Chatham University

Innovation & Research

Graduate faculty engage undergraduate students in new research project

Class Photo

First-year seminar participants in the Career Exploration Program

Although the first year of college is an exciting and heady time for most students, for some it can be overly stressful. For some it is their first experience with independence from mom and dad, while for others it may include pressure to choose a future career. This unpreparedness sometimes leads to a student earning poor grades or dropping out entirely.

Thanks to a new research project developed by faculty from the graduate Counseling Psychology (MSCP) program, these issues are being addressed in a new light and studied long-term.

Led by Anne Skleder, Ph.D., former dean of the undergraduate college, the project seeks to help first-year students build a closer connection to the University and explore their career options.

"Last year during a University Committee meeting several of us were discussing the importance of career development to our first-year students and the efficacy of the University in helping our students make those important decisions," Dean Skleder says. "Dr. Mary Beth Mannarino, the director of our graduate Counseling Psychology programs, noted that some of her newest faculty were trained in career development and may be able to have an impact in this area."

Buoyed by the faculty’s interest, Dean Skleder sought their assistance in creating a pilot program involving her first-year seminar class to identify what reinforces career development and retention. Their results would then inform a new program for all first-year students beginning in fall 2010. The MSCP faculty team included Britney Brinkman, Ph.D., Anthony Isacco Ph.D., Wonjin Sim, Ph.D. and Gina Zanardelli, Ph.D. Also participating in the project were Michele Colvard, Ph.D., assistant vice president for academic affairs, Monica Ritter, director of career services, and Kelli Maxwell, director of advising.

One of the group’s key concerns was to help students build upon their interests and strengths in order to shape a college and professional career. "By doing so we hope to make students become more aware of their values as a person with regard to health, well-being, strengths, and career-related interests," explained Dr. Isacco.

Through the four workshops held in Dean Skleder’s class, the faculty determined that many first-time first-year students face the difficulty of knowing what types of help – both academic and career-wise – are available to them. "Many students – especially first-generation students – have never had a role model telling them what types of help are available. In fact, this current generation of college students struggles even more with who they are and what they want to do," Dr. Isacco says. Another challenge revealed during their student workshops is that new college students, who are used to online social interaction, need to learn how to relate with peers and faculty face-to-face. Although the professors note that there is little experiential research into how social media impacts a young person’s interpersonal skills, their anecdotal experience is revealing.

"Today’s technology is a double-edged sword for a young adult," Dr. Isacco explains. "It provides instant access to friends and faculty via email, chat and other means, but face-to-face interaction, especially with an adult or faculty member, can create anxiety."

"You would think that interaction with others would be easier at a smaller campus like Chatham," Dr. Brinkman adds. "For example, through student satisfaction surveys our transfer and graduate students tell us that there is less run-around and more interaction with faculty and staff than they experienced at a larger school. Therefore, the question becomes whether the students lack the skills to interact. There’s also something about quick access to information too that changes things. There may be a link between a first-time first-year student not being able to find an answer quickly and then wondering what to do next, especially with respect to choosing a career."

This lack of research skills also impacts what a student’s perceived notion of a career might be. Some students may choose a career based upon an emotional passion yet not be prepared for the steps necessary to achieve that career.

"Through our research we found that some students are not be aware that they need an advanced degree or a certain type of educational background," Dr. Brinkman says. "This creates anxiety and frustration when a student suddenly realizes that her "dream job" may require more work than she expected. But because the types of new jobs out there are changing every day, a career doesn’t necessarily mean "I want to be a doctor" and students can learn to be more flexible both in what fields they study and where they might work. It gets them to think more broadly."

Dean Skleder and the MSCP faculty hope that as this program grows they can build "go-to" referrals into the system, so that if a faculty member, counselor or advisor discovers that a student is struggling early on she can immediately be helped. Training would also be provided to for faculty and admissions staff to assist them in identifying students who need help.

"One of our key findings was that we need to develop an even greater tailored approach to our students," Dean Skleder explains. "First-time students, transfer students and Gateways all enter at different levels of self-awareness and so it’s important to diagnose, as it were, how prepared they are for college life and a career." This, she explains, would be accomplished through a multi-tiered system that would inventory a student’s strengths, interests, and values.

"My greatest hope is that this pilot program forms a foundation for student development that focuses on their growth from the day they arrive on campus," Dean Skleder says. "I would like us, as a faculty, to think about how we are helping our students begin their journey to a career and not simply prepare for graduate. It’s important to help our students academically, personally and professionally become World Ready Women."


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