Blog Post

College Students Are Critical Stakeholders: Three Issues That Matter to College Students on Campus That May Translate to the Workplace

By Juliana Parra
February 16, 2023

Seramount’s Employee Voice Sessions (SM) technology provides a “psychologically safe, anonymous, and solutions-oriented forum” for organizations to gain a better understanding of employee experience and company culture. This platform allows our diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) experts to highlight key areas of success and improvement to advise Chief Diversity Officers and senior HR leaders on the most effective ways to help their people and companies thrive. In November, Seramount completed a partner request and heard from an extremely valuable population: university students.

What should we know about today’s university students?

The most racially and ethnically diverse generation in US historysits in today’s university and college classrooms; however, the journey to get into those seats was no small feat. Nearly half (46%) of Gen Zers state the pandemic made it more difficult to pursue their education and career goals, which is a statement I can personally attest to as an older member of this generation. In addition, fellow 2020 graduates and I proceeded into a dismal economy marked by a nearly century-high unemployment rate of 14.7%. While the job market has improved since then, Gen Zers continue to look hesitantly at their professional options and opportunities, questioning how an organization’s cherished mission can align with the values these young adults have identified during these times of incredible change.

As we listened to these university students, three issues were consistently brought up: lack of diversity in leadership, need for mentorship opportunities, and desire for a stronger sense of community. Their individual experiences on campus and institutional frustrations mirror those we often hear from corporate employees; moreover, the similarity between the issues occurring in classrooms and in the office led us to believe that, as members of the generation due to fill the future work pipeline, these individuals are going to pay close attention to how companies and organizations address these specific concerns. Here are three steps your organization can take to meet the next generation’s DEI expectations:  

The Importance of Diversity in Leadership 

The college enrollment rate for students of color far surpasses the hiring rate of racially diverse faculty. In 2020, both Black and Latine students achieved a 36% college enrollment rate; however, these students were welcomed to higher education institutions comprised of 6% full-time Latine faculty members, 7% full-time Black faculty members, and 74% full-time White faculty members. Research shows faculty diversity plays a key role in college student completion and can have a major impact on students’ sense of belonging, retention rates, and persistence, and these benefits are compounded for students of color, particularly for those who identify as Black and Latine. Students in our Employee Voice Sessions who identified as Black expressed how increased representation of Black faculty would help create a more inclusive campus climate and enhance their overall collegiate experiences.  

These sentiments are shared by historically excluded talent (HET) in the workplace, who often hope for advancement opportunities but see a major challenge when working under a homogeneous (i.e., White and male) senior leadership team. Integrating DEI into business goals becomes 54% less likely when leadership is mostly homogenous and future generations are twice as likely to turn down a job with little diversity at the executive level. The key takeaway is that today’s young adults notice and care about dismantling systemic inequalities that keep diversity in leadership at bay, and they will not join an organization that refuses to address the importance of celebrating all backgrounds.  

The Power of Powerful Relationships

When discussing the importance of diversity on campus, we asked the university students to reflect on their personal networks and think about the support they receive from those in their networks (e.g., feedback, advice, connections, opportunities). Moreover, we asked students to identify the race of the person who supported them the most, which led to a discussion around the forms of support available for current and future Black and Latine students. Black and Latine students in the sessions then shared their willingness to support younger or incoming Black and Latine students, claiming their efforts stemmed from not having a mentor or role model on campus and wanting to be that individual for others. In 2021, a survey from Inside Higher Edand College Pulse found more than 75% of students surveyed said it wouldn’t matter if a mentor had the same racial identity; however, that drops to 62% when filtered by students of color and even further, to 41%, for Black students.  

When it comes to understanding the importance of high-quality mentorship, a barrier for students is that finding a mentor is a taught and learned human behavior. In other words, most students do not walk onto campus knowing how to find a mentor or what a mentor can offer them. Enter the words social capital. For instance, students with parents, siblings, or other family members who have graduated from college often arrive with some knowledge of the benefits of building relationships with professors, advisors, and other students. Also, students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds frequently come with experience of attending office hours and asking faculty members for resources and opportunities. Historically, Black and Latine students, and other first-generation students do not identify with these circumstances, and therefore lack the social capital to navigate and understand the intricacies of higher education. 

We see this issue in the workplace as well, regarding purposeful opportunities for HET to leverage their relationships to advance in their careers. For example, historically, far more men than women recognize the benefits derived from networking, mentoring, and sponsorship. Enter the words relationship capital. In the workplace, mentors give career advice, navigation, and guidance and do not need to be in the same area of business as their mentees, but sponsors sit in positions of power and will advocate for their protégé when opportunities arise, which is an effective way for women, particularly women of color, to combat systemic bias and break through the glass ceiling to positions of power and higher pay. Companies with formal inclusive sponsorship programs, targeting highperforming talent, demonstrate a commitment to DEI, which in turn shows that a clear and actionable path toward advancement exists. Creating intentional opportunities for employees to strengthen their networks and learn how to thrive in their careers is a strong component Gen Zers, especially those who do not identify as White or male, seek to ensure they can obtain a seat at the table. 

The Value of Connection

Communities offer a safe, inclusive space for individuals to connect and nurture a sense of belonging. In our sessions, the Black and Latine students spoke highly of the multicultural centers on their campus, referring to these places as their safe spaces where the people, resources, and events fully catered to their needs. In addition to physical community spaces, students who identified as Black and Latine mentioned multicultural organizations on campus (e.g., fraternities, sororities) as well, voicing the value of connecting with others who identified by the same racial background and shared the same lived experiences. These forms of community, both physical spaces and social organizations, help students of color, especially at predominantly White institutions, feel seen and heard. Of course, the desire to feel seen and heard expands beyond college campuses and thus companies should leverage Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) as a powerful tool to encourage personal and professional connections among HET.

Human connection drives communities: listening, learning, and acknowledging other individuals builds trust and promotes a strong sense of belonging. A recent Seramount survey of 200+ ERG members found 98% believed ERGs to be extremely important to creating an inclusive culture. Therefore, opportunities exist for companies and their ERGs to create new and innovative ways to encourage a diverse candidate pool to join their organizations. For example, ERG members can partner with universities and create mentorship programs, attend career fairs, and host networking events with the purpose of demonstrating how the company engages, empowers, and supports DEI in the workplace.

The next generation of employees is a diverse, bold, and proud group seeking to make an impact and inspire DEI progress. Companies must begin to listen, recognize, and implement the changes their future employees not only expect but need to be successful. Universities and workplaces can work together to create an effective pipeline to empower HET with resources, options, and opportunities to kick-start their professional journeys. Gen Z is carefully watching. Are you ready to support and welcome them?

Interested in assessing your company culture?
Seramount’s Assess360 solution and Employee Voice Sessions combine the power of focus groups, quantitative surveys, and interview methodologies in a highly engaging, safe, anonymous, and solutions-oriented forum. Click here to learn more.

Interested in connecting with right-fit candidates on college campuses?
CareerAscent addresses resource constraints, inefficient processes, and limited access to new student networks that organizations face. Click here to learn more.

About the Author

Juliana Parra Headshot
Juliana Parra
Senior Associate, Consulting