December 2018 Featured Carousel Features

The Empowered Liberal Arts Graduate

Written By: Matthew Paul Cowley

Students pursuing a liberal arts degree are a hot topic within higher education and industry alike. Two narratives have emerged from this conversation. One posits that liberal arts majors need to actively seek tangible (read: technical) skills to solidify their worth in the market. Another states that liberal arts majors need only to be patient as data shows their long-term career outcomes often surpass their counterparts.

In my experience, students embody the former and struggle to remain resolute in their decision to pursue a liberal arts degree. Everyone around them seems to be echoing the same fear for their future. I often encounter students who believe they need to change majors, double-major or pick up a minor in order to transition out of college as a viable candidate.

While there is absolutely nothing wrong with double-majoring, we should challenge our students’ belief in the intrinsic necessity of the decision. What liberal arts majors need – more than technical skills – is creativity and the ability to tell their story effectively. Additionally, I would argue that industry needs exactly the same.

What comes to mind when you think of a student majoring in history? What value do they bring to the market? What skills can they contribute to an organization? I would argue that these students are adept critical thinkers. They are able to understand complex issues within context and use large amounts of data to make inferences about the future.

They have been exposed to myriad places and cultures. They have learned and utilized a variety of technologies to solve problems (think online databases and microfiche). They are likely clear and succinct communicators. Because historical research and writing are often done alone, they are self-motivated.

However, by nature of our “always-connected” society, they are likely to work well with a team. Also, we must not forget that the history major does not merely exist in the classroom. A wide array of out-of-the-classroom experiences have added to their repertoire. What is my argument? Even without double-majoring, the history major is likely to be career-ready.

Through trends analyses and research, the University of Florida’s Career Connections Center developed a Career Action Plan that facilitates the bridging of introspective thinking to action steps that students can take as soon as they are admitted to the institution. Within this model, we have also identified core competencies that support students’ career readiness and lay the foundation for successful transition into the workforce.

It is also imperative to note our core belief that experience changes everything. Internships, study abroad, part-time jobs, student organization involvement, academic research and community engagement are all key elements of building a successful career. These are the places where students grow into leaders and develop the skills that support their transition into the workforce and graduate school.

The Career Connections Center exists not only to help students identify action steps toward a career, but also to facilitate critical reflection on their experiences (both academic and extracurricular). This reflection is the key to helping them hone in on a career that suits them best.

Does the history major desire for their career to be history-related, or do they want to employ the skills they’ve gained in an entirely new context? If they desire the latter, then they are likely to need support in identifying that context.

They will need to reflect on the value imparted to them by their education. They will need to understand how their extracurricular activities have added to their knowledge and skills. They will need to understand how to tell their story and how to customize it for the industry they desire to enter. Finally, they will need to eagerly seek feedback to identify areas for further development.

My prescription for industry is identical. Broadening your imagination can only lead to a more effective and diverse workforce. Do not remain steadfast in the belief that a square peg cannot fit in a round hole. Instead, question why the hole is round to begin with.

You can shift the reality of what is possible for our students. Some organizations will require that their candidates possess certain technical skills. Academia cannot ignore this. Share this information freely with both students, faculty and staff.

Tell the story of your organization’s needs. This is the kind of feedback that I encourage students to seek feverishly, lest they arrive at the gates of their career without a key. Collaboratively, we can replace fear and rejection with rejuvenation within our students.

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