you mean?’ We directed them to our Employer Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Toolkit for employers, and they set up a second meeting with us to strategize how to support new employees.”
The toolkit helps organizations assess and implement best practices in recruiting, hiring, retaining, and growing diverse talent, among other things.
The tech company is now on track to receive an invitation to Suffolk’s 2022 Spring Career Fair. “We feel much more confident that they have put in the work, and we are excited to work with them,” Merry says.
This fall, Suffolk University formally opened its dramatically re-envisioned Center for Career Equity, Development & Success, with a new name, new leadership, and a quadrupled staff size. The new center is committed to career readiness and to creating more equitable fields, career paths, and industries. The center aims to transform not only the way Suffolk students use their time as learners at the University to prepare for the workplace, but also set in motion changes that will positively transform the employers and workplaces that partner with students and graduates.
The ambitious end goal? Well-prepared and professionally successful students entering into meaningful careers with employers who value equity, diversity, and lifelong learning.
“We want people to think of Suffolk students as phenomenally ready to go into careers, as people who have done the thinking about how to succeed in the workplace before they have even left school,” Merry says.
It’s an opportunity within reach because of Suffolk’s unique assets: its historic emphasis on career readiness at both undergraduate and graduate levels, its heart-of-Boston location in the centers of finance, government, nonprofit and other arenas, and its network of accomplished local alumni, many of whom are in leadership positions at thousands of local companies. Suffolk graduates typically stay close and go far. At least half of 2015-2020 graduates work within the Greater Boston area, with about 25% working within the city itself.
“Career readiness is central to everything we do at Suffolk. It’s always been essential to the student experience,” says President Marisa Kelly.
Part of the paradigm shift is to integrate the Career Center and its values more deeply into the University culture, starting in the first year and through formal, for-credit internship training programs, all incorporating leading best practices, like NACE (National Association of Colleges and Employers) competencies for career readiness, and feedback on student work performance.
Suffolk’s Career Center is now part of the Welcome to Campus Orientation, and all first-year students now take for-credit career readiness classes. For one of their first exercises, students evaluate how their own identities will impact their careers, and how they can create more equity and opportunity for people who have been historically marginalized. Data and feedback from the students and their employers will be used to improve the programming, Merry says.
“While they are learning about how to find the dining halls and what their classes will be, we also want them to spend their first year thinking about how they want to shape their careers,” Merry says. It is meant as the start of a lifelong partnership with students, who may wish to use campus resources even decades later when undergoing career transitions.
Putting diversity, equity, and inclusion into practice
Equity has been at the heart of Suffolk’s mission since it was founded as a law school in 1906 to give students shut out of other local institutions an opportunity to access life-changing education. So making it a core part of the University’s career education was a natural evolution.
Merry and his team scoured decades of economic and demographic data on the career placement rates and trajectories of alumni at all levels. What they found was disturbing, though not necessarily atypical: Suffolk graduates of all races and genders were employed quickly, but their workplace experiences were wildly different in terms of salaries, the support they received on the job, and the amount of inclusion they experienced.
“There is a real, historic, measurable, true-in-the-data imbalance in how people who are white and how people who are not white are educated and how they prosper in our economy. That is inarguable,” says Merry.
Many employers today actually have a set of DEI values in place, but often don’t know how to make them actionable, says Merry. His expanded team plans to help close the gap by partnering with local and national employers who want to build out their systems to not just initially attract diverse candidates, but create best practices in how to retain and promote them over their careers.
“It’s just as important to be successful in the first three years of the job and beyond as it was to get the job in the first place,” says Merry.
Too many traditional college career centers still rely on outdated strategies to address inequity, which often place even more of a burden on students, professionals, and mentors from underrepresented groups, Merry says. Black alumni are routinely called on to help Black students who face injustices in the workplace, and students who are disabled are asked to utilize different resources, come to different workshops, and seek out specialized employers. LGBTQI students must come out to their advisors just to get resources that are relevant to them, he says.
“This amounts to real work, not only in terms of people hours but also the mental energy required, and the lack of a feeling of inclusion,” Merry says.
Suffolk aims to make DEI values central to all of the work the Career Center does on a day-to-day basis, he said.
Helping students thrive in changing work landscapes
The new Career Center was in planning stages long before the employment landscape was drastically upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it was actually well-poised to adjust to the altered workplace.
“The nature of preparing for employment is very different than pre-pandemic,” Merry explains. “The advances in technology and ‘future of work’ arrived much more quickly than anyone was expecting — remote work and hybrid arrangements that seemed impossible a year ago are now commonplace. The additional flexibility can be beneficial from an equity point of view, but we have to make sure it isn’t only for the workers who already have more advantage.”
To support the work, the Career Center team expanded in early 2021 from five to 22 staffers, many of whom are dedicated to nine specific Career Communities, including STEM & Sustainability, Healthcare, Journalism & Media, Government & Law, and Management & Entrepreneurship.
Center staffers work with both Suffolk faculty members and industry leaders in specific fields to create programming relevant to the opportunities and challenges of the moment. In addition to engaging students from day one in career conversations, once a student has declared a major, they are automatically enrolled in a career community. Students are also encouraged to explore more than one career community.
New staffers have also been brought on to specifically support Suffolk alumni who are several — or even many years — into their careers. “Building out a career is finding a calling. It means identifying your values and life goals, and learning how to build a professional network of mentors and colleagues who are going to be able to support you when you’re having success and failures in your professional life, and who will also make you aware of new opportunities. And that’s what the Center for Career Equity, Development & Success will help you build.”
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