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Charles Stephens

A Few Minutes With Charles Stephens

Charles Stephens, director of career services for the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois, speaks with Vince Lara, media relations specialist for AHS.

Click here to see the full transcript.

VINCE LARA: This is Vince Lara in the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois. Today I'll speak with Charles Stephens, Director of Career Services for AHS about his new role at the college, passion for working with students, and helping students develop an identity.

All right, Charles, thank you for being on A Few Minutes With. You got your master's and undergrad at Michigan State, a Big 10 rival of Illinois. And you grew up in the greater Detroit area. So what led you to this fine institution?

CHARLES STEPHENS: Vince, thanks for having me, number one.

VINCE LARA: Sure, you bet.

CHARLES STEPHENS: Number two, rival? Is that a thing? So Michigan State, we're good at football and basketball. I don't really think we are rivals in that sense. But it's all Big 10 love anyway. But I'm happy to be here.

So I grew up in the greater Detroit area. It's the town known as Southfield, which is right across the street from Detroit. So have you've seen the movie 8 Mile?


CHARLES STEPHENS: So it's a real road that basically separates the city from the suburbs. It's kind of a metaphor that Eminem was playing on when he did it.


CHARLES STEPHENS: So I grew up on Nine Mile, which is where Southfield is. And then anything below Eight Mile, Seven and below would be considered Detroit area. So as far as what led me to Illinois, my wife and I both came from Massachusetts. So when you're in higher ed, a lot of times the way to move up is to move out. And so we came here as a family from Massachusetts.

My wife works in student affairs. And she's one of the associate vice chancellors there. And so when she got the job first, luckily this search was open. And I was fortunate enough to find a great fit working here in AHS. This position is something that I've done in my previous role, establish a career development office for a school or college the size of roughly 2,000 students. So it was a great fit for me when I saw this opportunity.

VINCE LARA: Now, you mentioned working with students and with young people in general. And that seems to be a career theme for you.


VINCE LARA: And I wondered what led you to that field. What was the inspiration for that?

CHARLES STEPHENS: Some people would like to call it planned happenstance. So when I was at Michigan State, when I got there, first, I always knew that I was going to college. But I didn't know what I was going to do when I got there.

So luckily I paid attention to a pre-college program. It was from the College of Business, Summer Business Institute, where I got to spend a week before school started with 50 other students or 49 other students, learning how to be a student, but then also doing a project where we're researching a company. So that was a great introduction to college life for me. That's where I learned that in order to be successful, you have to be involved.

There's benefits in terms of your professional and personal benefits to getting involved. But then also it connects you to campus. You start to learn the resources. You start to be engaged. You start to develop the spirit. So it got me down the path to being involved.

And so while I figured I'd work in business, I wanted to make money. I figured business was the way to make money. But all the while, as I was going through my career in undergrad, I was heavily involved. I was a student leader of the black caucus. I was involved with the BSA. I was involved in multicultural business students. I was involved in a whole bunch of different things like the programming board for campus.

But all the while I had mentors and advisors who were recognizing that I was thriving on the campus environment. And they were trying to push me into student affairs. But I moved away from it because there was no money in it. So ultimately I graduated, worked for about three years in corporate. But then the financial crisis hit me personally. So I was unemployed for a longer period of time.

It just so happened that I was on a prepaid vacation with the dean of the College of Business. I had some talk time with him while we were sitting on the beach. And we started talking about my career and what he saw as a good pathway for me. And so he recommended that I take a look at higher ed. And so I did that.

So in the time of me finding a temporary gig at the Bank of New York Mellon, that wasn't fulfilling for me. But then this process of going through the master's process to becoming a student affairs professional was more appealing. And luckily I got into Michigan State for their program, which at the time was fourth in the nation.

So I just lucked up to get in there. So the work that I had done to put myself in the position to have that conversation with the assistant dean of students on the beach randomly put me in a position to set the positive career trajectory that I'm on right now. So for me, I'm not intimidated to spreadsheets. But I don't love spreadsheets.

But I do love interacting with people. And I do love helping people. And so that's how I ended up in this field. And this is where I'm really glad to be here.

VINCE LARA: Yeah, here you are. And now part of what you do is you're focused on helping students develop an identity. So when I saw that as part of your bio, it really caught me. And I was wondering if you could explain what that means.

CHARLES STEPHENS: Absolutely. But in order to do that, let me ask you a question first. Can you remember, think back as far as you can remember the first time you were asked what do you want to be when you grew up?

VINCE LARA: Yeah, I was probably nine years old or something.

CHARLES STEPHENS: All right. So what did you say?

VINCE LARA: Baseball player.

CHARLES STEPHENS: Baseball player? That's awesome.


CHARLES STEPHENS: Yeah, so me, it was a pirate. Oh. Not at nine, but earlier. So that's something that we always do, do that to our young people. We say, as soon as they start talking, we ask them, what do you want to be when you grow up? And that's a really difficult question that we ask and a lot of pressure we put on our young people, when in reality, statistics shows you change jobs and maybe even careers multiple times throughout your lifespan.


CHARLES STEPHENS: A lot of people who are successful in areas today weren't doing that job before. And then also we know as employment trends shift, the jobs of today will be different 10, 20 years later.

VINCE LARA: For sure.

CHARLES STEPHENS: So for me, I think it would be awesome instead of asking our kids, what do you want to be when you grow up? who do you want to be when you grow up? I think that's more important to figure that out because an individual has different talents and abilities and skill sets. But to try to limit and pigeonhole those into a career choice, which may not be the career choice that they will follow once they're done.

Or it may not be the consistent one that they'll have over their lifespan. It's more important to figure out who they are as an individual than what they would like to do. So one other thing that we often do when we meet people, we'll introduce ourselves and we'll say, hi, my name is. And they'll respond. And then the next question is what?

VINCE LARA: What do you do?

CHARLES STEPHENS: What do you do? Exactly. So what we do is a very central part of who we are. And so figuring that out I think is the most important thing, not necessarily what you do, but who you are. And so that's part of the process that I bring to the career development process.

So whenever I'm having that conversation with a student, we're trying to get at who they are as an individual and how that professional identity is congruent with their personal identity so that they can be a fully self-actualized person when it comes to their personal and career goals.

VINCE LARA: So I'll put the next two questions together. So what does a typical workday look like for you? And in that, I'm asking you, how or what are some of the ways you help students? Does a student come into you and you have that similar conversation we just had and then you help shape what their identity should look like or what you were hoping it looks like? Tell me a little bit about what that process is.

CHARLES STEPHENS: The process a little bit more subtle.


CHARLES STEPHENS: So I think a lot of times when students seek out assistance, it's one thing. They either need a resume or they need a cover letter or they need someone to review their personal statement or something like that. But I think the best conversations that we've had when it comes to students were when they come in with a personal statement. And a lot of times the student will start listing off their accomplishments. And they'll be very statistics driven.

But it's my job to probe into the why, try to get those unique experiences out of them that make up who they are and then help them to put that on paper. How do they represent their full selves in the process? So anyone who's reviewing a personal statement, you get bored seeing the cookie-cutter student coming across your desk.

But when you see a student who has fully thought through what their goals are, who they are as a person, how their experiences have shaped them to be the person that they are today, and why this program is important for them, then that makes a better conversation, or at least a better document to read and review.

So students, like I said before, they'll come to me for needing to check off a box professionally. But then the conversation will take a turn, may or may not. Sometimes it's just transactional, like I really need to get in and out.

But I want to see who they are. So I view myself as another touchpoint. I think where my office is situated is really important, being under undergraduate affairs. It's a part of the touchpoint in terms of retention, so helping students to make sure that they got what they need to be successful. And a lot of times, as you know, we know their career is important, is an integral part in that.


CHARLES STEPHENS: So you asked about what a typical day looks like.


CHARLES STEPHENS: Still trying to figure that out.


CHARLES STEPHENS: So you come in the office. You maybe have a plan to execute certain tasks and things like that. But then a student may drop in. Or I'll see a student or some other fire needs to get put out. Or it's even maybe going across campus, meeting with the other career services, council folks, trying to learn what their best practices are, what are some things we could bring in here, doing research on what are the latest trends that are happening across the country and how can we integrate that into the AHS career development portfolio.

So there is a lot of thinking right now. But as we continue to move through, you're going to start to see more programs. You're going to start to see more things. We're really excited that we're going to start to buy in a handshake, which is the university's job portal. From my conversation with students over the previous semester, they are familiar with it. But they don't view it as a tool that's helpful for AHS, primarily because a lot of the job opportunities that they see aren't necessarily catered to those majors.


CHARLES STEPHENS: Or at least there aren't enough to make it a critical significance for them. But now we're going to start really investing into it. So this is the first time that the college has had someone to take on that mantle. And so I'm excited to do that. I think the tool is great. It's a great way for students to grow their own network on their own, but then also for us to facilitate that process and then also to help them to find jobs and opportunities as well.

VINCE LARA: Do you find that there's one class that sees you more often than another, like freshmen come to see you more often because they're learning about campus and needing more help? Or do you find that it's more juniors and seniors? What's the breakdown, do you know?

CHARLES STEPHENS: Can't really identify a pure breakdown. It's been a mix so far. So as you mentioned, first year students who were instructed to complete a resume, their first resume ever, have seen me.

As I mentioned before, there was a lot of juniors and seniors who've come through with their personal statements or start to think about they're on the cusp of graduating or they're in their final year, how to get the most out of their year, how to start the job search. What are some strategies that they could use to help them with that?

Some students are looking at their major and starting to think about, OK, well, what's the salary for this major? What should I really be asking for whenever they ask that question in an interview? So we'll provide them with those data and any other thing that they need to help them make their decision about their career choices.

VINCE LARA: And do you work with students beyond graduation?

CHARLES STEPHENS: Absolutely. So I think a lot of times people just view career development in terms of services. So although if the department is called, or the office rather, is called AHS Career Services, I don't take it as a service standpoint.

As I mentioned before, you change jobs over the lifespan. You change careers over the lifespan. You need guidance and support over the lifespan. I think of it more of as a developmental process.

And so I think we're best served if we engage alumni, particularly young alumni, and then alumni who are established who want to come back to reach back to students, to tell their story, to help our students to develop their alumni story. And so, yes, to answer your question, yes. I work with anyone who is affiliated with AHS who would need any sort of assistance or who would love to engage with our students from a career standpoint.

You can't take it in an isolated bucket. So a recruiter looking for an entry-level position would turn to us and handshake to find new graduates. However, we should be a good point of contact for them if they're looking to fill a more intermediate or second position as well. So that's where our young alumni pipeline really comes in.

So I know I'll be working with Danielle Runyon on trying to bolster that relationship between Undergraduate Affairs and Career Development with alumni and advancement. So we're really excited about the opportunities that are on the horizon.

VINCE LARA: My thanks to Charles Stephens. This has been A Few Minutes With.

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