Bonfires and Birthday Candles: Encouraging Exploration

By Emily Carpenter posted 02-20-2018 08:34

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When we conducted focus groups for our new center, one student admitted he was a little apprehensive about coming to see us because, despite our uber-friendly and warm personalities, he felt like he had to have his life plan figured out before making an appointment. When we dug into that, we found something even larger that seemed fairly common: students thought they needed to have a plan for their lives rooted in a clear passion. They described a felt expectation that they should possess a life direction that burned like a see-it-for-miles-away bonfire. Wow—talk about pressure! But I bet you’re not surprised—I bet you’ve heard this from students, too. It’s human nature—having a blazing passion sounds pretty cool, and most of us like the idea of emerging from the wilderness, claiming victory, and saying we did it ourselves. 

We’ve all seen the opinion pieces about passion vs. purpose (and for the record, I do think purpose wins the day), but I’m not convinced the majority of our students are paying much attention to the difference. Whether for passion or purpose or both, they’re still feeling the pressure to have a blazing bonfire. So… I’m thinking I’d like to spend my energy using our roles, our offices, our relationships, and our institutions to help students release some of that pressure and find clarity and confidence in their next steps. What if we tone down those lofty bonfire expectations and instead get students to explore something the size of a birthday candle—or a cake full of birthday candles? We can convert that anxiety and stress into action and momentum by making sure our institutions and our teams provide encouragement and ample opportunities to ignite some candles. It’s the ability to continually light new candles, to find inspiration and meaning from multiple sources, that will serve students best in the long term. 

How to do that? Here are a few practical and operational starting points and I’d love to hear from others about what you’ve been doing: 

  1. Infuse experiential learning (EL) early and often. Internships are awesome, but we need to think broader than internships, my friends. Let’s scaffold EL so that our education majors have first-year student employment options to test drive tutoring and youth development. Infuse service learning into our core curriculum courses, ensuring that it reaches everyone. Offer alternative spring break service trips for our students interested in public health. Require leadership training for our athletic team captains. Align our study-abroad options with our academic calendars and with all our majors (or, if that’s not possible, add short-term and between-semester programs). And even if you don’t “own” these things in your career center, make sure you are partnering to build them.
  2. Recognize that the magic happens in the integration. Simply requiring and throwing students into experiences isn’t going to yield quality or consistent results (or learning!). One of my mentors (here’s looking at you, Al Cabral!) is fond of saying, “You don’t learn from experience, you learn from the meaning you make of the experience.” Fortunately, we’re educators, and we work at institutions that specialize in learning. If you haven’t already, get curious about experiential education as a pedagogy. It’s when we have thoughtfully constructed reflection and purposefully combined learning and doing that we’ll have the best chance of seeing candles sustain a glow and multiply.
  3. Construct a cohesive advisory model to reinforce the exploration. Acknowledge and embrace the formal (academic advisers) and the informal (peer mentors, RAs) and create a coalition (again, partnerships are crucial). Do all your students know their go-to people and how to find them? Train your partners to know the options and act as Spotify-like exploration encouragers (i.e., the more you know about the student, the more personalized the recommendations). Watch for the birthday candles, the little sparks and glows of inspiration. Students sometimes need help seeing connections and recognizing or accumulating candles. It can be as simple as someone saying, “You light up when you talk about that!” or “I’m getting a meh-vibe from you—it feels like you’re just going through the motions here.” Each class, club, internship, event, and late-night conversation is a potential birthday candle.

Making an educational case for embracing exploration is pretty straightforward. It becomes even more compelling when we realize it’s a “both/and” opportunity—there’s a strong business case as well. We know that engaged students are more likely to be retained and to graduate on time. We also know from a plethora of studies and thought leaders that the future of the world of work will require agility and a growth-mindset. One of my favorite new career stats is from the World Economic Forum: “65 percent of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that aren’t on our radar yet.” Encouraging students to explore—teaching them to light all those candles—will instill flexibility and help prepare them for careers in the next century.  

Maybe we can talk more about how the rigidity and linear nature of our traditional educational model can be problematic for career development in another blog, but there are definitely some benefits to be gained from structure within a system when we can use it to create an expectation of exploration. We should explain exploration to our students and stakeholders in a way that shows them it will be really dynamic AND they will still get their money’s worth and be able to pay their bills. We need to be able to say, “We have built something really special where you will learn lots of things. You will try lots of things. You will meet lots of people. You will see lots of options. You will find jobs and you will make jobs.” 

If we’re being truthful, bonfires are pretty elusive (and yes, it’s really, really fun when you have the rare student with an honest-to-goodness bonfire). The good news is that running along beside students as they explore and discover their birthday candles is also pretty enjoyable and truly rewarding—both for you and for them.



05-21-2018 15:44

Love this Emily - and the importance of DOING and exploring in addition to studying.  Because learning happens through both.  Thanks for great and actionable advice.

02-20-2018 14:57

Great piece as limited opportunities for career exploration is the top challenge impacting students, schools, and employers alike.​ Specifically, this limited opportunity for career exploration is the top driver of Millennial attrition (or job hopping) as recent grads don't have the context to understand what is the "right" role, or once accepting a job, if it is in fact the best fit. As a result, companies are losing $15-30 billion (yes, billion with a B) annually on this attrition.

For the students and schools, exploration also goes beyond college-to-career. As you highlighted, there are tremendous benefits to experiential learning on driving student success and retention during their time in college. Furthermore, these career exploration opportunities can also help students understand how the skills from classes that don't sound like jobs (eg Philosophy) do apply in the "real world" (eg research, communication, crafting an argument...).

Again, great piece. Thank you for sharing this!

02-20-2018 12:11

A very well reasoned and informative article, Emily!  Frequently, I hear professors and staff telling students, "Find you passion and you'll never work a day in your life." Usually, the student looks bewildered.  After hearing that advice from a mentor, a student said to me in a career counseling session, "I'm two steps behind now, I've got to find a passion AND a career." I like the way you reframe the discussion from passion to purpose.  "Purpose" is a concept that students can more easily get their heads around.  It is a great way to advocate, as you do, for experiential education--try different careers out to discover a purpose you enjoy.  Thanks for posting the article!