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Unpacking Mixed Messages: Bridging the Institutional Messaging Gap

The EvoLLLution | Unpacking Mixed Messages: Bridging the Institutional Messaging Gap
Interdisciplinarity and collaboration is key to mitigating mixed messaging as a result of departmental siloing.

Advancements in technology have unequivocally influenced the nature of work and continue to contribute to the conversation surrounding the value of a bachelor’s degree and its necessity for employment. Higher education institutions are taking proactive measures to address and anticipate these changes, and the labor market for today’s college graduates was promising prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, throughout my tenure in higher-ed career counseling, I have noticed an issue that involves college students receiving mixed messages from student support offices even prior to starting their professional trajectory.

One kind of office prioritizes inclusion and tolerance, and encourages students to harbor and strengthen these values as they become engaged and productive citizens. Another one teaches those same students to dilute their personalities and unique traits because the professional setting is still too often exclusive, intolerant, and rooted in inequity and conformity. How do universities and colleges justify these contradictory messages from two sources within one institution? Who benefits from the mixed message? What is the cost of hearing contradicting messages?

This issue warrants discussion, additional insight about these offices and their messages, and suggestions for mitigating their potentially negative effects are offered.

Message 1: Prioritizing Inclusion and Tolerance

Inclusion and tolerance are the unifying themes and terms articulated by certain offices at American colleges and universities. Common monikers for these spaces include “Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs,” “Center for Diversity and Inclusion,” “Multicultural Affairs and Student Inclusion,” or “Office of Diversity, Equity and Multicultural Affairs.” These departments often publish newsletters or annual reports to highlight accomplishments that legitimatize historically ignored or marginalized student populations while introducing and increasing awareness of these groups and the challenges they face to the larger campus community.

Events hosted by these offices may be centered around food, music, or art from different cultures; a speaker series focusing on social and racial equity or disparity; a foreign film screening; or discussions of ill-conceived policies or acts of racial intolerance occurring on or off campus. The core function of these offices is to provide a visual platform and resources for practicing, strengthening, and sustaining a climate in which inclusion and tolerance are applied equally to all individuals.

Racial minority affinity groups and similar student organizations also seek to collaborate with these offices to discuss their concerns. These connections allow students to build relationships with staff that look like them and gain insight about exploring and preparing for further educational and employment opportunities. Because student affairs professionals across higher education—including within career services—as a whole do not reflect student demographics, the relationship poverty for students of racial minorities, especially from low-income backgrounds, is significant. University offices centered around diversity, inclusion, and multicultural affairs are therefore crucial in filling this gap for culturally and racially underrepresented students.

 Message 2: Preparing for “The Real World” 

Students’ experiences engaging with career coaches, advisors or counselors in “career centers,” on the other hand, are inherently different. These offices offer students employment-related resources, including insight about self-presentation and articulating previous work experiences—for example, research, employment, volunteering, etc.—both orally and in writing throughout their job searches.

Especially in the interview process, students are encouraged to be conscious of how they express themselves, both through what they say and their attire. When speaking with a potential employer, disclosure of any information that may be polarizing or perceived as inappropriate can compromise or even entirely disqualify a candidate. Career coaches provide students with guidance on discretion, appropriate filters and tailoring responses to directly address the interviewer’s questions. Furthermore, because interviews are historically a heteronormative, white-male-centric, formal practice, professional dress that adheres to this demographic’s notions of “beauty” warrants consideration. What does this mean for a transgender person of color? How about for a Muslim student interviewing with a historically Christian organization?

These offices are in a unique and sensitive position because they interface both with student “realities” and employer demands. Career services offices are making efforts to address student concerns, but there are plenty of industries that are historically white, with their own set of values, beliefs, and attitudes, and they are changing slowly, if at all. Additionally, appearance discrimination and cognitive bias, such as the horn effect, are factors that influence who progresses in the search process, and they cannot be ignored by those who have been tasked with preparing students to enter the internship and job hunt.

Suggestions to Bridge the Gap

In order to close the gap between career services offices and those centered around multicultural diversity and inclusion, schools must employ an interdisciplinary model and begin conceiving themselves as problem-solving institutions with policies that are both flexible and adaptive.

The myriad issues that occur in collegiate environments are too complex and interrelated to be effectively tackled through one discipline or approach; it is only by removing the boundaries between the sectors that make up our universities that we can begin renegotiating the siloed structure of academic affairs and student affairs.

Transparency and consensus through clear and open dialogue are imperative to the success of our institutions, the employees that make them run, and the students that they serve.

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