Outreach is an ambiguous area that can be tricky to define. But it is an important part of a communications strategy, because marketing alone is not enough to connect with your target audience. You need to build relationships to communicate in a meaningful way.
This is the reason my role as Career Outreach Assistant was created – to improve the way the University of Toronto Mississauga Career Centre communicates with the UTM community. While the Career Centre is an essential service on campus, you wouldn’t necessarily know it from talking to students. A persistent challenge we tackle is that many students, if not most, don’t know about our services.
On the surface, my job revolves around the dissemination of information: connecting a target audience with the events and services created for them. But to have real value, my work must go far beyond that. Students won’t engage with services just because you point them out: relationships are the secret to communicating the value of a career centre, and that is the true heart of what I do.
Audience: Student groups and leaders
My target audience consists of the many, and diverse, student groups active at UTM. Student groups are a unique target audience for a few reasons:
- Their academic commitments often take precedence above all else.
- As student leaders, they are usually heavily involved in campus life, so their time and attention are limited resources.
- They do not understand how the university works to the same extent as faculty and staff.
- The people in these leadership roles change constantly.
Because my position is new, and because this is the first time we’ve targeted student groups in a systematic way, my first year has been a mix of trial by fire and a “make it up as I go” strategy. It has also been an incredible learning experience with some valuable lessons.
Benefits of working with Student Leaders
Student leaders as advocates
Student leaders have a certain authority on campus because they are usually upper-year students and are therefore trusted sources of information. If these student leaders understand early in the year the importance of the Career Centre, they become indispensable allies. A few of the student leaders I’ve worked with have become ambassadors for career education on campus. They are usually happy to pass on messages, help promote events and even partner with us on major events.
Student leaders are often motivated by a desire to improve the student experience for their peers. As a result, building relationships with them creates an open dialogue about student sentiment regarding career services on campus. Some of the most valuable feedback I’ve received from student leaders includes: high enthusiasm for our Extern Job Shadowing Program and a slight dissatisfaction with the feedback given in resume critiques for students applying to computer science jobs.
Most recently, I had nine student groups on campus agree to take a survey about one of our programs and to encourage their members to fill it out. Strong relationships with student groups create a more responsive pool of participants for assessment efforts.
While some student groups will approach the Career Centre on their own, most won’t. To reach as many students as possible, it is necessary to be out on campus engaging and to create opportunities to cement a relationship, or new ways to collaborate wherever possible. It takes some time to develop an eye for what these opportunities might look like, but once you do, it can yield high rewards. The best strategy is to know your audience: I spend a lot of time combing through social media profiles, event lists and any other kind of presence – online or otherwise – student groups have on campus to deduce how to best appeal to them.
While outreach can produce disappointing outcomes, I’ve reaped many positive results this year. During UTM’s annual March Open House day, I made a point of seeking out the student societies for each department and speaking to them personally. I was rewarded with many of them recognizing my name and therefore being more attentive to what I had to say. I’ve also seen some of the student leaders I’ve worked with closely taking more ownership over promoting career development. Two groups have now created a LinkedIn account to recruit speakers for their events, as I suggested. Lastly, after a year of watching and learning, I have a sense of the cycle that student groups experience from year to year, from elections, to planning, to holding events and learning from them. It’s given me some valuable insights that will help me plan for the future.
For the most part, students understand the importance of career planning and development, but they are not always sure how to access information and services. More importantly, they are not always willing to act to remedy this. As staff, we are removed from the student experience, so it’s easy to fall into the trap of making unfair assumptions about how and why students engage – or don’t – with the supports we work so hard to provide. Having a role like mine, which liaises closely with student leaders, is an organic and effective way to meet students where they are.