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The ‘Connective Tissue’ That Liberal Arts Students Need for Lifelong Professional Success

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By Daniel R. Porterfield

For professionals, a great liberal arts education is an appreciating asset, like a wise investment that earns compounding interest over decades. That’s because the knowledge, skills and learning capabilities that students develop in college gain value as their careers progress and their responsibilities grow more complex.

This was the point of an earlier piece I wrote – “Four Ways Talented 20-Somethings Are Building Great Careers” – that examined the rising professional trajectories of four recent graduates of my college. A rigorous education empowers us to ask smart questions, adapt to change, draw upon multiple types of knowledge, distinguish between good and bad information, and learn fast and independently – and those skills are desperately needed in the current world of work.

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That said, while I believe undergraduates should have confidence in the accumulating value of their liberal arts educations, I don’t mean to suggest that if we simply give students access to great faculty, seminars and curricula, stellar professional futures are ensured.

Not in today’s lightning-fast tech-driven global knowledge economy, in which most businesses and organizations must reinvent core practices, if not their core missions, every few years because of the dizzying pace of change.

That’s why in 2012 my institution, Franklin & Marshall College, created the Office of Student and Post-Graduate Development (OSPGD). The name speaks to our mission – the development of each student and graduate as unique individuals with their own interests, goals and gifts, so that all can thrive by adapting and adjusting to the fields and occupations of the future.

In this regard, OSPGD goes beyond the function of a traditional career center in providing a one-time transactional experience consisting of a resume review or mock interview. Instead, the office serves students beginning in their first year with education on life skills (e.g. financial literacy, mindfulness and leadership, social media etiquette and practices) while providing ongoing career advising and professional development opportunities that address students’ emerging interests and post-graduate possibilities.

What does this approach actually look like for undergraduates?

Take the example of Clare Wirth ’16, who just began working at the Advisory Board, a healthcare consulting firm in Washington, D.C.

Clare was drawn to a liberal arts education because she sensed the interconnectedness of her interests in medicine, public health, ethics, business and law. When she visited OSPGD during her first year at F&M, her advising team encouraged her to seek experiences in all of these areas and beyond, rather than narrowing herself to a specialization early in her college education. Clare went on to major in business, minored in chemistry, and completed the pre-med track curriculum – while also serving as a college leader and playing for F&M’s nationally-ranked varsity field hockey program.

OSPGD also helped Clare by giving her access to a range of non-credit growth opportunities, which new research shows more college students are looking for.

For example, as a sophomore, she took part in the Harwood Leadership Seminar, which teaches 24 F&M students about diverse leadership styles. The program emphasizes helping students learn to trust and question one another, to grow in confidence and empathy, to embrace challenges and to form bold goals. One project involved a trip to the Gettysburg Battlefield for the Gettysburg Foundation’s exceptional “In the Footsteps of Leaders” workshop, through which Clare saw the multiple ways individuals can contribute meaningfully to the outcome of a historical event no matter their age, rank and experience.

Clare also signed up for a physician-shadowing program at nearby Lancaster General Hospital (LGH), organized by OSPGD’s Director of Health Professions Advising, which provided a resident physician mentor and a year of exposure to the works of residents across various LGH departments, from radiology to general medicine. She observed first-hand some of the strategies and operations needed to run a hospital and make healthcare accessible – topics she loved studying as well.

Clare also wanted to start thinking about the ways gender plays out in professional life. That’s why she attended OSPGD programs like the “Women in Leadership Seminar,” where she learned from women who had broken into new fields, made discoveries in science and redefined their organizations. When she heard the story of Joan Fallon, an F&M-educated caregiver, scientist and innovator developing new therapies to help autistic children – which requires business acumen as well – Clare knew that she had made the right choice with her liberal arts studies.

Of course, educators cannot pre-program students and we shouldn’t try. Each learner must be a leader for herself and actively create her own education. But one’s yearning for growth can be catalyzed and channeled by the kinds of mentoring that Clare pursued. Today, every institution needs to engage students like Clare over four years.

Having built her early professional goals around passions that she had explored deeply throughout college, Clare turned to OSPGD when it was time to apply for her first post-graduate job. Her advising team put her in contact with a bevy of mentors working at the intersections of business and healthcare and, later, helped her understand and negotiate the compensation packages she was offered. Perhaps most important, because her advising team knew her well, they were able to help her articulate on paper and in interviews the value of her F&M education.

In There Is Life After College, journalist Jeff Selingo confirms that developing a personal narrative as Clare did is essential for creating lifelong opportunities. He writes, “Your story needs to be authentic and true…Employers are looking for the why behind your decisions and how the situations you faced before might compare with ones you will confront on the job.” This is a perspective that OSPGD fosters in our students – an extension of the meaning-making and self-understanding that mark a liberal arts education.

When political pundits speculate that this kind of education cannot prepare students well for the modern economy, I turn to students like Clare Wirth and developmental resources like OSPGD. Building up what Selingo calls the “connective tissue” that links a formative education and out-of-class learning is one way that colleges can evolve with today’s knowledge economy.

This is done not by forsaking the fundamental values of liberal arts learning, but by elevating them for impact today.


This article was written by Daniel R. Porterfield from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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