Case Study: Scaling Career Services: Embedding the Challenge Mindset Across Campus

JP Michel

“I presented your Challenge cards and mindset to our department heads and their response to them was fantastic. You could feel relief in the room to realize you did not need to focus on job titles.  When I connected the dots between your cards and what they teach in class as spaces students could explore their 'interests', it really aligned for them and they could see how the career conversation could be much more productive.  As a result, I am beginning to get in-class workshop requests.”
Nicola Edwards, University of Guelph

Nicola is a Career Advisor & Educator at the University of Guelph. She has been in this field for the last twenty years, and her primary focus is building career programs for students across the campus. Her role fits into the University's overall goals of creating a student-focused environment where innovation and creativity are encouraged. Nicola believes that the challenge mindset is the key to achieving this goal.

In her role, Nicola is measured by her ability to network and embed herself in the school, not just the quantitative measures… versus statistical outcomes. Pre-pandemic, students would come to Nicola’s department to seek help, but these days, the team needs to figure out creative ways to go out to students. To extend her reach, Nicola built a career area within the college’s website that features helpful student resources, including TED Talks, career content, and SparkPath’s Challenge Cards.

Too Many Students, Not Enough Time 

Nicola’s primary challenge was scale

A career is personal and requires customized conversations. While Nicola can work with ten people from the same major, they will have ten unique problems and challenges to overcome and different approaches to their career paths. Making each student feel seen and heard is critical, even when facilitating a group workshop or a classroom-style lecture.

The other challenge with achieving scale is that not all faculty members believe that career conversations belong in the classroom. Many instructors want to stay focused on their domain expertise versus thinking about the bigger picture their students face. While Nicola sees a shift here, it is often up to her to search for the champions in the school who are willing and able to bring the career conversation into the classroom.

Finally, many of the career tools on the market are designed only to meet some students where they are. Most standard assessment tools generate a list of job titles, but that isn't well aligned with the world of work, nor is it helpful for all students. This can be frustrating for a career advisor as it often feels like your job is to help your students find a job and, specifically, a job title. Nicola has had to shift her thinking on this and think about creating a diverse toolbox.


Nicola’s approach to being a career professional has shifted since using the Challenge Cards and embracing the Challenge mindset.

Nicola learned about the Challenge Cards through a Google Search initially and then came across the founder, JP, while he was speaking at a conference. She found the approach very interesting. Following the event, she went to the website, saw the price point of the tool, and ordered it immediately. For Nicola, it was a “no-brainer.”

Nicola now uses the Challenge Cards with her students, individually and in group settings, and enjoys the flexibility and openness it brings to a career conversation. When engaging her students with a card sort, she asks them, "What challenges do you want to look into related to your interest area?" and then encourages them to do a deeper dive to uncover all the possibilities in a chosen area.

Since the Challenge Cards are a tool that inspires open and fluid conversation, Nicola can bring her other toolsets to the table, including narrative theory, happenstance theory, purpose and meaning, identity, values, and more. These concepts and ideas are always found in an individual's dialogue following a card sort. Whereas other tools are much more linear in their journey and final in their outcomes, the Challenge Cards offer room to explore.

Nicola finds the overall format of the Challenge Cards to be beneficial. Since the cards are two-sided, with one side having only a challenge area and not a description, Nicola can start with the image and spark an open conversation with her students. Once she uncovers what the challenge area means for the student, she flips the card over. She returns the career conversation to something more tangible, often leading to a discussion where Nicola explains competencies versus challenges versus career choices to answer the question, "How do I want to work in the world?"

Expansion Across the University

While Nicola is now using the Challenge Cards as part of her go-to set of tools, she sees the application of the Cards throughout the University.

For example, first-year business students at the University of Guelph must take Management 1000, where the students are introduced to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Challenge Cards/Challenge mindset. The Challenge mindset helps the students see how the Challenge Cards link to real-world problems, primarily through the lens of the UN SDGs. 

First, the card sort is often used as an icebreaker activity. Then the students are grouped where they use design thinking and an empathy map to address their chosen Challenge Card. This thread is picked back up in the third year of another management course.

In another example, the Challenge Cards are introduced in a corporate and social responsibility third-year course. Through a workshop, a card sort is done with students using a curated set of sustainability cards from the Challenge Cards deck. The workshop facilitators will use the cards to select the sustainability challenge they want to work on and then do a deep dive into what that would look like in the real world. From there, they’ll do various activities around the challenge, including building an organizational structure and a SWOT analysis. In focusing on a specific organization’s challenges related to sustainability, they can see where or how they might contribute from a career perspective.

Embedding the Tools

Using the Challenge Cards across the university, Nicola has demonstrated the value of looking beyond job titles. The Challenge mindset has helped her students uncover their strengths and contributions, instead of trying to fit themselves into a specific job title that may or may not work. 

The Challenge Cards and mindset have heavily inspired Nicola. She has tackled her scaling problem head-on by building a conference, where SparkPath founder JP was one of her first presenters, and embedding the tools across the University. Nicola calls herself a "constant seed planter" and makes this true to life at both the faculty and student levels.

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