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Becoming Mrs. King and Mr. Fitchett

EACE Blog contribution by Alfreda James, Assistant Director, Graduate Student and Post Doc Career Services at Stony Brook University 

My greatest source of social capital came from living with two parents. My father didn’t complete elementary school; my mother finished eighth grade. Both had low-wage but steady jobs. But they did set standards and monitor behavior.

Contrast the presence of Mr. and Mrs. James to the 21st century personal situations of students filling career workshops. An estimated 36% of the population under 18 years of age comes from single-parent households. Thinking back to ten of my friends from my old neighborhood, there was only one family without two parents. Now, I know it’s misleading to compare the demographics of one block to complexities of families in 2015. But here’s my point: the Internet of Things has displaced the collective influence of the neighborhood. I knew who to avoid in my hometown. My parents told me. And if they didn’t directly warn me, then Mr. Fitchett told Mrs. King who let Mrs. James—two doors away—know about the culprits or problem.

Person-to-person was the foundation of connectivity of 20th century Norfolk, Va. My relationship with Kings and Fitchetts didn’t grow obsolete and I still maintain contact with these families. There are fewer people offering up social capital when young adults spend time living in single-parent households. College completion rates differ by 26 percentage points when teens live in households with a single parent, according to research  by Kathleen M. Ziol-Guest. The college degree, our gateway to economic stability, is harder to reach in the absence of stable families.

Our students have URLs and bitly to steer them to knowledge. Wearable technology monitors activity and even suggests actions. Our students collect knowledge via YouTube, Twitter, and LinkedIn. They can find resume samples, interview questions, and professional/personal advice with a few clicks.

However, ease of access doesn’t always equal insight. Think back to your conversations with students this year. Did you tell a student not to follow an employer’s personal relationships on Facebook? I did. The conversation required me to define personal versus professional connections and the student’s role as a would-be employee, not a potential friend.

Another would-be job seeker agreed to a proposed salary range during a screening interview but then wanted me help to her negotiate for a higher salary. Why? She believed that her advanced degree automatically justified a higher salary. Despite her limited experience in any type of professional setting, she wanted more.

One student focused her job search efforts on a single month—October. When she entered my office in March, she expressed contempt for her academic department, advisor, and even fellow students who had made greater efforts to garner interviews. Her direct actions were never worth reflection.

The digital world gives information, not discernment. And in each of the situations I’ve described, students had had plenty of instruction about personal networking, salary negotiation, and job search strategy. The missing element was insight or judgment.

In the King/Fitchett/James universe, they’d say; “Your boss is not your friend; prove your worth, and don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

Career professionals stand in the place of Mrs. King and Mr. Fitchett in post-modernity. We impart standards of behavior and attire while still respecting the diversity of individuals. We caution students about clear work place communication regardless of flat reporting lines. We warn students to monitor their online presence and credit-history, too. There is no single way to transition from student to professional.  Yet we still teach connectivity to others and self-awareness. Some of what we do is measurable in placement statistics, number of counseling hours, and career education events. But there are intangibles or hard to evaluate aspects like responsible citizenship, empathy, and personal accountability.

This generation needs collective wisdom (and data) from career professionals. Connection requires more than a screen tap or click. Social connection beyond an embedded chip makes us human. We provide social capital above and beyond the Internet of Things. We are Mrs. King and Mr. Fitchett, a few doors away and around the corner.

Alfreda S. James, PhD

Alfreda S. James, PhD

Alfreda S. James, PhD specializes in counseling graduate students about career options. She advises graduate students as well as undergraduates pursuing careers in public policy, government, and science. Dr. James is currently a member of the IDP Task Force and the WISE Admissions Committee. Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) provides four year scholarships to undergraduates pursing degrees in STEM disciplines. She served two terms as an evaluator for the Turner Graduate Fellowship Program. The Turner Fellowship provides financial support to underrepresented graduate students. Dr. James is also a member of the university’s HealthierU strategic planning committee, responsible for promoting wellness and health activities to over 14,000 employees.


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