Last week, we brought you the first part of our conversation with Seana Coulter, Director of the Center for Career Development at Morgan State University. In the second part of our interview, we discussed what career fairs and recruiting events may look like for students as school resumes in the fall. We also touched upon how the current resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests might influence the fall semester, particularly how Morgan State plans to create a safe place for students to demonstrate on campus while also observing recommended social distancing guidelines. Here is the rest of our interview.
Vault: One of the largest shakeups for career services was the cancellation of virtually every in-person career fair and networking event. How has Morgan State begun to think about what career fairs will look like in the fall and beyond? What kinds of questions or feedback have you received from employers interested in participating in recruiting events with Morgan State students?
Seana Coulter: When the pandemic hit, we were in the midst of registration for our Spring Job Fair. Our first challenge was converting the face-to-face career fair to a virtual fair. Over a two-week span, my team had to create tutorials and host webinars for job seekers and employers to guide their virtual job fair experience. We created how-to guides and sent out numerous communications to make sure everyone felt comfortable interacting in this new environment. On the day of the fair, my entire staff played vital roles—from monitoring our chat lines to answering phone lines, responding to emails, and troubleshooting. In the end, the virtual career fair was a success for both our job seekers and employer participants.
We are currently faced with what should we do with our fair scheduled for October. Due to the crowd restrictions associated with COVID-19, we have been informed that we cannot host a face-to-face fair. A simple solution would be to host a virtual fair, right? We have the technology and the experience, so why not? Well, we have two constituents—our students and our employer partners.
If you are following the job market, you'll see that many organizations are not actively recruiting. They are at a standstill. So a Virtual Career Fair will simply be an exercise directing job seekers back to the company website. This can be an extremely frustrating experience for the job seeker who attends. Feedback from jobseekers indicates that they felt the virtual job fair was falsely advertised—or falsely labeled. So perhaps a more meaningful experience would be employer-led panel discussions, providing information about industry trends, hiring practices, and insider interview tips. These are tangible things that can be applied to future success.
Many employers are interested in returning to some level of normalcy and want to proceed with scheduling their fall calendars—which include campus visits and career fairs. While I completely understand the desire, safety is of utmost importance to all of us. Following the CDC guidelines prohibits many of our typical interactions. While our employer partners are a bit disappointed, they all have been understanding and willing to assist us with virtual programming. The exciting part is that we are now able to connect with organizations across the globe and bring them into the classroom and expose them to our students in ways that we have not done in the past. We are always looking for the silver lining!
Vault: Let’s talk about another series of events that rekindled an important worldwide conversation: the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests. What do you expect to see when classes resume in the fall? What will the university’s approach be to ensure that student activists have a forum to protest while also mitigating the safety concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic?
SC: Morgan, like many other HBCUs, has served as a historical backdrop for many civil rights movements dating back in time. HBCUs are viewed as safe havens for Black lives and the community. At Morgan, all of our electronic marquees on the perimeter of our campus currently display “Where Black Lives Have Always Mattered”. We fully support our students and the community as they protest against social injustices and inequalities. Our president is actively engaged with the community and continuously urges our students and alumni to convey our core values, Leadership-Integrity-Innovation-Diversity-Excellence-Respect, as they speak out. He also encourages them to stay safe and get tested. He recently shared his experience getting tested for COVID-19 on social media following his participation in a peaceful protest on campus. To read more about President Wilson's activism, please read Baltimore Sun Op-Ed "Morgan president talks how to be a ‘woke’ university president".
As we look to our history for guidance, we see that many movements didn’t end in a day—in a week. For change to occur, we must be prepared for the long haul. The Montgomery Bus boycott lasted 381 days. I would imagine that we will continue to see protests throughout the fall semester and many happening (and led by our students) on our campuses.
As administrators, safety remains a continuous concern. At Morgan, we are grateful that we have amazing student leaders that receive guidance from their advisors. I am certain that advisors will continue to lead our students to create environments that are both impactful yet safe (distribution of masks, social distancing, and information on testing sites).
Vault: What are some of the biggest challenges facing Black students as they enter the workforce? How have those issues changed since you entered career services, and how do you prepare students to navigate these obstacles after graduation?
SC: Wow, where do I start? There have always been challenges facing our Black students as they enter the workplace, from overt racism to microaggressions and everything in between. For our students, it can be quite a shock to find themselves in a workplace where they have all the skills to be successful but encounter such a negative work environment that it hinders their ability to be great.
As career services professionals, we are challenged because we always hope that our students won’t encounter what others before them experienced. You fight with yourself. Should I share my concerns so they are best prepared to handle situations if they arise or wait for them to return and address them later? Years ago, a colleague (Courtney J. Jones-Carney) and I developed a program called Under the Surface: Working While Black to address some of these issues head-on. It was so well received that it was expanded to a series covering Working While Latin@, Working While LGBTQ, and Working While Disabled. These panel discussions allowed us to pull in human resources to discuss the proper way to handle complaints. While these discussions were extremely beneficial, it was disheartening to hear the number of stories shared of inequities and blatant disrespect.
What we learned from the series was that it was best to bring back recent alums to discuss their experiences versus sharing our thoughts and opinions on these sensitive topics (due to the age gap, we sometimes come off as “preachy”). It also allowed students to hear varying perspectives on the best ways to navigate challenging situations.
From a career services standpoint, it is best to acknowledge that the problem exists and properly equip students so they are able to effectively navigate it. Also, it's helpful to stress the importance of identifying a mentor in the workplace who can effectively assist with the new work culture.
Vault: Much of the corporate world has recently responded to racial injustice in ways they never have before: not only reaffirming their commitment to workplace inclusion but explicitly denouncing racism and taking actionable steps to combat it. While we all hope this represents a major shift, there is much more work to do. What do you think companies need to do to ensure lasting, sustainable changes? How are you preparing students to navigate this shift—questions they should ask in interviews, the types of statements and commitments to look for from prospective employees, etc.?
SC: The murder of George Floyd ignited the nation and has created a national dialogue about race relations. How does this instance differ from the other lives lost? While we may never get to the root of that answer, we all know that social media and technology play a huge role in the dissemination of information. We are watching people of all ages, representing all socioeconomic classes, spanning every shade of the rainbow across the entire world coming together in unison demanding justice. For the first time, in my lifetime, major corporations are issuing statements standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Town halls and webinars are happening daily to address organizational issues and to begin unraveling workplace inequities-Discussions are happening! This is great. Please know it is just the first step.
Organizational leaders should ask themselves the following questions:
- In your everyday life, what are some tangibles steps that you can take?
- How can you start with your institution/organization?
- Does your institution/company reflect the community it serves?
- How is your institution/organization demonstrating that it values culture and diversity?
- Are there fair hiring and promotional practices in place?
- Are you vocal when someone with higher credentials is overlooked for a promotion?
As we continue to hear that open dialogue around Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), we must equip our students to effectively research organizations and prepare interview questions that will help them to make informed decisions about future employment. As students seek organizations that value diversity, they are advised to review the company website. Jobseekers are seeking images (not stock photos) that look like them, they are reviewing your diversity statement, they are looking at your board members to see how many are diverse.
As I sat down to draft questions that students may ask during their interview regarding DEI, I had to pause for a moment. Is this the best advice to give to our students? While many organizations are issuing statements of solidarity, some may be doing it simply for the media or to avoid media attention. No organization wants to be identified as the organization that has remained silent during these times. So we still have to remain very careful in how we navigate this terrain. A job seeker entering the interview process inquiring about the activity of affinity groups may receive the label “trouble maker” or not a good “fit”.
So my advice will remain the same, it is left to the individual to make a decision regarding whether they will ask direct questions during the interview phase or wait until onboarding to inquire about DEI practices. For many job seekers, they are seeking an environment that is equitable and fair.
Click here for Part One of our interview with Seana Coulter.
Seana T. Coulter is a Nationally Certified Counselor with over 20 years of experience in Career Services. She currently serves as the Director for the Center for Career Development at Morgan State University providing services to the entire student body population and alumni of 7, 500+. Ms. Coulter serves on multiple university committees that aid in reducing barriers, creating pathways, enriching the college experience and making graduation attainable to all.
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