In the Spotlight: Julie Bechtold, Director of Career Development
by Mark Donahue
In the wake of the recent recession the news has only now begun to brighten, slightly, about the U.S. job market. But college students continue to attend classes, graduate and, yes, expect to find careers once they leave campus.
It can be a daunting task, but Julie Bechtold, NLU's new Director of Career Development, is up to the challenge. Bechtold leads an energetic team that's focused on student engagement, and a new direction in the new year looks to align the work of her office even closer with NLU's academic mission.
Bechtold said this goes beyond a student just having a good resume and cover letter. It's about equipping someone for life to manage his or her career.
"Our goal is to make sure that when a student graduates, they're career ready," she said. "That they're either in process of finding a job, or they have a job, or they know exactly what their next step is."
A career path can certainly have twists and turns — something Bechtold knows from her own life. And she brings this perspective, which spans higher ed and the public and private sectors, to the task of evolving career services to a whole new level.
About 10 years after she graduated college, Bechtold experienced something many adults — if not most — face at some point in their working lives: a mid-career crisis. Unhappy with her job, she quit and enrolled in Northern Illinois University's master's in counseling program. She wanted to become a therapist and midway through her very first class felt confident that's what she would do.
But her path went in an unexpected direction. While she had an internship at a private therapy practice during her master's studies, Bechtold also worked at an Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) unemployment office, helping people with their resumes, cover letters and job searches. And there she felt a spark.
"I loved it," Bechtold said. "I love helping people. And it just was this natural thing that came to me."
She made a contact in her work through IDES that lead to a second internship at Lee Hecht Harrison, an outplacement firm that works with reorganizing and downsizing companies. Many of these offer career services as part of severance packages, and Lee Hecht Harrison provides workers with resume reviews and other job search aides. Bechtold found herself doing this work and enjoying it, just as she did at the unemployment office.
When she got her master's, Bechtold said she had one client in her private practice and a nice job offer from Lee Hecht Harrison. She chose the latter and ended up staying six years. Eventually she heard about an opportunity with a Chicago college and landed a job as career services director with The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.
It was a wonderful experience, Bechtold said, but she was laid off after three and half years. She took some time to reassess her situation, studying for and attaining her Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC) designation. She also did consulting work for NIU, helping the school's career center in its work on a four-year model to build career awareness through all phases of a student's time in college.
This model grabbed the attention of National Louis. HR staff reached out to Bechtold through LinkedIn — a channel she promotes heavily in her work at NLU today. Bechtold was hired in September as head of the new Career Development office and hit the ground running with a new staff and vision of helping students find jobs.
Bechtold is joined by Helen Roy, Career Readiness Advisor, and Emily Drake, Employer Outreach Specialist. Roy does a lot of one-on-one work with students, helping them build resumes and cover letters, as well as directing them to other student resources and giving career development presentations in classes.
Drake, who was hired as part of the Education to Employment (E2) Initiative, primarily works with the employment needs of veteran and Harrison Fellow students. She's also the main point of contact for employers that want to hire NLU students. Bechtold said NLU's relationship with local employers is very good, and Drake is working to grow those links further and establish new ones.
Beyond this current work, NLU Career Development is taking a closer look at the widest-reaching tool at a university's disposal today: the Internet. The office is currently redesigning its Web site to make more resources available 24/7 — everything from resume guides and sample resumes to interviewing tips and tutorials on building LinkedIn profiles.
NLU's student body, which tends to be older, and the specialized tracks many of its students — for example, those seeking advanced degrees in education — might seem like extra challenges in the job market. But Bechtold sees quite the opposite.
At The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Bechtold assisted master's and doctoral-level students in finding work in psychology. To her, Career Development should approach a student seeking, say, an M.Ed. or Ed.D. no differently than anyone else.
"What we do is equip students to be prepared for job search success," she said.
And as for NLU's older student population — many career-changers much like herself — Bechtold believes they already have an awareness of the job market that comes with experience.
"I think that gives us an advantage because I think students — if they have some work experience — are already attuned to the need for something like this, so I think I our message of getting them involved in this and their buy-in will be really good," she said.
What NLU students will be buying into is a new model for delivering career services — one that goes far beyond the traditional experience.
If you've already been to college, you might remember scrambling to find the career office the last semester of your studies. Some students may have never even put together a resume before getting their diploma. Bechtold wants to change that.
"A student will not leave NLU saying 'I never knew about career development and the help I can get,'" she said. "That's not acceptable."
In an interesting twist, NLU Career Development has been brought into the newly formed Student Services area under the direction of the President’s office — an important change as NLU embarks upon a more systematic approach to achieving an unparalleled student experience.
"As you start to matriculate in, you will be engaging in career development conversations and activities that will continue throughout the entire student cycle because NLU is committed to this kind of help, supporting your professional development and career development along the way," Bechtold said.
She outlined a new road map she's helping to finalize this year that will follow NLU students through their time at school with career-building benchmarks along the way. Some examples include self-assessment of skills at the start of studies, through service learning and interviewing practice, to creating a job search action plan before graduation.
Bechtold added that this is being created with a third-party Web application in mind that will help deliver a lot of the content and services — things like self-assessments and lists of ideal job and company types. Bechtold also said exploration is being done to see how this Web app might interface with the new Desire2Learn (D2L) online learning platform as part of students' coursework process, further tying it into the academic experience.
The new Career Development road map is still in process, but Bechtold said she hopes it can be rolled out as NLU's new general education offerings are released later this year. She believes it's the cutting edge of college career services — something that sets NLU apart.
"We really are going to be unique, and I know it will give NLU students a competitive edge in the marketplace," Bechtold said.
As Career Development prepares to embark on the rest of its 2013, Bechtold said her office will have to be agile, continuing to offer the services it always has while mixing in the aspects of the office's new vision along the way.
The dedication of her team and of the rest of the faculty and staff at NLU has impressed Bechtold. Working in this environment inspires her to pursue her mission of making sure all students know how to develop and manage their careers.
"I love what I do," Bechtold said, "and if I can do that — I'm not that special — everyone can reach that same point."