CFLE in Context: Careers in Family Life Education

by Sterling Wall, Ph.D., CFLE

What can I do with a Family Life Education degree?

"What can I do with this Family Life Education degree?" This has to be THE most common question I have heard from my students, both current, and prospective over the last 10 years teaching at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. As I speak to my colleagues around the nation, I realize I am not alone. Unfortunately for my students, it took a couple of years for me to realize what the real question was. Time after time I would hand out the Careers in Family Science booklet produced by NCFR, or steer them to the website, or handout another copy of the two page list that I had received off of a list serve once again naming all of the many options that one could do with a background in Family Life Education.

It didn't help. They kept asking the same question, or so I thought.

Not 'what', but 'which' of all these options

As I eavesdropped in the hall outside my office on a couple of students who I had just advised, and handed the "lists" to, I realized that they were really asking a different question. The new question that I verified with them, was not what, but "which" of all these options will they do? Now that is a different question, one that is not solved by endless lists of all the careers possible. It is also one that I cannot answer for them, though I can help. But that help must come from within first.

What's in a name?

What's in a name? In our program there are two tracks, both are called Family & Consumer Sciences, with either a Teaching option, typically in the public schools 8-12 grades teaching FacsEd, or what we now call the Family Life Education (FLE) option, for students working in community settings such as 'Big Brothers and Sisters' or 'Healthy Beginnings', typically outside the formal public school classrooms. It is so metaphorical to me that when I first arrived here 10 years ago, our FLE option was actually named "non-certs", meaning, those who were NOT getting their public school teaching certificate. We were not defined by what we were, but by what we were not. Ouch! Indeed, that was often who our students were, those who were not accepted into the school of Education, who had nowhere else to go to graduate – a dropout prevention program maybe? Rather than be driven by what we were not, we quickly changed the name, at about the same time the program became CFLE certified with NCFR. We also refined our admission requirements to the major, rather than be a default choice; we consciously chose what we wanted to be about and who we wanted to serve.

Our FCS-Teaching Option students know what they will do when they graduate, teach in a school. I tell our students we have 110% placement, since every one of them is hired, and we have people calling through the summer asking for more. However, when my FLE students ask me what our placement rate is, it is with a different answer that I reply, "I do not know of any FLE graduates who a) were involved in the student organizations, b) went to conferences with us, c) put some thought into their internship (instead of whatever was easiest), and who d) want to be working in this field (one wanted to drive semi-truck for the Coke plant, it paid well, why not, this is still a good degree for his life though), who are not. I know of many who email me a few years out, asking how they might find a job in this field. My response is the same, get involved, network, do some job shadowing, attend some conferences.

Everybody knows, or thinks they know, what a school teacher is. Everybody knows, or thinks they know, what a Social Worker is, we see them in movies. Everybody knows, or thinks they know, what a Psychologist is, again, movies. But nobody has seen a Family Life Educator come on the set of a movie. That is because Teacher, Social Worker, Psychologist, these are all degrees that intuitively translate to a very similar job. Join this major, do this job (even though we all know lots of people working in a variety of jobs with these backgrounds, that big question of "what will I do" is not ever-present on their minds).

Family Life Education as a profession

Family Life Education can be a profession however, we might suggest it is more commonly a background, for many professions, of many different names. I emphasize to my students that this is NOT a default major anymore. In fact, it is for those who are willing to get out there, be entrepreneurial, get involved, and explore the edge. It is for those with initiative, creativity, and willing to think outside the box. Family Life Education, we might say, is better training for jobs that already exist, that are often taken by Sociology or Psychology majors, but that Family Life majors could be even better qualified for.

For example, we have an alumnus of about 6 years, Kasey, who wandered for about 5 years, before landing his first job that was firmly in the field. He works in 'Healthy Beginnings', a county level program that targets at risk first time parents using a matrix of factors. If he does not go in, the risk is 33%, 1 out of 3, that those children will experience severe neglect or abuse. If he does go in, the risk drops to just 3%, so 3 out of 100! His job? His first case was finding a man a home who was living out of his truck, second case was finding a family a home who was getting evicted, next case parenting issues, another case questioning if the baby was healthy or not. He has covered the wide spectrum of issues with these families, talking, advocating, teaching, listening, to whatever it is they need that day. His employers love him, and his degree, and have actively sought to recruit our majors now that they know what we do and how the students are trained.

Which of all these professions will you choose to do? I don't know. That's your choice. How can we help you make that choice? That's an even better question.

Putting a real face to a professional possibility

Kasey has been an invaluable asset to our program. He has come to speak on multiple occasions to a new crop of students each year. While here, he answers questions, tells real stories, shares his journey, and offers to let students go on rides along with him. I went with him once, he also introduced me to about ten other agencies dealing with families that I never would have thought of, all parked right up and down the hall from him. Kasey is one of several guest speakers that our student group has brought in. Each dynamic, each with different stories, each puts a real face to a professional possibility, rather than just a list on a piece of paper. In addition, just about all of them are relatively close to our students' age. This is important, apparently, because as one student politely but directly put it to me, "Dr. Wall, we need to hear it from someone our own age."

Volunteering is not just for starving students

Volunteering is not just a nice line on your resume; it can actually land you a job, or a career. Volunteering is not just for starving students, or new professionals. I went to school with Dr. Amie Lapp Payne. While visiting as a keynote speaker for a conference, she shared her story with my students. Married to "the military," as she put it, she had to move every 3-4 years. "I don't have time to do the traditional look in the paper, apply, wait for weeks on end, get rejected…" So instead, she volunteers. In fact, sitting in on some of the public meetings of departments dealing with child well-being (little known secret, MANY meetings of your local government are open to you as a citizen), it only took a couple of times for her to be recognized. When the group was discussing a statewide program they wanted to implement, Amie raised her hand, they asked her who she was, she told them and then she advised them that "if you want to do that kind of program, you will want to consider A, B, and C, in addition, evaluation will be an important issue for the longevity of the program, which you will want to evaluate in this way…" the committee then asked, "so, who do we know that could do that?" And Amie raised her hand again. In less than a year she was the Deputy Director at the Washington State Department of Early Learning, helping to oversee budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Lest you feel overwhelmed, Torrie is another volunteer success story. She wanted to work in the jails, with women and youthful offenders. She went to the local jail, and signed up to volunteer in a program there. A few days later, while walking through the halls of the jail, before she had even started working/volunteering yet, she was stopped by someone who recognized her and… offered her a PAID position in a similar program.

Volunteering. It works.

Conferences large or small; Go!

EVERY time that I have taken students to conferences, some of them have been solicited for jobs, internships, or other meaningful opportunities. I used to take a group to the National AAFCS conference, where they received offers and encouragement to apply for teaching positions around the nation. When I took them to the state conference, I had principals and other teachers tapping me on the shoulder asking me if I "know anyone who will graduate this year? We have a position open in…" One time, I had TWO students with me at a small regional conference, consisting of them, my wife and myself, a retired Extension professional and her spouse, and the presenter. The evening wound down with an interesting presentation on…genealogy, which is of course fascinating, but was not something that either student was planning on obtaining as a career. "It" had not happened yet. We got up to leave, started to thank the Extension Agent who was our presenter for the night, one student was out the door, the other in the door way when the agent said, "WAIT! I almost forgot, I just got a million dollar grant to work on suicide prevention programs in our county…." Still nothing registered on my students faces. The agent continued, "that means PAID INTERNSHIPS!!!" It took two seconds for the student to get over to the agent and ask, "where can I sign up?!?!!!"

You are not alone

"We don't do anything alone," I was once informed by my students. Not shopping, homework, not even working out. "So we need friends to do these kinds of things with." Finding your path in the field of Family Life Education is more than a list on a website showing all the different options. It is a process that requires others, MANY others, experienced and even not so experienced, to inform, or motivate you, to help you realize you are not alone. Bringing guest speakers in for short presentations during lunchtime meetings is great. They also work for dinner as well. Creating a student conference where we will bring in all of our alumni from the last 12 months is also good, to share what they have learned, and wish they had learned, with current students, and future professionals, is invaluable. Joining your national and state organizations NOW, as a student, is also invaluable.

As we continue to forge our way forward, as a profession, as a program, as Family Life Educators, perhaps that is the key. It's not that we "don't," it's that we "can't" do it alone. This fall, I am looking forward to advising all of the FLE practicum students for the first time. I have visions of creating a web-based tool where they can login, post their practicum experience details and contact information, so that future students can see what they have done, and can contact them with questions if needed.

Quite frankly, it's really hard to discern between where student life and professional life, universities and professions, begin and end. I like how it was recently put by a colleague, "you are already professionals, you are simply acquiring more training to become better professionals." Our students need mentors. Professionals in the field benefit from new hires who are prepared, or interns who are willing to prepare. It is this thought that has driven the recent development of our state organization, WICFR and continues to drive our efforts to hone our programs, to the mutual benefit of all concerned.

Sterling Wall, Ph.D., CFLE, is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin–Steven's Point.