An Interview with Montreat College Associate Dean for Learning, Calling, and Career Marie Wisner
Reflection: As Montreat College’s associate dean for learning, calling, and career, one of your primary responsibilities is running the college’s Thrive Center for Learning, Calling, and Career. Can you talk a little bit about what the Thrive Center does?
Marie Wisner: The shortened version of the Thrive Center’s mission statement is that we exist to educate students for academic success and to lead purposeful lives. We do this primarily through academic support and calling and career development, providing distinct services in both of those areas. We have an academic support specialist, Beth Maslin, and a career development specialist, Michelle Pupoh. I get to work with both of them and we’re all working together to think about the program. We also provide guidance for students looking to participate in off-campus programs and interdisciplinary majors. And we facilitate the biennial Calling and Career Week Symposium, which is focused on conversations and discussions about the integration of our faith and our work, helping students explore the idea of calling and how we understand that within a biblical framework.
Under academic support, Beth runs a program with about 20 peer tutors called “academic fellows,” and they receive training on how to help coach students in the subject area that they have expertise in. These are students who are really excellent in their coursework and demonstrate the personal skills to be able to help others along the way. We also offer academic skills workshops on reading, note taking, test taking, stress reduction, and other related skills.
And the other main focus of the Thrive Center is calling and career development?
Yes. There are a lot of places on Montreat’s campus where calling and career development happens, not just in the Thrive Center. But the Thrive Center is a really big part of the college’s strategy for preparing students for calling and career. We work with students on identity development, helping them work through questions like, “What am I good at? What do I want to do? People have always told me that I should do this, but I’m not sure that’s what I want to do. How do I know?” So both of our staff are certified in using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, using the Clifton Strengths Finder, and then Michelle is also certified in using the Strong Interest Inventory. All of those instruments provide different pieces of information that the students can use to describe themselves to others as they are seeking opportunities. And it also helps them have a sense of, “This is what I want to do, and this is what I don’t want to do.” We’re also trying to help students see how their faith and their spiritual life is a part of who they are as a whole, and to see whole person development as part of their planning for their future. The beautiful outcome would be if we’re not even having to talk about how you integrate your faith and your career path, it just is happening, and they’re not seen as separate to begin with.
"The beautiful outcome would be if we're not even having to talk about how you integrate your faith and your career path, it just is happening, and they're not seen as separate to begin with."
What are some of the steps you work through with students to help them with career development?
We’ve tried to frame the idea of a career path with some road signs. I think all of us at different times in our lives will circle back from one point to another—we understand that it’s not necessarily a linear path. But we begin where our students generally are when they arrive at college, with identity development. We then want to help them identify experiences that they can engage in that might really help explore a career path that they’re curious about. An informational interview with someone who’s doing a job they think that they might want to do gives them a lot of information. Job shadowing, where they spend a little bit more time with someone, allows them to observe what’s going on in that person’s work and the industry they are in. Practicums or internships are a logical next step, where students are doing hands on work and helping really produce the work of that organization. We want students to have lots of different kinds of experiences throughout their career preparation journey, so that they can try on things and say, “I like the idea of that, but in reality it’s not what I really expected.” And then in other cases they might equally be surprised and think, “Oh, I didn’t know that I would enjoy this so much.”
Another important tool that the Thrive Center uses is Handshake, an online career center platform that connects our students with hundreds of thousands of organizations. Most of our students come from this region and are looking for jobs here, so we certainly reach out to organizations in this region, but Handshake can also connect them to any place in the world and gives employers exposure to Montreat College, its mission, and the students who are being trained here.
We also try to help our students understand why networking and relationships are so important. Putting yourself out there like that can sound really intimidating to our students, especially for those students who wouldn’t be inclined to initiate a contact or take a first step to meet someone new. We try to teach them that networking is really about creating a relationship with someone that can be authentic and genuine and doesn’t have to be fake or purely transactional. We want our students see that whenever they say “yes” to an opportunity to get to know someone better, it can build relationships and help open doors for them.
What kinds of career preparation skills does the Thrive Center help students to cultivate?
In general, we want the career coaching conversations in the Thrive Center to help our students understand that, while they are working on developing a distinct set of skills in relation to their major, they also need to be working on a set of skills that are universal and that all employers want no matter what kind of role they’re hiring for. These are called “soft skills,” but not because they’re easy. It’s because skills like leadership and communication are hard to measure and define and quantify.
We try to help students see how their everyday involvement on campus—whether it’s athletics, or student government, or as a resident assistant, or working with the Aramark staff in the dining center and facilities—those experiences are helping them develop those skills that are most wanted by employers. We want to help them articulate those experiences so that they can connect the dots for the employers, particularly in interviews. Because the kinds of questions they’re going to start with are often like, “Tell me about a time when you had to solve a problem.” Or, “Tell me about a time when you had a conflict with a coworker. How did you resolve that?” We help them see how the soft skills they’ve been practicing throughout college are really going to be the substance of their answers in the interview process.
So it is quite a journey. Our students might be applying for an internship or they might be applying for a job. But we want to help them at whatever stage they’re at. That’s the heart of what we’re trying to do with our career development, and the calling piece is threaded throughout. You know, I said the Thrive Center’s purpose statement is educating students for academic success and to lead purposeful lives, and that’s because they’re whole people. They’re not just going to be what their work is. And through our career coaching as well as our academic coaching we want to really see who is this person in front of us. They’re created in God’s image, so how do we help them see that and appreciate that and find connection with the kinds of work and the kinds of people that would be meaningful to them.
Along those lines, how is the work that the Thrive Center does different from a similar office at a secular campus?
I think the conversations we have with students here in the Thrive Center at Montreat would be really difficult to have in a non-faith-based institution or with staff that perceive our purpose and origins differently.
In our office, we start with the assumption that we are created, and we are created in God’s image. And we can take from that that we have good things in us and that God has created us with purpose. Going back to Genesis, the simple understanding is that God created humanity and He gave us purposeful, meaningful work to do. So I think recognizing that work is a good part of God’s creation and that we were created not only to be in relationship with Him and with other people, but also to be in relationship with our surroundings. Being grounded in those principles and assumptions shapes the way that we talk to our students. It shapes our love and our hearts for the students in wanting them to have a sense of calling.
And calling—it’s hard to qualify or quantify what calling is. There are really individual kinds of callings because God’s made us uniquely and gifted each of us with a different constellation of strengths. Our personality and all the other life experience we’ve had— our family background and opportunities and God’s presence and the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives—all shape us pretty uniquely. But we’re also helping our students know that they’re called to Someone, with a capital S, really called to God. And we all have that calling. We all respond differently, perhaps, but we all have that calling to Someone first. And then, as we respond to that call to God who knows us by name, we’re trying to do the most right thing as we discern that in a listening relationship with God. ■
"We want to really see who is this person in front of us. They're created in God's image, so how do we help them see that and appreciate that and find connection with the kinds of work and the kinds of people that would be meaningful to them."