Guidance From a Fellow Traveler: A College Student Pilots CAEL’s Career Navigation Platform
Education-employment pathways may be roads to success for adult learners and workers, but it takes strategic partnerships to build them. That is evident in the aptly named Connected Pathways, a six-region pilot of CAEL's interactive career navigation platform, Exponential Pathways (XP). XP is the product of a partnership CAEL is leading that includes the U.S. Department of Education, which is funding the initiative, Lightcast, Vantage Point, Junior Achievement, The Mentor Method, and the American Council for Education.
As each pilot aligned to meet its community's needs, it welcomed the addition of local partnerships and the complementary perspectives they could contribute. A recent example is the five-week intern program that coalesced within the Prince George's County pilot. A hands-on opportunity for CAEL to exemplify experiential learning, the internship would help localize key content on the XP platform.
Inspiration for including interns arose during meetings with Employ Prince George's, the workforce board (and CAEL institutional member) coordinating the pilot region's on-the-ground work. While building out XP content, CAEL personnel learned about an active intern program at an Employ Prince George's training provider, ADC Solutions. They figured the interns’ perspectives and experiences could go far in fine-tuning XP for local audiences. After all, who better to vet a resource for clarifying career and course choices than someone with both employment and education top of mind?
Pie'ta Bernard, a sophomore at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (yet another CAEL member), was among the interns who participated in the XP pilot. Like most college students, Bernard is acutely familiar with how challenging career decisions can be. She also brought a dedication to helping others in her community and an appreciation for the power of mentor stories to the task of enriching the XP experience.
"When I was a senior in high school, I felt very lost and worried constantly as to what my future was going to look like," said Bernard. "There are so many careers to choose from, so I found it hard to pick just one. I tried to do my own research, but when there were so many options out there, it seemed impossible."
In the end, Bernard decided to study biology because it was one of her favorite subjects. But she is considering changing her major, as many college students do. (Even more go on to regret them after leaving college, underscoring the importance of such decisions and why XP is offering new approaches to weighing them.) "If I had found a platform like Exponential Pathways, I'm fairly conﬁdent that I would have found a major I'm passionate about -- or at least been closer to ﬁnding it," said Bernard.
It was that potential impact that most interested Bernard in joining the XP internship program. "When I heard that I would be helping to build pathways for those who may be uncertain about their future, I was ecstatic," she said.
One of the pilots' early findings had been how much XP's virtual mentors contributed to that impact. They personify XP's preference for relatable demonstration over rigid dictation. As one participating business owner noted, by pairing users with virtual mentors from their own communities, XP channels the power of common experiences to motivate and inspire career path exploration.
Bernard used her own experiences and creativity to develop an approach for enriching XP's locally sourced virtual mentors. First, she surveyed job titles already represented among XP’s mentors. She then considered what careers were most prevalent in her home community, including input from friends and family members. She used her findings to generate a list of in-demand roles in her home community that were underrepresented by participating virtual mentors.
It was a painstaking process, but Bernard feels it was well worth it. "I think that a lot of people already have the skills or the potential to pursue a postsecondary education or career, but lack the resources or the support to do so," she said. "It is extremely diﬃcult to ﬁgure out what you want to do, career-wise, especially at a young age. Mentors help to take that weight oﬀ your shoulders, even if that means just sharing their own story."
Virtual mentors, in particular, offer certain advantages, she added. "It's extremely convenient for both the mentor and the mentee. Finding a mentor is a daunting task, especially for introverts or for people who have never been mentored before. I really like how the platform showcases mentors' career pathways from a variety of ﬁelds. Sometimes, all it takes is a story to inspire you."
In addition to researching potential virtual mentors, Bernard analyzed careers and skill-building experiences to help delineate education-employment pathways for users. Using O*NET data, Bernard again focused on occupations prevalent in her own community.
Bernard developed three career pathways, including ten skill-building experiences supporting them. "A lot of time and research goes into each pathway," she said. "I had to make sure to add as much detail as possible and make things easy to understand. It was especially diﬃcult to ﬁnd certain pieces of information for some occupations."
Most of the skill-building experiences Bernard incorporated are notable for their ability to accelerate a user along a chosen career path. But she also emphasized how XP frames them as opportunities for users to test and refine interests at points that can become seamless junctions to other career pathways. "Skill-building experiences can help people ﬁnd out what they like and don't like about the ﬁeld they are interested in," she said. "From there, they can have a better idea of what comes next or if they want to start a new pathway. Of course, those experiences can also give a preview of the tasks and skills that may be required for a future career."
Her experience helping shepherd disparate parts into a cohesive whole has left her impressed with the level of detail behind XP's user-friendly interface. "Every piece of information, no matter how small, contributes to a helpful and informative pathway that someone can look to for guidance," she said. "The skills that I have learned and developed while creating skill/career pathways will deﬁnitely prove to be invaluable. I hope that my eﬀorts will help many uncertain young adults ﬁnd their calling. I think that it is extremely important for everyone to have access to career navigation resources to help guide them toward a better future."