Enhancing First Year and Sophomore Engagement through Discernment at the University of Notre Dame

By Maureen Baska

Most college and university career centers across the country devote time and energy to first year and sophomore students in some capacity – whether long-standing practices or relatively new initiatives – and the University of Notre Dame is no exception. The Career Center at Notre Dame has always had career counseling and programs targeted toward the younger student population, but in the 2013-2014 academic year this focus was given greater emphasis.


Some key changes occurred in 2012-2013: the unveiling of the Division of Student Affairs new Strategic Plan and an organizational redesign of The Career Center. The Division of Student Affairs Strategic Plan (2012-17) included a goal to “Support our students as they discern how to lead integrated, meaningful, faith filled lives beyond Notre Dame.” To reach this goal, a Discernment Coalition was created and its members (including several coaches from The Career Center) were charged with the goal of establishing a campus wide understanding of discernment. The meaning of “discernment” on campus is ever evolving because of the variety of voices involved in the discussion. However, the general consensus is that it involves the process of students engaging in self-reflection to assess their values, interests, personality, and skills and how those relate to their academic and spiritual growth, as well as their extracurricular, service, and future vocational choices.


The creation of the Discernment Coalition dovetailed with the organizational redesign of The Career Center, which led to the creation of four teams within the office: Engage, Explore, Employer Relations, and Operations. The Explore team consists of career coaches with specific industry areas of expertise. The Engage team has five career coaches dedicated to engaging students – particularly younger students – in the career discernment process.


Members of the Engage team utilize Super’s (1980) lifespan theory in their work with students. Programming and handouts created by the Engage team enable students to understand the four components of their self-concepts: values, interests, personality, and skills (VIPS). Operating under this theoretical framework, the members of the Engage team believe that “knowing oneself” is a prerequisite for optimal career choice. Additionally, all five members of the team are MBTI and Strong Interest Inventory certified.


In addition to departmental, class, and club presentations, as well as representation at First Year Orientation, the Engage team created or enhanced a number of programs to support students in their discernment process during the 2013-2014 academic year:


Career Fair Prep for First-Timers:

This workshop provides first time attendees at career fairs with strategies to prepare for the fair. The Engage team also collaborates with the University Counseling Center to help manage the social anxiety that can occur.


Backstage Pass to the Career Fair:

This program is targeted toward first year students and sophomores to introduce them to the “backstage” aspects of a career fair. Students engage with several employers about making the most of a fair. The University Counseling Center again provides strategies for managing any accompanying social anxiety.


College Seminar Presentations:

The College Seminar is a course required of all sophomores in the College of Arts & Letters, emphasizing oral communication skills. The Career Center began a partnership with the College Seminar program to offer class presentations on the value of verbal communication skills and how they transfer to a professional setting. The Career Center also offers full class (75 minute) presentations on a variety of career topics that relate to oral communication: interviewing, 30 second pitch, personal brand, and informational interviewing.


The Diversity Career Exploration Program:

This program is designed to allow a select group of first year and sophomore students the opportunity to learn about diversity in the work place, gain a deeper view into varying professions, and engage in the career development process. The program consists of weekly talks given by professionals and allows participants to obtain mentors who work in career fields they are considering.


Career Development Seminar:

This seminar focuses on the discernment process of choosing a major or industry and is taught by three members of the Engage team.  Instructors focus on helping students understand how their VIPS play an important role in the career development process and how the VIPS impact a career search.  Students utilize resources to see how their VIPS fit into career options and begin developing skills like resume writing and internship/job searching.


Making the Major Decision:

This workshop teaches first year students how to choose a major and introduces them to Career Center resources. The Engage Team discusses the career development process and the importance of assessing your VIPS to fully understand one’s self-concept, applying that knowledge to long term career/life goals. The Engage Team discusses the steps involved in choosing a major, resources and services, and informational interviewing. In 2014-15, this program will be expanded to include sophomores.


30 Minute Appointments with First Year Students:

For 8-10 hours a week from January to April 2014, the Engage team was available exclusively to First Year students for 30 minute appointments, in addition to regular hour long appointments. Students utilized the Career Center’s online recruiting system to schedule these shorter appointments, allowing them to become acclimated to that system.


Through the programs outlined, the Engage team has developed a solid foundation for connecting with younger students. The Career Center saw record attendance of first year and sophomore students at the Fall Career Expo (a 44% increase over the previous year). Additionally, the Engage team witnessed strong attendance at events like the Backstage Pass (roughly 50 students each semester) and Career Fair Prep for First-Timers (140 students attended one of the three workshops offered). However, Making the Major Decision had a lower attendance than anticipated (roughly 20 students per workshop); as a result of this, the Engage team will offer the program monthly this year, as opposed to four times in a one week period. The Engage team has also developed strong relationships with some key constituent groups on campus, leading to mutually beneficial avenues for collaboration.


While the team will continue its work with first years in 2014-15, the next goal is enhancing efforts with the often forgotten class – sophomores. For example, Making the Major Decision will be expanded to include sophomores. The team is also exploring the potential for a mentoring program or professional etiquette event and will pilot a “sophomore check-up” program with a small group of students in the College of Arts & Letters. As sophomores venture forth into their chosen Colleges within the University and explore their post-graduate interests further, the Engage team aims to ensure that these students receive the support needed to manage the academic and professional transitions that lie ahead.




Super, D. E. (1980). A life-span, life-space approach to career development. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 16 (3), 282-298.


University of Notre Dame. (2012-17). Division of Student Affairs Strategic Plan.





Maureen BaskaMaureen Baska is a National Certified Counselor. She joined the University of Notre Dame’s Career Center in August 2012, where she is a Career Coach on the Engage Team. Previously Maureen served as the Assistant Director for the Saint Mary’s College Career Crossings Office. She earned her Master of Science in Education (focus on community counseling) from Indiana University in 2010, where she completed several internships in career counseling, academic advising, alcohol intervention counseling, and community mental health counseling. Prior to that, Maureen spent several years in the private sector after graduating from Notre Dame in 2004. Outside of work, she spends most of her time with her husband and their 2-year-old daughter. She may be contacted at maureen.baska@nd.edu.


Maureen wrote this article on behalf of the Engage team at the University of Notre Dame Career Center. She developed it from the team’s roundtable presentation at the NCDA Career Development Conference in June 2014 and the handout created by Bridget Kibbe, Engage Team Manager.

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Barbara Sedgwick-Billimoria M.Ed.    on Thursday 09/04/2014 at 02:26 PM

Hi Maureen,

I absolutely love Norte Dame's approach to career development as this is the exact formula that I use in private practice! It's so exciting to see such a fine University approach career development as I was taught in graduate school and as I use with private clients... I find that while virtually all clients enjoy and honor the VIPS process many struggle with the "The Decision" which is of course understandable. Making a career decision can be overwhelming and scary especially for young people. I like the idea of having a seminar specifically dedicated to the “The Decision.” I am in the process of developing a flow chart about the career-decision making processes and the psychological attributes that are necessary to achieve each step of the process. I would enjoy sharing this with you in a separate email.

Thank you again for a wonderful article. It is my hope that more universities follow Notre Dame’s approach to assisting students.


Barbara Sedgwick-Billimoria M.Ed.

Hanna DeBruhl   on Tuesday 06/16/2015 at 11:12 AM

This is an excellent insightful article! It is wonderful to see other colleges and universities implementing career programs to educate our students on career development. You shared great insight into activities and best practices that many other universities could utilize as well. Thanks for sharing!

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