Ready for Work

USC Upstate launches initiative to prepare students for career success before and after graduation.

By Trevor Anderson

Kim Purdy, QEP director and dean of University College, is guiding the initiative to connect all students with professional opportunities that match their skills, knowledge and experience.

USC Upstate has produced talent for employers and communities across the region and beyond since its inception in 1967.

For the first time in nearly 55 years, however, the university is being intentional about its efforts to ensure all its students are prepared for their future careers.

USC Upstate is in the pilot year of its new five-year Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), an initiative aptly named “Moving UP,” which seeks to help every student, regardless of major or academic year, connect their skills, strengths, knowledge, and experiences with professional opportunities.

“USC Upstate provides students with transferable skills, knowledge, and experiences that enable them to maximize their potential, both personally and professionally,” says USC Upstate Chancellor Bennie Harris. “We are very excited about this QEP, as we see the potential it has to further enhance not only our already strong impact on social mobility, but to create a culture of success that will make USC Upstate a destination of choice.”

The QEP is an essential piece of USC Upstate’s reaccreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), which takes place every 10 years. The plan reflects and affirms the university’s commitment to enhancing its quality and effectiveness by focusing on an issue that’s important to improving student learning outcomes and success.

The steering committee for Moving UP was formed in late 2019. Its members include QEP Director Kim Purdy, who serves as dean of University College; Celena Kusch, professor and executive director of the Center for Academic Innovation and Faculty Support; Pam Steinke, interim provost; Hannah Terpack, director of Career Management; and Justin Travis, assistant professor of psychology. Amanda Karls, director of Institutional Effectiveness and Compliance, is the newest member.

USC Upstate’s previous QEP, entitled “Stepping UP,” was a campus-wide technology enrichment program that university leaders say had a significant impact, especially when the COVID-19 pandemic forced a transition from face-to-face to virtual instruction in March 2020.

“I heard from several professors who said that the work they did during the last QEP really helped them through that difficult time,” Purdy says. “During Stepping UP, we encouraged faculty to try new things even if they were worried they might fail. We also encouraged them to work with their students to find solutions. In the end, I think it turned out to be very useful. And I’m really excited because this (QEP) promises to be even more impactful.”

“Moving UP is intended to leverage current work and broad-based interest to infuse career readiness throughout students’ academic experience by developing career-ready core competencies,” she adds.

Purdy says the focus for Moving UP emerged during the input stage of USC Upstate’s strategic planning cycle, when focus groups were being conducted with a wide variety of constituents.

“One of the themes that came from that analysis was that career readiness was on the minds of people in every constituency group,” Purdy says. “We learned that a critical mass of people was doing this work in isolation, and that as an institution we were proud of engaging in that work.”

The committee found the need for professional and career development was supported by national surveys of employers that reported very few new hires were proficient in career skills.

Anecdotal communication from several regional employers showed the same concern. Meanwhile, surveys of USC Upstate graduates showed a majority believed they were proficient in career readiness, Purdy says.

Increased traffic at the university’s Office of Career Management and interest among faculty in developing career readiness learning opportunities for their students provided further evidence of the need.

“We spent a year examining our Strategic Plan, Scorecards and Blueprints, internal and external data, and feedback from various community partners regarding the success of our graduates,” Purdy says. “Our goal was to identify a topic that was central to the work we are doing; a topic that could make a significant impact on student learning and engagement if the entire institution were to focus on that one topic for the next five years.”

“We want to make sure every USC Upstate student is an employer’s first choice,” she adds. “Our students know how to solve problems. They know how to work. Through this QEP, the community will start to know that our students are career-ready as a result of the competencies woven into the classroom experience.”

SACSCOC will visit campus in March. At that time, the accrediting body will conduct an onsite review of the QEP. The committee is also waiting for an offsite peer group to complete its review of the plan.

The plan includes beefing up the Office of Career Management and the Center for Academic Innovation and Faculty support. It supports a renewed commitment to professional advisors who see students early in their collegiate career, and the implementation of the Upstate GROW program, which focuses on enhancing the professionalism of student employees by working with their supervisors to rethink student employment as a high-impact practice.

Hannah Terpack, standing, director of Career Management, leads a session with students on proper dining etiquette for business meals.

Another part of the plan includes the adoption of an e-portfolio system that will allow students to document and reflect on their professional and career growth during their years in college. Leaders will also look to integrate career exploration into introductory college courses and develop a new career-centered course to enhance student success in their current and future jobs.

“One thing that has always stood out to me is how even the most visible, recognizable, prestigious companies have shared that they would rather hire a USC Upstate student,” Terpack says. “They always laud the refreshing humility and grit of our students, as well as their ability to work with little mentorship or training. Our students are rock-solid, wonderfully capable human beings. This is so exciting.”

The projected outcomes of the plan are:

• Students will be able to identify and articulate their knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics as relevant to their desired career goals.
• Students will be able to explore, identify and address areas necessary for professional growth and success.
• Students will be able to navigate and explore career options, including further educational and experiential options.
• Students will be able to articulate how their academic program and co-curricular experiences have prepared them for their post-graduation life.
• Students will be able to develop a career plan that includes the steps prior to and beyond graduation that will facilitate achievement of their career goals.

Faculty from each major will be invited to participate in summer workshops to redesign their program to incorporate more intentional career preparation. In many cases, faculty have already begun creating these experiences, but they will be formalized through the QEP.

A series of professional development workshops will provide advisors with the skills to better guide students through their exploration of skills and abilities, discovery of career options, and development of career maps to guide their progress through the major and successful placement after graduation.

“I’m especially excited about the career mapping,” says Terpack. “We’re helping students understand and articulate their strengths and how that might transfer to a role that maybe they’ve never even thought about.”