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  • W&M’s Professional Development Academy Expands to Create Foundations Course, Evolves Into Week-long Event

    August 21, 2023 | By Kevin Gray

    Award-Winning Programs
    Kathleen Powell of William and Mary.

    TAGS: best practices, competencies, program development, career readiness, nace insights, career development, nace award winner

    During the pandemic, William & Mary (W&M) President Katherine Rowe insisted that the Cohen Career Center continues to engage students and alumni, connecting them through a common purpose: career readiness. While moving to a virtual world and with little experience using virtual tools, career center staff accomplished this charge by creating the Professional Development Academy, which—due to its success—has yielded expanded focus and additional events at W&M.

    “This seminar-based program called in alumni, employers, and friends of the university to provide the Professional Development Academy, a crowdsourced, three-day, conference-style experience held in January 2021,” explains Kathleen Powell, William & Mary’s chief career officer and associate vice president for advancement.

    William & Mary is the winner of the 2023 NACE Award for Career Readiness Excellence for its “Professional Development Academy.” For more information about the NACE Awards program and the full list of award winners/honorable mentions, see

    “The curriculum for the academy was chosen by participants through the registration process based on the NACE career readiness competencies.”

    The initial goal of the Professional Development Academy was to engage the W&M community during an extended winter break in a meaningful way, says Kelly O’Shaughnessy, director of career readiness pathways.

    “As we designed the program, the goals expanded to include an increased understanding and application of the NACE competencies, while also deepening connections across the William & Mary community among students, alumni, parents, board members, employers, and faculty and staff,” she notes.

    “Each group had representation as attendees, speakers, volunteers, and connectors.”

    There were 95 participants in the Professional Development Academy, with sessions that covered:

    • Personal branding;
    • Networking;
    • Adaptability and problem solving;
    • Offer review and negotiation;
    • Leadership; and
    • Professional communication.

    It also featured daily small-group reflection and discussion. The program concluded with a showcase review during which each participant presented an individually designed professional development plan.

    Pre- and post-tests were administered around the Professional Develop Academy to assess the level of career readiness of the participants. Based on the findings, all participants increased their knowledge and awareness of the NACE competencies by virtue of participating in the academy.

    Program evaluations of the first Professional Development Academy ranked the daily small-group discussion sessions—during which attendees and volunteers have an opportunity to engage is conversations to process what they have learned, share key takeaways, and determine next steps—as its most impactful element.

    Building on Success

    Powell says the Professional Development Academy was “wildly successful with rave reviews and interest.” In fact, she adds that President Rowe was so pleased with it that she requested a summer offering. The Career Readiness Foundations program emerged as an asynchronous “course” offered four times a year and housed in Blackboard.

    In addition, as of February 2023, the three-day pilot Professional Development Academy merged with another event that traditionally focused only on alumni to create the William & Mary Professional Development Week.

    W&M Professional Development Week offers more than 20 sessions, including panel discussions, workshops, and networking. Topics range from career design development, personal branding, and emotional intelligence to navigating a career in a changing economy.

    The sessions are rooted in the NACE career readiness competencies’ observable behaviors through learning objectives and reflection questions.

    “Participants include the full W&M community, from first-year undergraduate students to Ph.D. candidates, alumni, faculty, and parents,” Powell says.

    “With a combination of virtual and in-person sessions, the week connects professionals across the country and across decades of experience to build career connections and competencies leveraging their lifelong W&M network for professional success.”

    Organizers plan to re-incorporate the small-group discussion sessions that were so highly rated in the Professional Development Academy into this year’s W&M Professional Development Week.

    Another element that has led to the success of the event has been basing the programming on the NACE competencies.

    “By grounding the program design and learning objectives in the NACE career readiness competencies we’re able to provide the speakers with specifics we need covered without limiting their approach to the session,” O’Shaughnessy says.

    “Additionally, we’re able to build in reflection questions and next-steps development so attendees can either choose to passively listen or actively engage with the content and further their own professional development. Along with that is the universality of the NACE career readiness competencies. Since this audience has always been open to the full W&M community, these competencies can be related to any stage of career development.”

    Staff provide attendees with a loose template for a personalized professional development action plan.

    “The template includes multiple reflection questions aligned with each speaker session as well as a space to record and track their top takeaways from each session and next steps for themselves based on what they’ve learned and gained,” O’Shaughnessy notes.

    Lessons Learned … and Shared

    Following are some of the lessons learned by W&M in the creation, evolution, and expansion of this career readiness programming:

    • Participants in programs like these are more likely to have sustained attendance when provided the opportunity to build connections and reflect on lessons learned throughout the overall program. Small group discussion where attendees are able to build lasting connections provides an added element of motivation, accountability, and energy.

    • To scale the program out as the intended audience has grown to the full W&M community of students, alumni, faculty, staff, parents, and employers, it is offered in person and virtually. It continues to be successful in a virtual format due to the structure provided to those who wish to have it.

    • Having clear learning objectives aligned with the NACE competencies and explicitly representing them throughout the program demonstrates the value of each session and provides a sense of continuity throughout for all attendees, no matter their stage of career development. Also, the overlapping nature of the NACE career readiness competencies and behaviors allows for a natural and easily identifiable thread between speakers who may not know each other or have never met.

    • Clear expectations, responsibilities, resources, and communication plans for volunteer roles are necessary. Many of the strengths of the program rely heavily on the engagement of volunteers. W&M sourced its volunteers through multiple institutional boards, alumni connections, employers, parents, faculty, and staff. It planned out detailed resources, how-to guides, and communication timelines for each volunteer role, including Zoom orientations to thank volunteers and answer any questions they may have regarding their roles. These volunteers also provided vital feedback on the program design and experience.

    • Participants having a hand in selecting the speaker topics helps with building momentum and buzz around the program, as well as with follow-through to attend well after signing up. Additionally, W&M had a weekly newsletter for attendees leading up to the program to keep them engaged.

    A Way to Underscore the Value Proposition

    Another key development for the programming occurred in February 2023: W&M alumni career engagement was moved from alumni engagement to the office of career development and professional engagement.

    “This strategic move was a signal to the William & Mary community and the external world that career engagement and career development are center-led, and we provide lifelong career development at all stages of a William & Mary experience,” Powell says.

    This is important because, as Powell explains, return on investment in higher education is under a microscope and confidence in higher education is at an all-time low.

    “At the same time, the value proposition for William & Mary is to be known as the best university for lifelong career engagement,” she adds.

    “There is no better way to bring together students, alumni, and parents than through a shared experience. The Professional Development Week brought together our constituents to create knowledge sharing, lead practice, and lifelong connections. We wanted to make certain that our stakeholders had the opportunity to benefit from each other.”