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Graduating with Confidence

Northwest University launches career readiness initiative.
Graduation caps fly, résumés are prepared, interviews are completed, job offers are extended, and new colleagues offer admiration and respect as recent graduates successfully enter a career. Or, at least, that’s the hope of university students as they wade through coursework and dream of their future workplace. A national survey, however, paints a different picture.

According to Gallup data, just 13% of Americans view college students as ready for the workplace. Employers are skeptical of the qualifications and abilities represented with a bachelor’s degree.

When Northwest University President Joseph L. Castleberry noticed the trend, he acted.

In 2020, Castleberry assembled a team to reevaluate the ways the Kirkland, Washington-based Assemblies of God school taught practical skills that directly translated to the job field. He asked members of the faculty to reconsider the way the school guided students toward career success.

Over the course of a semester, Castleberry and a strategic team of university leaders met with local business heads, ministry leaders, trustees, and recruiters from Amazon, Microsoft, and other significant companies in the area to hear ways the industry titans could best prepare students for the workplace. They analyzed the desires of employers and conducted extensive research to identify solutions. Out of those conversations came Northwest’s groundbreaking Career Readiness Initiative (CRI), which launched in the fall 2021 semester.

Levi W. Davenport serves as the university’s career development and corporate relations director and helped lead the development of CRI.

“We noticed as we evaluated our course curriculums that while we were certainly teaching students skills that equipped them for the workplace, we weren’t doing a great job at documenting everything in a student’s degree,” Davenport says. “Our faculty teaches career-applicable lessons, but that wasn’t showing up anywhere in a student’s diploma.”

James R. Heugel agrees. As Northwest’s provost, he sees the new initiative helping students begin preparing and documenting career skills earlier in their college tenure. The revamped system empowers them to begin working toward specific career objectives from their first class on campus, according to Heugel.

The CRI is not an extension of Northwest’s curriculum, Heugel says, but rather a foundational element that is now integrated in each student’s requirements. Through the program, students have opportunities to earn professional certificates and competencies. A student pursuing a communications degree, for example, could take courses that lead to an accompanying certificate in editing or social media marketing. A student pursuing a degree in biblical studies with plans to minister overseas could secure an additional certificate in intercultural competence. A student with business aspirations has the opportunity to earn credits resulting in a certificate in computer programming or basic finance. In total, 25 skills-based certificates are available to students.

Davenport says the overarching goal of each new course element is to arm students with the tools they need to get a job and begin with excellence.

“This new curriculum is designed to empower Northwest graduates to succeed on day one of their career,” Davenport says. “We’re taking a liberal arts degree and making it quantifiable on a résumé.”

Aside from certificates, Northwest’s curriculum is now designed to develop professional skills through what the school calls competency groups. Professional skills require approximately six hours of work and additional research outside the classroom. Competency groups range from interpersonal communication to professionalism to grit. One-credit professional readiness courses are sponsored by internal departments in which basic career practices such as email writing etiquette or corporate presenting are taught. Heugel says these courses, paired with required internships and job shadowing, are instilling greater confidence in students as they move through their studies.

“Many times, students face fear as they transition from higher education to occupation,” Heugel says. “This initiative ensures graduates can graduate with confidence. They know they have marketable skills that prepare them to succeed.”

Various regional commerce leaders have expressed support for the effort. That includes Michael Greene, vice president of operations at Highland Private Wealth Management, a financial planning company based in Bellevue, Washington.

“Businesses like ours are built on trust, and the NU students we have hired have rapidly earned our trust,” Greene writes on the school’s website. “Individuals with integrity will always be in high demand, and when you combine character with tangible skills, that’s someone who can provide value to any business.”

Kristin Wileman Sheldon

Kristin Wileman Sheldon is a writer who specializes in faith and rural development topics. A graduate of North Central University, she has written extensively for high-profile government and business leaders, and has created content for The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Worldview magazine. Wileman lives in central South Dakota.