Among the many lessons Larry Carroll and his staff at the Center for Professional Excellence (CPE) have taught Elmhurst students over the last 15 years is this one about the center itself: The CPE is a lot more than a career office.
The CPE, founded in 1997 as the College’s hub for all things related to career preparation and personal development, is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year. From the start, Carroll, the CPE’s executive director, has made it his mission to educate students about the advantages of getting an early start on their post-graduation plans. That can mean professional development activities like internships, job shadowing and connections with professional mentors. But, Carroll likes to remind students, it can also mean international study, Service-Learning experiences and intercultural education. Elmhurst students can explore all these possibilities at the CPE.
“We’re about a lot more than helping students find jobs,” Carroll says. “We want to develop the person. If our students develop their passions and their talents, they’ll find jobs and they’ll be better prepared for them.”
The center’s diverse portfolio has made it a destination for students from all corners of the campus. The CPE is home to the College’s internship, mentoring and career-guidance programs. It also hosts the College’s Honors Program, its study-abroad and Service-Learning offerings, and Intercultural Education, which celebrates diversity and promotes leadership skills. Carroll’s research indicates that some 70 percent of Elmhurst undergraduates take advantage of the CPE’s offerings.
In the midst of the current faltering job market, Carroll says, many of those students turn to the CPE looking for an edge over other job-seekers. At the CPE, they find internships that provide a head start in a crowded jobs marketplace. They tap into the CPE’s shadowing program, which lets them tag along with professionals making their daily rounds to get real-world insight into a career that interests them. And the center provides practical instruction in everything from crafting a resume to conducting job searches to networking successfully.
Carroll says that even activities that students often don’t associate with career preparation help them prepare for life after graduation. For example, the CPE offers international study opportunities in 44 countries on six continents, providing experiences that teach students important lessons about themselves and the world beyond campus. Then there’s the Service-Learning Program, which puts students to work building homes for the needy, feeding the hungry and tutoring young people.
“We want to prepare students to move on to the next stage of life, after graduation,” Carroll said. “The programs we offer are part of the College’s efforts to help with students’ self-formation and personal development. And they all enhance our students’ career-readiness.”
From its inception, that approach has set the center apart from some other colleges' career offices. The Center for Professional Excellence traces its origins back to an action plan overseen by Elmhurst president Bryant L. Cureton, who led the College from 1994 to 2008. Cureton’s plan noted that the College, throughout its history, had sought to blend its liberal arts orientation with a focus on professional preparation. The CPE was created to extend that legacy.
“At a lot of colleges, there’s the classic liberal arts education or there’s professional preparation, and never the twain shall meet,” Carroll says. “[Cureton] came here and said, ‘We’ve always been about integrating the two, since the days when our mission was preparing students for the ministry.’ If that’s not professional preparation, what is?”
One example of that approach is the CPE’s First Leap program. Initiated in 2008, it gives first-year students an early introduction to the professional world, combining visits to businesses with classroom sessions. The program offers a glimpse of some of the realities of the working world and helps students clarify their career interests. It also provides a foundation for further exploration, through internships, mentoring relationships, networking and academic coursework.
“We want to help with students’ self-formation so that they can take charge of their own professional development,” he said. “The experiences they find here give students skills that they can articulate to employers.”
For students and parents anxious about an unforgiving job market, that kind of head start on career planning makes sense.
“These are difficult times, and students want to do what they can to help themselves succeed,” Carroll said. “The one thing students fear is that they’ll have to move back in with their parents after graduation. They don’t want that, any more than their parents want them moving back.”