NACE Journal / August 2022
I’ll never forget my first experience at MEGACON Orlando, the largest pop culture convention in the southern United States, attended by more than 140,000 people annually. The hundreds of merchandise booths, once-in-a-lifetime meetups with celebrities, jaw-dropping character costumes, and all-day schedule of live entertainment kept the weekend packed with engaging experiences. The moments I remember most, however, came in smaller, more personalized packages:
- An elderly gentleman gifting me (and many other attendees) a box of Japanese chocolate;
- A child, shyly stepping away from his mother to ask for a photo of my costume; and
- A teenager, standing in line with me conversing about anime.
Never had I received as many hugs, high-fives, smiles, friend requests, and even happy tears in a single weekend as I did while attending MEGACON. When I later reflected on these experiences, I realized that these moments of interpersonal connection stood out to me most—even beyond the celebrity meetups.
Having worked in the career services field for the past five years, I began to ask myself: Can pop culture be leveraged outside of the convention scene to create a similar level of engagement with students? How could career services professionals connect with underserved student populations using this medium? Through pioneering an event called Superhero Week, the Career Center at Eastern Florida State College (EFSC) successfully increased students’ engagement with professional development services and created a welcoming environment that fostered personal connections between students and staff.
Pop Culture Breaks Down Barriers, Creates Connection, and Fosters Engagement With Students
Pop culture encompasses various forms of popular entertainment, including movies, video games, anime, literature, celebrities, music, and social media. As a lifelong fan of pop culture with several years of industry experience, I have personally witnessed the powerful connection narratives and characters can inspire between individuals who share them. Watching a TV show, playing a video game, or reading a book connects an individual to millions of others around the world who are engaging in those same stories. Therefore, pop culture may be thought of as the great equalizer—a middle ground where people of vastly different demographics find commonality under the banner of enjoying and comprehending the same story—even if they have little else in common.
One might think of pop culture as interpersonal shorthand. For example, when one person recognizes a character (let’s say, the superhero Captain America) featured on another person’s shirt, an instant social connection is formed. Because of each individual’s shared experience with the character Captain America, he serves as a barrier-breaking bridge for meaningful communication and connection, regardless of age, culture, or even language. (I have exchanged pop culture-related moments of smiles, high-fives, group photos, and gratitude with those who spoke only Japanese, for example.)
I began conducting research to discern the potential of pop culture as a “universal language” and an engagement tool for career services professionals. My findings suggest that most Americans, and even higher percentages of college students, regularly engage in pop culture. To give a few examples:
- In 2019, one in two Americans (52%) said they planned to watch “Avengers: Endgame” in theaters;1
- Overall, 227 million Americans play video games (67% of adults and 76% of youth under 18);2
- A 2003 survey reported that 70% of college students play video games regularly;3 and
- In a survey of 2,000 college students across five campuses, 68% of students reported enjoying movies and 71% reported enjoying music.4
In summary, nearly three out of every four college students share a common interest in some form of pop culture. By comparison, only 57% of potential college students will have played sports in high school.5
My research into the intersection of pop culture and academia reveals that student engagement and retention rise where pop culture is implemented in both high school and college settings:
- A study conducted by Indiana University found a correlation between the inclusion of pop culture in the classroom and increased instructional effectiveness, student-faculty engagement, and integrated learning experiences;6
- High schools that implemented the High School Esports League (HSEL)-developed curriculum saw a 95% improvement in attendance and average increase of 1.4 GPA;.7
- Ohio State University implemented superheroes into its anatomy and physiology courses, resulting in 97% of the students better comprehending the material; an additional 76% of these students used these pop culture references to teach others the same material;8
- Ashland University received more than 500 applications after “Good Morning America” broadcast a clip featuring the college’s eSports (video game sports) team;9 and
- Southwest Baptist University found that eSports could engage students, supporting better retention and persistence.10
I therefore concluded that because pop culture generally influences and appeals to most students, it could be leveraged as an ideal tool to foster connections between students and career services professionals, thus opening a gateway to life-changing professional development services and aid—particularly for historically underserved student populations.
Creating Superhero Week at the Career Center
I developed and launched a one-week event at the EFSC Career Center dubbed Superhero Week, which coincided with National Superhero Day on April 28. The first such event was held in 2019; although the pandemic interfered with plans for 2020 and 2021, we held the second in 2022.
The event invited prospective, current, and graduated students and alumni to visit or contact the EFSC Career Center, take a personality assessment, and discover which superheroes shared their personality type.
I specifically chose the medium of personality assessment because my research suggested that consumption of and appreciation for pop culture impacts an individual’s identity formation. In summary, when the individual engages in “experience-taking” or sharing the experiences of a fictional character, they broaden their perspective, shape their values, and search for personal meaning. This deep, emotional connection also fosters an identity in connection to others who share appreciation for the same character or story.11 Likewise, personality assessments typically measure elements of personal identity and how these relate to the identities of others, such as inclinations toward certain abilities, communication preferences, and driving motivations.12
Following completion of the personality assessment, students received a sheet of superhero personality matches, a list of potential careers that aligned with their personality type, a summary of their personality type, and a commemorative button displaying the name and symbol of their personality.
Each participant also received a brief explanation of other services offered by the career center, as well as an invitation to make a follow-up appointment for further assessment testing or other career- or job-related services.
To raise awareness of the event, the career center engaged in visual and digital marketing, including:
- Wearing superhero-related costumes throughout the week of the event;
- Advertising on the EFSC website homepage;
- Creating a Facebook event for attendees to mark themselves “interested;”
- Posting on EFSC’s social media Instagram and Facebook accounts;
- Emailing all faculty to share the event with students or post it in their online modules;
- Placing flyers in pop culture-related reading lounges and computer study areas;
- Decorating the career center with superhero-related posters, figurines, and photo walls;
- Producing flyers featuring scannable QR codes, allowing students to take the assessment remotely from their mobile phone; and
- Distributing buttons to participating students featuring their personality type to wear around campus.
Lessons Learned: Engagement and Breached Barriers
To determine the event’s effectiveness on student engagement, I studied interactions between students and the career center, as well as students and career center staff, using two primary methods: 1) comparing quantitative data between Superhero Week participation and average participation at the EFSC Career Center and 2) noting individual commentary from participating students about their feelings of closeness and engagement with the event, staff, and career center.
Eastern Florida State College’s Superhero Week in 2019 required in-person participation while the 2022 event allowed students to participate either in person or remotely by email or phone. Both events saw a significant increase in weekly student appointments, as well as positive feedback from participants:
- In 2019, Superhero Week led to a 400% increase (more than 200 students) in weekly appointments at the career center.
- In 2022, use of the career center’s personality assessment service increased by 526.45% (27 uses per week) from the weekly average of 4.31 uses.
In addition, students participating in the event provided verbal feedback, with the most frequent comments centering around the following themes:
- Feelings of inclusion and welcome (especially from underserved groups), particularly by those who had experienced judgment because of their interests in pop culture;
- Familiarity with the career center, specifically the use of superhero-themed decorations and characters making the staff and department more approachable;
- Interest in further engaging with the event, either by inviting friends to participate or wearing a costume or superhero-themed clothing;
- Consideration of personal and professional development, showing interest in additional services offered by the career center; and
- Surprise from the enjoyment experienced while participating in the event, especially feedback concerning the fun, ease, or comfort of the process.
These results emphasize not only the effectiveness of pop culture as an engagement tool for career services professionals, but also its potential for connecting with underserved student populations. Pop culture fans often feel marginalized and isolated for their interests outside social norms.13 However, they are more likely to engage and develop connections with those involved in similar interests.14 The option to participate in the event through email or the phone in 2022 reduced accessibility barriers (available time, transportation, social anxiety, and so forth), as well as increased event appeal to students concerned with COVID-19 contact.
As the influence of pop culture continues to grow, career services professionals and educators must consider its relevancy to and impact on student engagement. While a large-scale, pop culture-themed event provides one opportunity for interaction, simpler alternatives can prove equally as effective. For example, placing a small superhero figurine or inspirational movie quotation in one’s office can help facilitate instant engagement with a student by creating a shared topic of appreciation and fostering a sense of familiarity. When students feel more engaged with career services staff and services, they are more likely to use those services to receive timely and life-changing academic and professional aid.
1 Nguyen, H. (2019, April 23). One in Two Americans Plan to Watch Avengers: Endgame. YouGovAmerica. Retrieved from https://today.yougov.com/topics/entertainment/articles-reports/2019/04/23/one-two-americans-plan-watch-avengers-endgame.
2 Entertainment Software Association Staff (2021). 2021 Essential Facts About the Video Game Industry. Entertainment Software Association (ESA). Retrieved from www.theesa.com/resource/2021-essential-facts-about-the-video-game-industry/.
3 Jones, S. (2003, July 6). Gaming Comes of Age. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from www.pewresearch.org/internet/2003/07/06/gaming-comes-of-age/.
4 NACE Staff (2018, July 30). Leveraging Pop Culture as an Engagement Tool. National Association of Colleges and Employers. Retrieved from www.naceweb.org/career-development/branding-and-marketing/leveraging-pop-culture-as-an-engagement-tool/.
5 Riser-Kositsky, M., and Peele, H. (2021, July 30). Statistics on School Sports: How Many Students Play Sports? Which Sports Do They Play? EducationWeek. Retrieved from www.edweek.org/leadership/statistics-on-school-sports-how-many-students-play-sports-which-sports-do-they-play/2021/07.
6 Yuhas, B. (2019, August 9). Popular Culture as an Effective Teaching Tool in Undergraduate Instruction: Faculty Uses, Motivations, and Links to Best Practices. Indiana University. Retrieved from https://scholarworks.iu.edu/dspace/handle/2022/24516.
7 Moore, E. (2019, September 2). Esports in Schools is Improving Student Attendance and Raising GPA, Report Finds. UNILAD. Retrieved from www.unilad.co.uk/gaming/esports-in-schools-is-improving-student-attendance-and-raising-gpa-report-finds/.
8 Grachan, J., and Quinn, M. (2021, July 19). Anatomists Assemble! Integrating Superheroes Into the Anatomy and Physiology Classroom. American Physiological Association. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1152/advan.00202.2020.
9 Hennick, C. (2018, October 23). Gaming Heats Up on Campus as Colleges Invest in Esports. EdTech Magazine. Retrieved from https://edtechmagazine.com/higher/article/2018/10/gaming-heats-campus-colleges-invest-esports.
10 Bauer-Wolf, J. (2017, June 9). Video games as a College Sport. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/06/09/esports-quickly-expanding-colleges.
11 Dill-Shackleford, K., and Vinney, C. (2020). Finding Truth in Fiction. Oxford University Press.
12 Holmes, L. (2015, August 18). 5 Really Good Reasons to Take a Personality Test. HuffPost. Retrieved from www.huffpost.com/entry/5-really-good-reasons-to-take-a-personality-test_n_55d21e55e4b055a6dab0f34a.
13 Hatch, R. (2019, August 1). Fans of Fandom: Psychology Faculty Break Down the Passion and Persecution of Fans. Illinois State University. Retrieved from https://news.illinoisstate.edu/2019/08/fans-of-fandom-psychology-faculty-break-down-the-passion-and-persecution-of-fans/.
14 McCain, J., Gentile, B., and Campbell, W. (2015, November 18). A Psychological Exploration of Engagement in Geek Culture. PLOS ONE. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0142200.
Casey L. Covel is a career center coordinator at Eastern Florida State College (EFSC). She earned national honors while completing her associate degree at EFSC, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in human communication through University of Central Florida, holds memberships in both Phi Theta Kappa and the National Society of Leadership and Success, and maintains Global Career Development Facilitator (GCDF) certification. Covel is also an award-winning pop culture author, with numerous “Editor’s Choice” awards from Area of Effects Magazine as well as Phi Theta Kappa’s Note Bene .She can be reached her at firstname.lastname@example.org.