Wake Forest Competency Model Helps Alumni Navigate Early Years of Work and Life

August 22, 2022 | By Kevin Gray

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TAGS: alumni, best practices, career development, competencies, models, nace insights,

There has been a shift in the requirements of the labor market. Twenty-first century careers demand executive-functioning mindsets and tactical and relational skills, says Allison McWilliams, Ph.D.

“Couple these requirements with an individual’s need for connection, growth, and community, and the preparation for work and life is like nothing we’ve seen before,” continues Dr. McWilliams, assistant vice president, mentoring and alumni personal and career development at Wake Forest University.

“Increasingly, the individual, not their employers, is expected to take ownership for acquiring the skills, mindsets, and experiences to move forward. To remain relevant, higher education institutions must be a lifelong partner in the professional development of their alumni.”

Wake Forest University’s Office of Personal & Career Development created the Alumni Personal & Career Development Center and the “Your First Five” competency model to achieve this specific goal.

The Wake Forest University Alumni Personal & Career Development Center is the large college co-winner of the 2022 NACE Award for Career Services Excellence for its work developing the “Your First Five” competency model. For more information about the NACE Awards program and the full list of award winners/honorable mentions, see www.naceweb.org/about-us/nace-awards/.

This innovative collaboration exposes students to resources and career readiness skills through a dynamic, interactive course. More than 350 students completed career assignments each week with an incentive of the certificate after the course.

Launched in 2017, the Alumni Personal & Career Development Center provides ongoing support, guidance, and resources for alumni, extending the personal and career development resources that are so critical to the college experience throughout an individual’s lifetime.

“In particular,” Dr. McWilliams explains, “the transition from college student to young professional is one of the biggest and most universal pain points for alumni. The Your First Five competency model was created to address this need and provide the information, guidance, and support to navigate these early years of work and life.

She points to research that indicates that today’s young adults suffer from a perceived abundance of choices and information, leading to a “paralysis of choice.”

“Today’s graduates aren’t looking for more options and opportunities; they are looking for direction and guidance on how to make the most of the options and opportunities before them,” Dr. McWilliams says.

“We created the Your First Five competency model to provide this direction and guidance: Master these five areas in your first five years after graduation and you will be on your way to leading a successful and meaningful life.”

The Your First Five program consists of several key components, including these five competency areas:

  • Do the work;
  • Build a life;
  • Create community;
  • Practice reflection; and
  • Own what’s next.

“These competencies guide our work, which includes online advice posts, webinars, workshops, and other programs,” Dr. McWilliams notes.

“For example, we lead or facilitate standalone workshops on seeking out mentorship [create community] and responding to feedback [practice reflection], and lead Young Alumni Mentoring Groups, which work through the five competency areas in depth.”

Dr. McWilliams also wrote Five for Your First Five: Own Your Career and Life After College, which has been used by thousands of young professionals and universities across the United States and internationally.

Those who are unable to participate in one of Wake Forest’s in-person programs or workshops can take a self-paced online course.

The goals of the Your First Five model are to:

  • Educate and inform young alumni on the five competency areas, building their awareness of the importance and usage of the five areas through the first five years post-college;
  • Develop their confidence in putting the five areas into practice; and
  • Build an ongoing connection between alumni and the university as a lifelong partner in their growth and development.

“To measure these goals, we annually survey recent graduating classes on their perceptions of awareness and confidence across the five competency areas,” Dr. McWilliams says.

“Our goal is for 85% of each graduating class to self-assess as ‘aware or very aware’ of the five competencies, and 75% to self-assess as ‘confident or very confident’ in their ability to put the five competencies into practice. We also track the number of participants in in-person and online courses, workshops, and programs as well as the number of people using our website resources.”

In 2020, Dr. McWilliams and Wake Forest alumna Katherine Laws co-authored a second book, Year One: How Young Professionals (And Their Managers) Can Thrive in Their First Year After College, which was distributed to all 2021 Wake Forest graduates.

The Alumni Personal & Career Development Center created online and in-person alumni-led discussion groups and an online course as a companion to the book. In partnership with Wake Forest’s employer relations team, it also gives the book to employers that are hiring Wake Forest talent as a value-add resource to support their employees, both managers and new professionals.

The Alumni Personal & Career Development Center and the Your First Five competency model for young professional development have achieved significant outcomes in just five years, including:

  • Reaching thousands of alumni across the country;
  • Developing their knowledge of and ability to use key skills and strategies to take ownership of their career and life journeys from the moment of graduation; and
  • Strengthening connections between the alumni base and Wake Forest.

“By leveraging in-house talent and expertise, relationships with campus partners, and the skills and knowledge of our alumni, we have been able to dramatically extend our reach and capacity of one full-time and two part-time staff members, while also delivering on the Wake Forest high-touch, highly personal relationship that is core to the Wake Forest liberal arts educational experience,” Dr. McWilliams says.

“Each year, we are focused on expanding reach and access, and of course, each year we gain a new graduating class which must be educated on the First Five competencies and their importance for personal and professional success. In that way, the work never ends.”

Dr. McWilliams provides some suggestions for career services professionals who are interested in developing a similar program:  

  • Create programs that fit their institution's culture and the specific needs of its students and alumni—It doesn’t work well when someone tries to pick up a program and place it on their institution in a cookie-cutter sort of way. Career services professionals should do their research. This can help them figure out what the needs are, and then create a strategic plan and intentional programming to meet those needs.
  • Get clear on what their competitive advantage or expertise is—Staff at Wake Forest realized early on that they didn't need to recreate the internet. Instead, they needed to serve as content experts in those areas in which they have expertise, and as facilitators to connect people to other experts as appropriate. The found they can’t be all things to all people, especially with alumni, but also with students. The world of work is changing so rapidly, they know they will never be successful if they are trying to “train” people for today's industries, roles, and career paths. Instead, career services professionals need to teach people how to build relationships, be lifelong learners, take ownership for their individual paths, and know how to seek out the tools and resources that they need, when they need them.
  • Surround themselves with smart, talented people—Dr. McWilliams partners with two assistant directors in this work: Lauren Beam and Megan Hoyt. Dr. McWilliams says that both bring unique skills and talents to the work, and both are expert facilitators, content developers, strategic thinkers, and creative problem-solvers. That is the key to the success of their efforts, she says. Additionally, career services professionals should put a high priority on building collaborative relationships across their community, with individuals across campus and with alumni. They will never be successful trying to do this alone or in a vacuum.
  • Constantly think about how they can repurpose content—At Wake Forest, a lot of what the Alumni Personal & Career Development Center does lives on its website, and it reuses that content in as many ways as it can. For example, the center created the competency model. Then Dr. McWilliams wrote a book based on the model, which the center uses with its programs. Then it used that content to create an online course. The center offers one-off programs with content from the book and model. It feeds the center’s social media and e-newsletter. And so forth. This expands the center’s footprint and ensures that it is not spending a ton of time creating something that only gets one use.

“The world of work will continue to evolve and as it does, it is incumbent upon institutions of higher education to broaden their reach beyond the walls of the university,” Dr. McWilliams says.

“The value of higher education can no longer rest solely on the four-year degree. Organizations and individuals expect colleges and universities to be lifelong partners in providing the tools, resources, guidance, and knowledge needed for 21st-Century careers. Wake Forest has made a significant investment in this work, demonstrating the university’s commitment to all of its graduates by extending the value of a Wake Forest education well beyond the degree obtained.”