Three ways profs can help students build career skills

Female African American college student writing in a notebook with a laptop

Because of my role as director of undergraduate studies in my department, I know that students are thinking about building career skills before they even begin college. “What can she do with Spanish?” parents and students ask me during recruitment events. And in their very last moments in college, students are still balancing studies and careers: “Professor Abbott, I’ll miss class on Thursday because I have a job interview in Boston.”

What happens in between—from their freshman year to their final final exam—can help them increase their employability and purposefully prepare for it. But too often we think that’s the sole duty of the campus career center, advisors, and co-curricular offerings. Or we imagine that academics and careers are incompatible except in the business school and other professional programs.

Instead, I have learned from my teaching experience that we do not have to choose between strong academics and a focus on career skills. Every semester I integrate content about the professional world in my Spanish classes, and students delve into the learning because they are thirsty for guidance about how to imagine their lives after college and how to actually make that transition.

Building Career Skills

Spanish is not unique. You can teach any subject, even within the humanities, and at the same time help students develop skills and knowledge that are relevant to the work world. Here are a few examples from my teaching. Could you do the same exercises in your classes? How might you modify them to fit your specific area of expertise?

Cover letters. In the final exam for my course about social entrepreneurship, I swap the traditional analytical essay for a cover letter. I find a job ad that is relevant to the issues and skills students developed during the semester (or students provide an ad that is of particular interest to them), and they must write a professional quality cover letter that references the information taught and the projects they have completed. In some ways, this is an even more challenging task than an essay because their letters must be accurate, thorough, concrete, and yet very concise.

Facilitation. Many college courses require students to both write essays and give presentations. I like to give students an opportunity to take on a role that is different than a presenter yet equally important in professional contexts: facilitator. (If you or your students are unfamiliar with facilitators and their work, many videos, like this one, are available online.) All students come to class having read the same text, and it is the job of the student facilitator to ask insightful, open-ended questions; direct students to react to each other’s comments to build a connected discussion; draw out insights from all students; and reach conclusions. More than just showing what they know, students who facilitate demonstrate their ability to formulate their own questions about a text and create a sustained, collaborative analysis. (You can find my rubric for this assignment in this syllabus.)

Tech skills. Liberal arts students are a hot commodity in the high-tech job market nowadays. If our courses add some technology alongside liberal arts learning, we can give students an even stronger edge. I do this with YouTube videos. First I ask students to view videos from our local public access television station. Then they create metadata that makes those videos more accessible to the people who could use the information the most. (You can read the details for this lesson on my blog.) Imagine a Spanish student in a job interview talking about SEO and metadata—in either language! You yourself don’t have to be an expert in technology to do a similar project. My PhD is in Spanish literature after all. But if you truly do not know where to begin with an assignment like this, partner with the educational technology experts on your campus.

We all design our courses to build students’ knowledge base, critical thinking skills, and a number of other academic outcomes. The only difference when you integrate professional tasks and career-related content into your courses is that students have the bonus of walking away with concrete experiences and skills that directly translate into the working world.

  • One of my students submitted the cover letter for the final exam to me and to the company. They offered her a Skype interview and then the job.
  • Another student saved the portfolio required for one of my courses and used it during her job interviews. She told me they oohed and awed—and she had to choose between several offers.
  • This week I received a message from a student who graduated several years ago telling me that he wouldn’t have the career he has today if it weren’t for my courses.

These results give me a lot to talk about when the next set of students and parents ask me, “But what can my child do with a degree in Spanish?”

If you would like to see more about increasing employability by embedding career-based issues within the course content, you can see my webinar.


About the Author
Dr. Annie Abbott

Dr. Annie Abbott

Dr. Annie Abbott is director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her teaching, research and publications focus on community service learning (CSL), social entrepreneurship, and business Spanish, with a growing attention to advocacy and civic engagement. By combining LSP and CSL, her students apply and refine their learning while meeting community-identified needs. She is the author of Comunidades: Más allá del aula and co-author of Día a día: De lo personal a lo profesional.