How to Launch a Career in 10 Easy Steps
Research has long shown the value of a liberal arts education. Not only does it help people find meaningful careers and purpose in their lives, but it typically offers a robust return on investment. According to a Georgetown University study of more than 4,500 colleges and universities, St. Olaf College graduates saw a million-dollar boost in career lifetime earnings over someone with a high school diploma, placing the college among the top 15 percent of institutions measured.
Still, that return can take a decade or more to start accumulating. Piper Center for Vocation and Career Director Kirsten Cahoon ’98 thought that with the right student support and programming, St. Olaf could help turbocharge that success.
It was with this mindset that she and her colleagues began developing the Ole Career Launcher, which is designed to help students pair skills that they learn inside and outside the classroom with applied skills that they can immediately use in situations they’ll encounter when they enter the workforce. “The Ole Career Launcher tracks help students dip their toes in some of the essential skills of a craft,” she says. “It helps them map the broader skills of a liberal arts education onto the world of work.”
So what does that actually look like? Here, we walk you through the details, step by step.
1. Gen Z students are eager for experiences in college like internships …
A Chronicle of Higher Education survey found that nearly 80 percent of college students said it was “important for the undergraduate curriculum to include real-world activities, such as internships.” As products of the Great Recession, these students look to apply their learning and build concrete skills that will make them both marketable for the moment and adaptable for what’s next.
2. … and employers want students to be ready to hit the ground running, even in entry-level roles.
A recent national survey found that hiring managers were four times more likely to prefer a combination of a liberal arts degree and an industry-recognized certificate in a specialization, rather than a liberal arts degree alone.
3. The Ole Career Launcher merges liberal arts insight with practical experiences.
In the fall of 2021, the Piper Center for Vocation and Career began an ambitious new program, the Ole Career Launcher. The program began with 10 different tracks on topics ranging from data analytics to international affairs to business strategy. The tracks are designed to last anywhere from a few weeks to an entire semester.
Each track builds in a mix of practical skills for specific careers, useful work mindsets, and powerful networking opportunities with experts that often include accomplished alumni.
Cahoon likens it to a career laboratory. “The program is designed to give students a sampling of ideas of what’s possible and allows them to test them out,” she says. Coupled with the critical thinking, writing, and problem-solving approaches that are embedded in St. Olaf’s liberal arts curriculum, students build a strong, cohesive skill set for whatever they choose to pursue next.
4. Subject matter experts help students hone their skills and knowledge …
Claire Campbell ’01 spent a decade in federal national security roles and had spent years informally coaching people who wanted to get into the field. When she joined NatSecCareers as an intelligence and security career coach, she wanted to think bigger.
Many major East Coast schools have built up formal programs or informal pipelines that funnel students from college experiences to roles in international affairs careers. Campbell believes that St. Olaf — with its strong international studies programs, foreign language requirements, and global mindset — has all the right ingredients to send interested students down a similar path.
While she knew many students had the right building blocks for such careers, she also knew that they would benefit by strengthening a few key skills and adding experts to their network. The International Affairs Careers track she led over the 2021 fall semester helped students do just that.
Campbell worked with students to hone their analytical writing to develop sharp, one-page policy papers. She encouraged them to do independent study projects their senior year. She even offered one-on-one coaching sessions to juniors and seniors to give them the tailored advice they’d need to succeed in whatever career they wanted to pursue.
While she says that she’s always happy to help Oles, she sees a more expansive purpose to her work. “Yes, it’s a benefit to the students,” she says. “But it’s also a benefit to the U.S. government and private sector to get these very well educated, worldly students in their roster of employees. It’s in our best interest to have the best, most qualified people in these crucial jobs.”
5. Get real-world experience or build a portfolio …
It’s one thing to watch the sharp investigative reporting in movies like All the President’s Men or Spotlight. It’s quite another to try to do the shoe-leather work yourself. If anyone knows that, it’s Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Gretchen Morgenson ’76, who worked at the New York Times and Wall Street Journal before taking on her current role as the senior financial reporter for NBC News Investigations.
In the Investigative Journalism track that she is leading with Emmy, Edward R. Murrow, and Walter Cronkite award–winning journalist Karla Hult ’95, a longtime reporter at the Twin Cities NBC television affiliate KARE 11, the pair work with a handful of students to help them develop their own investigative journalism project. It begins with generating an idea that has the potential to make a meaningful impact and ends with them dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” in the fact-checking process. “It’s a hands-on project,” says Morgenson, who also serves on the St. Olaf Board of Regents. “At the end, their work is a publication-ready story or series of stories.”
While getting published isn’t a guarantee, Morgenson says a clip isn’t the only potential benefit of the work. “This is something that students can show a future employer,” she says.
6. … and start a network they can take with them for life.
When Trailblazer Leadership founder Steph Jacobs ’03 was getting started in the nonprofit world after college, she admits that a lot of it felt like a mystery.
From navigating unique nonprofit structures to understanding the differences between management and leadership, Jacobs says it took her years — and an advanced degree — to feel comfortable with the nuances of the field. “There was so much that I had to figure out on my own,” she says.
The Nonprofit Microcredential track she leads as part of the Ole Career Launcher is designed to introduce students to these nuances. The track, which is supported through a partnership with the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, includes intensive sessions on more than a dozen different topics, including advocacy and public policy, finance, and coalition building.
Almost every day, I’ve said, ‘Man, I wish I could have had something like this when I was a student.’Steph Jacobs ’03
Then, students apply their new knowledge to short projects at nonprofits including Urban Boatbuilders, led by executive director Marc Hosmer ’04, and DaneMAC, an organization founded by Rachel Sattler ’03.
The relationships and skills that students gain from the track are designed to last. “Students are going to build a network that they can tap into when they are ready to look for roles,” Jacobs says.
Jacobs believes that for many students, the program will help them get to where they want to go more quickly. “Almost every day, I’ve said, ‘Man, I wish I could have had something like this when I was a student,’” she says with a laugh. “Students who decide to go into nonprofits will be so much more knowledgeable. They won’t have to stumble through.”
7. Students learn their strengths and create plans to fuel their growth …
At the beginning of their Career Launcher program, students take an Entrepreneurial Mindset Profile assessment so that they can identify their unique strengths and talents.
Layered with an individual coaching session, students build an action plan to grow in the areas that will most benefit them in their careers. “We want students to be nimble and to think about themselves as entrepreneurs — or as intrapreneurs, which are innovators within larger organizations,” says Cahoon. “They can adapt to the changing world of work.”
8. … and get essential training on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Over the course of their careers, Oles will work with a wide range of people whose experiences and lives may be far different from their own. Effective collaboration demands that students have both significant self-knowledge and empathy for those different from themselves.
That’s why diversity, equity, and inclusion training is an essential component of the Ole Career Launcher program. Staff who work in the college’s Taylor Center for Equity and Inclusion helped develop an overarching training program, which is then tailored to specific career tracks. The goal of the training is to help participants think about how their own identities may show up or affect relationships in the workplace.
AD Banse ’23, who has offered training as part of the Ole Career Launcher, has led sessions that have included robust discussions on ideas of professionalism and what it means for everyone to have a seat at the table.
Because work is such an enormous part of people’s lives and because collaboration is essential to most people’s jobs, this knowledge can give Oles what they need to thrive in their work. “To be successful,” says Banse, “we need to see and understand one another at a deeper level.”
9. Students can choose from 10 unique tracks.
The Ole Career Launcher offered the following programs during the 2021–22 academic year, with new
ones planned for future years.
- Strategy Case Challenge
- International Affairs Careers
- Equity and Inclusion in Student Employment
- Marketing, Advertising, and Digital Design
- Work of Art
- Investigative Journalism
- Google Data Analytics and Mini Internship with Ovative Group
- Foundations of Real Estate Certification
- Pillars of Wall Street
- Nonprofit Microcredential
10. And it’s just getting started.
The Ole Career Launcher began its first tracks this past fall, and the number of students in each track has ranged from seven to more than 200.
To make sure the program is achieving its overarching goals, Cahoon and her team at the Piper Center are taking a range of baseline measurements on areas such as career readiness, innovation mindset, and student satisfaction. They plan to review and work to improve the numbers over time. They’re also hoping to build further support and involvement from alumni.
Cahoon says that the Ole Career Launcher has the potential to be a truly distinctive offering — one that both connects to and builds on the college’s deep commitment to a liberal arts education.
“We think these shorter bursts of co-curricular experiences will complement the liberal learning they’re getting in the classroom,” Cahoon says. “This is a program that will differentiate St. Olaf from other institutions.”
Students already have success stories to share about their participation in the Ole Career Launcher. Click below to read more about how the program helped four Oles turbocharge their success.
Student success profile | Aya Kamil ’22
Ole Career Launcher Track: International Affairs Careers
Student success profile | Matthew Myers ’22
Ole Career Launcher Track: Strategy Case Challenge
Student success profile | Alissa Bidwell ’22
Ole Career Launcher Track: Nonprofit Microcredential
Student success profile | Kristian Noll ’21
Ole Career Launcher Track: International Affairs Careers