OCC: more guidance needed

Earlier this year, many of my peers reached the point in their Williams careers where they had to decide what they wanted to do after college. As a liberal arts institution, our school prides itself on student advising, and like most colleges, Williams supports its students in landing the best possible jobs and graduate schools. However, it is no great secret that students are generally disappointed with the guidance they receive regarding their post-graduation careers.

Hoping to elucidate this problem and potentially provide a solution, I decided to find out why this advising process was not performing at an acceptable level. My objective was twofold: on a general level, to determine effective elements and inherent flaws in the overall career advising system; and more specifically, to focus on graduate school advising.

In order to get an idea of how the process works and what services are offered, I met with Fatma Kassamali, director of the OCC. Almost immediately, she told me of the often-misunderstood mission of the OCC, which is to be “not an office for placement, but for counseling.”

What I found in the OCC was a wealth of information: lists of positions in almost every sector of society, binders filled with evaluations of alumni job descriptions and experiences and hundreds of brochures spanning from non-profits to research positions. What particularly struck me were the programs aimed at familiarizing students with different career options: panels offering the candid perspectives of alumni in different professional spheres, non-profit fairs bringing a variety of organizations to campus and science panels.

However, many students have come to the OCC with expectations of receiving specific career assignments only to become disillusioned by the advice they receive. At a basic level, the OCC succeeds as a place that offers a wonderful set of resources at the fingertips of the job seeker. Students have a wealth of information and a plethora of opportunities to begin or continue a job search. Yet does the current OCC fulfill its larger objectives as an office of career advising?

I feel that the role of the OCC should extend beyond the static position it currently occupies. Both the College and the OCC should become more active in providing guidance to students and should assume a more visible role in doing so. Offering resources is one thing, but assisting and encouraging students to utilize those resources is a separate and essential matter.

The OCC comes up short in two respects. Most importantly, it lacks visibility. Not until I was guided around the office did I realize the extent to which the OCC housed information and programs regarding employment opportunities- enough to keep any undecided student occupied. A more concerted effort needs to be made with the purpose of informing students of these resources and making them conveniently accessible. Such simple steps as improving and expanding the OCC website, setting up an e-mail promotional system and an office in the redesigned Baxter will help overcome this problem.

In addition, the structure of the OCC should be reevaluated. I believe that Williams, through the OCC, should establish itself as a more supportive component of student advising early in our stay here. Specifically, beginning sophomore year, the OCC should provide students with workshops and panels in different areas of interest. Students should be urged to set up a meeting with OCC staff members in order to formalize this process and to initiate an open dialogue with the counselors. This interaction should be continued through senior year so that each student will have a better idea of how to pursue a position in the field of his or her interest.

In addition to the general process of career advising, I was interested in the structure of graduate school counseling. The current process is an informal one. Officially, the Dean’s Office, under the direction of Peter Grudin, assistant dean of the College, is responsible for all general graduate school inquiries. Students interested in graduate studies go to their respective departments and talk to a faculty member who specializes in the field of their interest, and who offers his or her time out of good will. In some departments, a faculty member is designated as the graduate school advisor.

The current system has several distinct advantages. Primarily, it pairs students with professors who have previously gone through the same process, and who know about the different graduate school programs. In a world in which school associations and personal connections matter, our faculty constitutes an excellent resource.

Yet the structure of our current system presents several difficulties. As an institution of higher learning that prides itself on academics, Williams fails to promote a life of scholarship after college. What remains lacking is the representation of graduate study as a legitimate form of post-college work and a formalized support structure for its pursuance.

During their first week at Williams as freshmen, interested students attend a program on the requirements for medical school entrance. During this session, they are presented with an outline of exactly what courses they would have to take over the next four years. In addition, the Health Professions Office offers its services and becomes an active participant in the process. Over the next four years, students are kept in close contact with this office, which brings medical school representatives to this campus and offers help with the admissions process.

The graduate school program at Williams needs a similar, more formalized structure. I believe that such a structure should be grounded in the faculty and supported by a centralized office. Unfortunately, for many students graduate school study is not presented as an option until late, or is reserved as a back-up option should all other choices seem less desirable. Ironically though, deciding on an academic career and specialty requires a great deal of time and rumination. Students should be offered general advising and presented with programs about graduate studies through this central office early in their academic careers. When the time comes for a more specific field of study, students can be directed to the appropriate departmental offices and advisors.

The advantages of this system are potentially substantial. Students would be better informed of the overall process and would have more time to consider graduate study. In addition, they could take the appropriate coursework in order to determine what area they would most like to pursue. Furthermore, such a system would create a position of responsibility in the departmental advisor who would play a more formal role in a visible setting.

Such a person would be obliged to increase awareness in the department about graduate opportunities and would actively support interested students in the application process. In an official advisor, younger students would have a person to turn to without personally having to know a professor. Opportunities for summer work or on-campus fellowships could be promoted through this position. Plus, the advisor could invite graduate schools to present their work at Williams to synthesize awareness of both academic research and of different graduate school programs.

However wonderful these ideas may sound, certain sobering realities remain. The OCC is understaffed for such a demanding request. In fact, most areas of College advising have this problem. If Williams earnestly believes in the value of the advising system, and if it prides itsel
f on the accomplishments of its students, then concrete steps have to be taken and the appropriate funds must be provided for their improvement. Additional OCC staff members who are competent and enthusiastic should be hired in order to fill the current shortage of counselors. Furthermore, the College can enlist the help of the Senior Advisors, currently an under-utilized source from which diverse and current perspectives on graduate school and job hunting can be drawn. Fundamentally, it is the College’s responsibility to provide such resources and make them accessible; the process will not advance without that promotion.

Finally, I believe more than anything else that the advising process starts with and is driven by student initiative. Students must be willing to take advantage of whatever facilitation the College has to offer.

I strongly believe that Williams has an obligation to provide a strong support structure for its students, and that it is in its best interests to do so. In the spirit of President Schapiro’s strategic planning initiative, I propose that the College extensively evaluate career and graduate school advising. In addition, I call upon the student body to assist the College in these objectives.