A New Vision for Career Services:  Redefining and Redeveloping 21st Century Careers

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It’s a brave new world for the field of career services. Allow me to share part of my story—to what I do not refer to as a necessarily a “destination”, but the beginning of a much longer and impactful journey that means much more than a job.

For the past year and a half I have been leading the reimagination and reinvention of the career management center at the School of Professional Studies (SPS) at Columbia University. Since day one, it has been nothing but blood, sweat, and tears, and till now, full of passion. Long working days and evenings till 10pm in the office, weekends, and working constantly around the clock to transform the past into the future was nothing short of reality for me. I knew what it took going into this. It was all or nothing.

The moment has arrived. With its re-defining culmination and branching across the U.S. to San Francisco, a rebranding of ourselves on our website and social media, it makes me nothing but very proud to reach this moment and read our branding statement that has made itself into a reality—here at Columbia University where I once was a graduate school student myself, yes, at my very own Alma Mater.

Not only has it been successful with the support of my Director of Career Education and Development, Diane Spizzirro, my Associate Director, Barbara McGloin, my Assistant Director and right hand at Career Week, Murwa Farah, and the rest of the very talented CDL dream team (new and continuing), but because of our Academic Program Directors and faculty who said to themselves not too long ago, “let’s see what this new guy can do”. Our stellar marketing team that understood the vision, the SPS community embraced it,  and our students and alumni loved it. Most importantly, gratitude to our Dean Suite who made it happen—including our Senior Associate Dean Tatum Thomas who sat with me 1:1 as my sounding board even on how the letters —”C”, “D”, “L”— would sound! She charged me with writing the strategic plan and creating a new organizational chart during my first couple weeks, trusting my confidence and expertise (we call her superwoman, because things happen at light speed around her). Finally, under the bold and inspiring direction of Dean Jason Wingard.

Fast forward almost two years later, from a time when the career center wasn’t even in our campus directory, to now when we are hosting the NACE F2F in November and the Columbia University Career Services Retreat and Future of Career Services symposium in Feb 2019.

“Successful” is truly an understatement. Events like Career Week’s Future of Meaningful Work have been recognized regionally and nationally under our new identity. While I got much push back in the beginning on such an audacious venture, I didn’t give up. Yes, my personal life took a toll. But I had a mission. It helped that I had gone from literally a blueprint to a ribbon cutting of a state-of-the-art career center in my previous role, except at the business school. However, I never dared to do it at an Ivy League institution. But one morning I woke up thinking to myself, “oh great, I get to go to work today”, and that’s when I realized I was in the right career at the right time. The stars aligned. After interviewing at major institutions like Yale, Cornell, Princeton, and John Hopkins, I knew I made the right decision. The Lion’s Den was where I belonged—Go Lions!

Lesson learned? It takes a village.

While we eventually got the buy-in we needed—with our constant and ambitious illustrations of the career services paradigm to leadership and in Student Affairs Division meetings, positioning ourselves in the future of work—with meaningful work and purpose as central themes. We progressively built a connector model and named it BRIDGE:

B: Building
R: Relationships
I: Interconnecting
D: Dreams
G: Goals &
E: Educational Pathways

We also created a powerful CROWN Employer Engagement and Partnership Program, that deserves a blog post of its own, so I won’t try to describe it here—but all based on our new design. After all, we are not just career explorers, we are designers and have integrated design thinking into both our student and employer approaches.

Thus, pitching and eventually coining “The Career Design Lab” (CDL) in Oct 2017 was a proud moment—resonating with students immediately. Our new branding statement  reflecting a new vision that does exactly what it was intended to do, and that’s a new approach to defining and developing 21st century careers.

What began as a new identity for our unit only, has led to a new identity for SPS under this umbrella name. The original plan was to have CDL’s new structure to be part of a new innovation center concept, and now—we have essentially, become just that. For me, Innovation has to disrupt a field. In my view, that has to be a cultural change at Columbia University, and that has happened here.

Many of you have heard me say it time and time again. The whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. Successful career outcomes are larger than career services and it takes a hungry and talented team. Not only that, you have to have connect with leadership—with lots of synergies and radical collaboration from start to finish, or in our case, new beginnings. The Career Design Lab staff do much more than career services. We aren’t “career coaches”, we are life designers and consultants. Columbia University is just our largest client!

This post is a celebratory post and merits the intention surrounding our incredible work and victory. Imitation is the best form of flattery, and we have learned best practices from other thought leaders as others have learned from our risks and results. That’s the whole point right, the journey, not the destination.

This morning I celebrate “a win” for career services—not just at Columbia University, but for the career services global community.

So, in closing, congratulations to you career folks out there, to SPS, and to our employers, students, and alumni who will benefit the most.

I am living and walking my calling, something I have encouraged many to create and walk, and we are living out one of the biggest trends in the future of career services:

Elevation of Career Services—at the college, school, and university levels.

If we can do it, so can you. Define the goal, uncover the barriers.

Are you ready for career disruption and its impact?

Hassan Akmal is the Inaugural Executive Director of Industry Relations and Career Strategies, Lecturer, Career Mastermind, and Cofounder of the Career Design Lab at Columbia University.

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