Prior to working in higher education, Lea Mayers III was facilitating career exploration and guidance as an Alternative Learning Coordinator at Wake County Schools in Raleigh, NC. Upon learning that 80% of his Career and Technical Education (CTE) program seniors were accepted to certification programs, apprenticeships, and other types of employment upon graduating, it was Lea’s sister that suggested he apply his skills—and become her colleague—at Voorhees University. In 2019, he was hired as the Director of Career Planning and Placement.
Lea learned that Voorhees had received a large grant from UNCF for a career pathways initiative that wasn’t being utilized to its full potential. With the help of the school’s then-Provost and now President, career planning, curriculum, and pathways were all nestled under one umbrella coordinated by Lea and the Career Pathways Initiative Director. With a new organizational structure and increased support on his side, he had two major hurdles left to overcome: students weren’t using their existing career platform and the university had no career services center. Luckily for Voorhees and its students, Lea’s unwavering determination and mantra of choice—accomplish things that others think are impossible—got right to work.
We understand you created your career services center—literally. Tell us more about that.
When I joined the team, the Career Pathways Initiative Director and I were building thplane while flying it. After assessing where we were against our goals, and hearing how important it was to the Provost to have a career services presence on campus, it became clear that we needed to create a career services center. There was a room on the second floor of the library that was supposed to be the Provost’s teaching and learning center, but I had other plans. I wrote a proposal and sent it to the Provost and President, and it was approved two days later. While our space had been secured, unfortunately we weren’t able to use the grant for capital projects. I come from Title I and K-12 schools, though, so I’m very resourceful and borrowed unused furniture and decorations from other offices on campus to make it all come together. And it did!
What is an example of an impactful initiative you’ve implemented at your institution?
Handshake! I first became familiar with the tool as an alumnus of the University of South Carolina. After hearing rumblings of friends and colleagues in the area leaving our previous system to implement Handshake, I made a case for Voorhees to join the network. We used Handshake as a beta model of sorts to test the students’ interest, and after one semester we launched in January of 2020. While students were certainly activating their accounts, we weren’t seeing the usage we hoped for. I realized that students weren’t on Handshake because we were giving them everything they needed elsewhere via frequent email blasts, newsletters, digital and physical job boards, etc. Why would they ever go to Handshake? So, I shut it down and decided to use Handshake for what it is: a career management system. I sent a mass email to students, faculty, and staff, and at the top of the email it said “It’s all in Handshake.” I shared that Handshake was our central hub for appointments, sessions, events, and any other career management information, which sparked an initial shock as students and staff realized they’d be left behind unless they became familiar with the platform. We went from 20% usage to 60% usage for all class years over the course of one semester.
Now, the first assignment every student completes in their career courses is creating, activating, and updating their Handshake profile.
How has Handshake impacted your team’s workflow?
When I was evaluating the tool, I was a team of one looking for specific capabilities, like experiential learning and peer-to-peer engagement, in addition to standard features. Handshake had everything I needed and became my right hand, and its impact is the reason I was able to hire a coordinator for assistance. Today, we use Handshake to facilitate all experiential learning and internships, empower employers to sign up for accounts themselves instead of going through me, promote opportunities on digital kiosks in every dorm and building (except for the library), and manage all our data in one place.
How are you utilizing that data to effectively provide leadership with an accurate and compelling view of programmatic success?
I leverage the data analytics tools from Handshake to gather, analyze, and visualize relevant metrics that I submit in clear reports or presentations to help institutional leadership make informed decisions and assess our career development program's success.
What are the biggest challenges your students face when it comes to professional development/career exploration? How do you help solve for them?
Our students face many challenges in professional development and exploration. For example, lack of clarity, limited experience, networking, inadequate resources, and mismatched expectations to name a few. We address these challenges in our Career Pathways courses with a combination of career counseling, mentorship, skill-building, internships, networking events, and leveraging online resources to help students navigate the complexities of professional development and career exploration.
What is one of your favorite student success stories?
A student visited the career center as a walk-in appointment and shared that he wanted a career in federal law enforcement, but felt it was an unattainable goal for a psychology major. I assured him it was not, but he still didn't believe it. To instill some hope, I reminded him of my mantra: accomplish things that others think are impossible. We created a new career pathway for him that included mentorship, job shadowing, cross-curriculum coursework, and an internship with a state law enforcement agency.
After following the career pathway, with a few bumps here and there, of course, he graduated with a degree in psychology, employed by a federal government agency, and a graduate school acceptance letter for a fellowship in criminal justice research. All this was accomplished through opportunities he researched, applied to, and acquired through Handshake. This was the point where I knew we made the best decision for our students by acquiring the Handshake platform.