October 29, 2020

TRUSTEE VIEWPOINT | Pandemic Reveals Cornell’s Long Path to Better Career Advising

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Many institution’s structural shortcomings are typically hidden from public view and usually garner little attention. That is, until a crisis hits.

A crisis, especially one as consequential as COVID-19, forces an immediate assessment of institutional preparedness. Cornell’s students, staff, faculty and senior leadership, for example, demonstrated the resilience of our people and the University by successfully undertaking a campus reopening during a global pandemic.

But during the recent virtual career fair mishap, the pandemic revealed an important insight: There’s much work to be done with Cornell’s career advising.

Last month, technical difficulties forced Cornell Career Services (CCS) to postpone Career Fair Days, an annual Barton Hall mingling of students and employers, which relocated to an online platform due to the pandemic. Students were repeatedly logged out of the website and kicked out of employer queues – only then to be randomly signed in as a different person, sometimes as a student, and at other times, an employer. The experience likely did not leave a positive impression of Cornell on employers.

Earlier this year, I emphasized the need for a new approach to career advising — one that pools dispersed, college-based resources for the University’s common good as a whole. What students witnessed during the virtual fair were symptoms of the convolution of Cornell’s career advising system, which rendered it unable to quickly adapt to the COVID-era’s new demands. Of course, CCS did not build the career fair software — an external vendor did. But perhaps better testing and evaluation of the platform and its suitability would have revealed the significant insufficiencies prior to deployment.

Notably, not all universities experienced a painful transition to a virtual career fair. For example, the University of Notre Dame, a peer institution known for its practical approach to career advising, successfully executed its annual fair on Handshake, a web service also used by Cornell, for other career advising functions. Stanford, Brown and the University of Pennsylvania also held successful virtual career fairs on the platform. CCS’ choice, Brazen, was newly introduced to Cornell this year, after the onset of the pandemic.

It is not by chance that the telltales of a structurally untenable career services enterprise have largely flown under the radar before the pandemic. Frankly, even without effective career counseling, Cornell students can leverage the university brand, education and, for some, their family background as means of landing positions at top companies. In terms of employment outcomes, Cornell, with its career offices operating at the current limited capacity, will still substantially outperform most of the nation’s universities at their full capacity.

Indeed, the accurate measure of career advising success is not how we prepare our best-resourced students but the most disadvantaged. Red herrings on postgraduate outcome reports, like the select list of highest-paying, brand-name employers that hire Cornellians gravely overstate the University’s returns on investment in career services. Instead, we must inspect how Cornell prepares students from less-privileged and non-U.S. backgrounds, who may not be able to rely on friends and relatives for employment advice and opportunities.

During these times of global political turmoil and economic downturn, at a time when career offices should shine, Cornell students will pay the price for shortcomings in the University’s career advising system. For example, Cornell’s international students have few resources to turn to as U.S. work visa requirements continue to tighten, and a policy proposal threatens a minimum salary requirement that could reach $250,000 per year for scientists and engineers.

Career advising is not an easy task, but a well-resourced Ivy League university is the last place where students should have to fend for themselves. Cornell – or any university for that matter – cannot claim to be a true equalizer for students from different socioeconomic backgrounds if it fails to help students achieve their desired postgraduate outcomes.

Building an effective career advising system won’t happen overnight but, rather, will require an extensive process of reflection and reform. Fortunately, while a crisis reveals weak points, it can also act as a catalyst for resolving systemic deficiencies that go unnoticed for long periods. So, as we rightfully celebrate our exemplary COVID-19 response’s successes, let’s use this opportunity to pay equal attention to what isn’t working well: preparing departing students for their time after the Hill.

I remain confident and optimistic about the future of career advising at Cornell. As we reflect on this timely matter, I welcome constructive feedback from the Cornell community.


Jaewon Sim is an undergraduate student-elected member of the Board of Trustees and a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Comments may be sent to [email protected]. Trustee Viewpoint runs every other Thursday this semester.