The Compassion Project: A Community College Case Study on Cultivating Compassion and Understanding Through Mindfulness
Have you noticed that students searching for employment have tunnel vision? When they submit their portfolios or are being interviewed, they expect their educational and extracurricular accomplishments alone to be the central factor that will cinch them a job. Lack of a swift positive response leaves them surprised, annoyed and perplexed. They are clueless as to why they haven’t been hired or even asked to interview.
Bringing the “Audience” into the Process
Aside from spelling, grammatical and organizational issues in their writing, students of all ages seem to struggle in similar ways when it comes to interviewing and writing cover letters and resumes. There is a blind spot hindering their employment search: leaving the audience completely out of the process.
Well known developmental psychologists William Perry and Jean Piaget both claim there is a developmental stage at which adolescents may have a cognitive shift, making them aware of the point of view of another person. If this is the case, wouldn’t you think students at the college level would reflect this in their letters, resumes and interviews? Based on over two decades of experience, however, I have found that awareness of the “other” is not even on the student job-seeker’s radar screen.
While the traditional methods of helping students with their employment searches are all effective to a degree, I have discovered that simple role-playing is the missing link. It is almost always successful and it produces rapid, repeatable results as well. When students are placed in the position of the “reader” or “listener” and see that their judgments will determine their workplace success, they “get it.” When they become aware of the “other side” – judging the candidates – suddenly it is obvious where their own efforts fall short.
Setting the “Stage”
The role play is set up in such a way that the student is placed in the position of the interviewer. The student is informed that he/she will be responsible for the ultimate hiring decisions. Their ability to set up the recruitment process, pull in the best-fit candidates, and set up interviews for the top five candidates will influence their own ability to get promoted. To the extent that they can successfully handle multiple employee searches at one time with a proven track record with company managers, they will impact on their own status in the firm. With some further elaboration regarding the scene, the students are then placed in the “driver’s seat” and told that they are to ask questions which will enable them to make discerning choices before sending the finalists to the managers prior to concluding the simulation. Once they understand the significance of their skill at interviewing, they begin to view the process from that side. This has the immediate result of having them think about their own candidacy from the standpoint of the recruiter. When undertaking this process, it is significantly enhanced if the student has the opportunity to videotape the interview. Showing the tape without giving any feedback is a good first step. This way, you begin by challenging the student to self-correct their responses. If this doesn’t work, you can model the process for them. Once they’ve had the opportunity to critique the simulated interview, you can determine how much awareness they have of the process. If their self-examination doesn’t lead to the desired results, you can enhance the process with some professional or peer feedback.
Being put in the position of making hiring decisions, students discover that their fitness as an interviewer and a decision maker is on the line. They are being expected to expedite a search for a particular job that yields the perfect fit for their organization. When students role-play at being “in charge” this way, it dawns on them that they must view candidates with considerably more discernment because it is in their best interests in a very direct way.
Changing Roles Changes Perception
This role reversal quickly empowers students and enables them to view their own status more objectively. They understand instantly how they might fall short of what an employer is expecting and they gain a more realistic picture of where they stand in the applicant pool. Until they see this with their own eyes, students have trouble realizing what is necessary to strengthen their presentation to a potential employer. Once this shift in perception has taken place, students soak up all the professional career advice offered!
Numerous students have reported to me that immediately after participating in role-playing and the instructional sessions that follow, they experience concrete positive results. With the mystery taken out of the process and the “code” cracked, they feel more confident. Because they are now relying on their own instincts, greater ownership of the employment search process is claimed and with it a sense of independence.
Most students do not make this leap in understanding on their own, whether it is for developmental reasons, as Perry and Piaget say, or the student’s own temperament or level of social / emotional intelligence. In any case, coaching and prompting the student can render the desired results – for any situation. Role-playing is one of the most valuable ways Career Centers can help floundering students get the competitive edge. Teaching students these critical thinking and marketing skills consistently yields positive results in a short period of time – no special props, prep or acting experience required.
In response to the July 2007 article in Career Convergence, numerous readers queried me regarding the specific process of Rapid Fire Results for Clueless Jobseekers and Other Educated People . Accordingly, outlined here is Part II, which describes in greater detail the nuts and bolts of the process. In the first Rapid Fire Results article, we coached the student by having them shift roles; they became the interviewer and the counselor became the job seeking candidate. The purpose of the role shift is to have the student experience the perspective of the “empowered” role, the interviewer. Once this happens, a shift in perspective quickly occurs, enabling the student to grasp the challenges of the interview process in an entirely different way. One significant challenge is asking/answering the questions!
From Interviewee to Interviewer
The student comes to understand that in order for the interviewer to be successful in their job they must run a successful interview campaign, first generating an appropriate applicant pool. Following that, reducing the applicant pool in a selective manner will produce a hire with a high probability of being successful. The interviewer usually interacts with the interviewee in a question/answer format.
The student learns that the candidate can help the interviewer do their job by being properly prepared, thus making the job of the interviewer easier. This includes being prepared to answer questions. Once the role shift is understood, the student, who is now playing the role of the interviewer, presents the typical interview questions. These include the usual inquiries, such as:
Why should I hire you?
Discuss your strengths/weaknesses.
What would your last employer say about you?
Describe a personal accomplishment.
Tell me about yourself, and so on.
Following the interview, the student and mentor process the experience and the student is queried about the responses of the “candidate.” From this discussion it becomes evident whether the student has grasped the distinction between answers that are helpful to the interviewer or not. Usually after one practice session with role reversal and post interview analysis, the student is more prepared to successfully conduct their own mock interview as a candidate.
The Secret of Memorability
When a student demonstrates adequate competence in this interview process, they are ready to improve their chances of mastering the challenge of the questions/answers by learning about what I call the “secret of memorability”. I explain to them that they are going to learn a technique that anyone can perform and that will guarantee that they will be remembered by the interviewer.
We’ve all heard the expression, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Notice what you experience the next time you listen to a good story. When you attend to a speaker’s words, you begin to visualize the story in your mind’s eye. Students of all ages, ethnicities and experience levels view this as a process at which they can be successful. I model the storytelling technique for them in response to the common question, “Tell me about yourself”:
“When I was finally able to attend college, I had already sent my children through school and I was excited to have the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream of becoming a nurse. During my clinical practicum I discovered that I had a special talent with patients who were difficult and uncooperative. Somehow, I was able to listen to them and attend to them in such a way that they calmed down, becoming more cooperative and compliant with the treatment regime. Before long, I began to be known as the nursing assistant to call when a difficult client was unwilling to cooperate with the healthcare givers. This is what influenced me to decide to become a psychiatric nurse. Even before I had completed my RN degree, I was already helping patients who were not amenable to treatment protocols delivered by fully credentialed healthcare givers. I’m grateful that I now have the credentials and ability to work in a job where I can not only do what comes so naturally to me, but also be compensated and recognized for my time, energy and talent.”
When expressed in meaningful and descriptive ways, as is the case with a story, our words stimulate memorable visual imagery, leaving a lasting impression. The storytelling method is so successful because it makes use of several principles of mnemonics, or memory aids. These include:
The use of mental pictures,
Making things meaningful to the listener, and
Making information familiar.
Students often learn the “secret of memorability” in one 45-60 minute session because the process becomes intuitive. They are given guidance in selecting and telling a “story” that will demonstrate their “best stuff”. Since many interview questions are predictable, the well-prepared student has the opportunity to select “stories” from their background which best fit some of the questions they expect and to rehearse their storytelling in advance. Hence the adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words” has a practical application for this very practical situation.
To begin a practice session, a student is asked to recall a situation which demonstrates their best talents, skills and strengths and write a brief paragraph about what they did, reflecting their abilities. The counselor helps the student by focusing them on the situation until they are able to describe the accomplishment or situation in such a way that the listener is able to “see” the story in the mind’s eye. The story above told by the nursing student is an example of creating memorability in this way. The counselor can also model this process for the student so they can experience the memorability factor firsthand. The student learns that their interview response has the greatest likelihood of being remembered because of the storytelling aspects, placing them in an advantageous situation in the applicant pool. When they observe this firsthand in a demonstration, it boosts their own faith in the storytelling method, serving to increase their self-efficacy. Not only does the student learn a way of being favorably remembered, but the student also enters future interview situations with greater skill and self-confidence.
In conclusion, students respond favorably and quickly when they understand that they have the ability to demonstrate the desired responses in interviews. This ability can be learned through traditional role play, followed by reverse role play with simulated interview situations. A limited number of intervention techniques can assist in the process, one of the most helpful being the ability to increase the “memorability” factor by answering questions with story responses. I have used this method very successfully in the community college setting with students of all ages and backgrounds. Students have also reported that they tend to remember this process without difficulty and consequently they are able to generalize the learning to new interview situations.
As state budgets for higher education are dwindling, it has been challenging to provide the depth of service that community college students need for career planning and employment. This hardly seems like the ideal time to increase the scope of services; nonetheless, this is what we accomplished at Capital Community College, even in the face of diminished funding.
Four years ago I learned that an organization in Hoboken, NJ, called The National Society for Leadership and Success (The Society) had been targeting Student Activities offices in colleges throughout the country to recruit members and develop chapters. When I explored the services and products they had to offer, it seemed like a natural fit for career development.
Their program consisted of an orientation to the organization, a leadership development seminar focused on what career counselors call “self-assessment,” and live video seminars with well-known leaders from all walks of life. Students in The Society program develop self-leadership and responsibility in small groups called “success networking teams” (SNT), where they have the opportunity to support each other in the development of SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, rewarding, and timely) goals. These processes were in line with much of what I was trying to achieve in my career development work with individual students and in classroom presentations. The low-cost program was flexible so that it could be adapted to the specific population and institutional culture, and the support from the national office was like having a virtual part-time employee added to our staff.
I launched The Society program on campus 4 years ago, sending out a personal letter to all of the 4,000 enrolled students at my college. Within two weeks 120 students had paid their membership fee and enrolled. An e-board of students was created and several SNT groups were launched, facilitated by myself and a graduate student assistant. By the end of the year we had 40 enthusiastic students who had completed the required steps for induction and were eligible to attend the first annual induction ceremony.
Marketed at Capital Community College as an honor society devoted to student leadership development, the demand for the program grew and it became apparent that I would not be able to carry this new responsibility alone. It took little effort to encourage several faculty members to take on an advising role in The Society as part of their contractual “additional responsibilities.” They were trained and oriented in the model, and students were then placed with them based upon their academic interest and schedule compatibility. Faculty advisors reported great satisfaction connecting with this select group of motivated students. Our college president publicly honored faculty with awards for their participation, which led to more faculty members wanting to become advisors for the following year. Despite our induction fee and required objectives which needed to be fulfilled to meet induction requirements, The Society became the most active organization on campus. The greatest achievement was being part of a model which created collaboration between the Academic and Student Services Divisions.
At our annual student awards ceremony, Society students, who dress in business attire for the occasion, come to the podium and share their personal mission statements in the company of college administrators, faculty, staff, family, and friends. The student president and faculty advisors present Society students with their awards and outline the steps that were required for them to reach this milestone. The students speak about their leadership training and their SNT experience in small groups.
It had always been my hope to develop a systematic way of partnering with faculty in the career development process. Now in our fifth year, I am more convinced than ever that this model has created a paradigm shift in that arena, with numerous advantages and no downside. And on the student side, as professionals who are involved in the work of empowering others, this program is a bonus completely within the scope of our practice. The opportunity to work with and support students who aspire to become leaders, and to bear witness to those students coming into their own, is exhilarating. The impact and results that ripple out for everyone involved makes this the perfect fit for any college career center.
It is understandable why a paradigm shift from career planning to career and leadership planning is meaningful if we follow the history and development of “Leadership” to the present. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, our country shifted from an agricultural to an industrial focus. With this shift, there was a greater focus on the importance of skills and thus on the regular worker. This shift in the culture led us to study how leaders treat and manage their followers. We have also considered how work culture develops and how the worker fits his/her own culture into this work culture. In our work as career development specialists, we are helping individuals and work cultures to find each other. We are seeking to help individuals find meaning and satisfaction in their work. During this centennial year for NCDA, we are often looking back at the leadership exerted by Frank Parsons and the vocational guidance movement in the very beginning of the 20th century. However, leadership has been demonstrated by a large number of professionals in career development over the years. Let us not neglect the contributions and achievements from such leaders in our profession as Donald Super, John Holland, E.K. Strong, Anne Roe, David Campbell, Mark Savickas, Edwin Herr, JoAnn Harris-Bowlsbey, and others too numerous to mention. We need to be aware of and appreciate the work and leadership of many dedicated individuals who have shaped our profession. Come to the 2013 annual conference in Boston and help to celebrate them all!
Dr. Linda is the former longtime Director of Career Development & Placement at Capital Community College. As a clinical psychologist with an interest in affective neuroscience, mindfulness, attachment theory and compassion science, she created and spearheaded a campus wide program for first generation college students, many of whom evidenced traumatic adverse childhood experiences. The primary goal of this program was to draw upon attachment theory and compassion science as a way of cultivating academic and career resilience and strengthening student engagement with the institution.