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Bridget-HolcombeElizabeth-WalkerWork in the World and the World of Work: Articulating the Value of a Holistic Liberal Arts Education for Vocation

By: Bridget Holcombe, M.S., Director of Career & Internship Services & Elizabeth Walker, M.S., Career Advisor, School of Humanities and Behavioral Sciences

How does High Point University’s holistic liberal arts education provide students with relevancy in the world of work? Through classroom curriculum and experiential learning programs, students develop the knowledge, skills, and attributes to succeed post-graduation. Though some majors emphasize “pre-professional” training, every student at High Point University is a student of the liberal arts: Students complete a substantial general education curriculum of multidisciplinary coursework that is grounded in the liberal arts – nearly half of their credits for graduation. Liberal arts majors in particular are often thought of as confronting the question, “What are you going to do with that?” Yet this question is central to any of our students, whatever their major. As students complete their college experience, they must determine what to do in their work lives, how to attain their chosen work, and how to succeed at it.

Determining the Work

Young college graduates entering the workforce today face a much different hiring environment than previous generations. The linear career “paths” or “ladders” familiar to earlier generations have been replaced by diverse and varied career trajectories. As career advisors, we have to consider today’s ever-changing career landscape in our work with students. We often adhere to the modern theory of “Planned Happenstance”, which emphasizes the importance of cultivating transferable skills, because it accounts for the transitional nature of today’s careers. The theory encourages young adults to develop curiosity, persistence, flexibility, optimism, and risk-taking as a pathway to finding meaningful employment:

Students need to prepare for both ‘chance’ career opportunities and unexpected career events that are consequences of the economy, the changing workplace, the global market place, or personal events. They begin by identifying skills and traits that will be important as they develop their cadre of experience. Advisors assist students in defining methods to attain transferable skills and employable traits through enriched learning opportunities: volunteering, part-time work, mentored research, internships, study abroad, student involvement, and leadership experiences. These skills, traits, and experiences will help students discover what is possible and how they can benefit a potential employer. The goal is to be in the ‘right place,’ at the ‘right time,’ with the ‘right tools.’ (Landon & Hammock)

Students often report that one of the values of their liberal arts general education is the opportunity to take diverse coursework which allows them to investigate and select from different intellectual identities and commitments. This process often informs their choice of major and vocation. Such choices also are informed by those experiences that “enrich” students’ learning: service learning, study abroad, and research and internship opportunities. Participating in experiential learning outside the classroom aids students in exploring their values and interests and discovering career fit. As career advisors, we ask students to reflect on their coursework and experiential learning to consider possible majors and formulate career goals. Even this act of contemplating a future career and determining the necessary preparation for such a career engages students in complex problem-solving for which their general education prepares them. Through their holistic education, students acquire soft and hard skills and attributes important to their fulfillment and success in their working lives. Yet a disconnect sometimes occurs when students attempt to analyze their value and process the significance of their university accomplishments.

Attaining the Work

Scan any entry-level job description and note the emphasis on soft skills such as the ability to work in a team, verbal communication, and sound decision-making. Soft skills have become an important indicator of an applicant’s ability to work in a diverse and complex career landscape. Aspiring young professionals must demonstrate to employers that they have obtained these skills by providing evidence. However, no major, college course, or GPA alone can offer the evidence that employers seek. Thus, the burden falls on applicants to articulate their skill-sets through analyzing their classroom and experiential learning experiences.

Fortunately, liberal arts education cultivates the development of the very skills and traits employers value. For example, a liberal arts education fosters students’ communication skills (Association of American College and Universities), and employers who recruit for entry-level positions on college campuses highly value those who are able “to communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organization” (National Association of Colleges and Employers). Additionally, liberally educated students are able to analyze and problem-solve (AACU), abilities that relate to the top skills employers seek. Employers are interested in college graduates who exhibit the ability “to make decisions and solve problems,” “to plan, organize and prioritize work,” and “to obtain and process information” (NACE). Students obtain these skills through their liberal arts curriculum. Students of the liberal arts also are lifelong learners who thrive in complexity, diversity, and change. These attributes are ideally suited to succeeding in today’s rapidly changing career environment.

While some question the success of universities in teaching students soft skills, in our experience the students we meet have acquired these employable skills. The challenge for students is to articulate their vocational value. Students often begin their career advising appointments by contemplating how their coursework, experiential learning, and campus involvement have prepared them for the job search and professional life after college. As career development professionals, we find that most students benefit from an opportunity to reflect on and analyze how their comprehensive university experience, including their liberal arts education, will enable them to succeed in their chosen vocation.

When students who are majors in liberal arts disciplines are asked, “What are you going to do with that?” they need to be able to respond, “A lot, actually.” They need to be able to interpret the value of their education in ways meaningful to others, including employers. They must understand and embrace the value of transferable skills. Our office recently presented to a small class of senior English majors where students were tasked with generating a list of the skills obtained through their university education. At first, the students hesitantly offered answers like written and oral communication, listening, and editing. As their professor and the presenters delved further, we heard responses like empathy, analysis, research, verbal communication, interpersonal skills, teamwork, and attention to detail. The National Association of Colleges and Employers’ most recent list of skills that employers value is very similar to the list of abilities the English majors generated. When invited to articulate and expand upon their unique skill sets, students were able to process and express the exact skills that employers look for in applicants. Even more encouraging, they were able to assert with confidence that they possessed the sought-after skill-set. This activity is just one example of what Paul Jay and Gerald Graff refer to as “critical vocationalism,” helping humanities students, in particular, articulate the value and significance of their critical and ethical training to the world of work.

The challenge of articulating the value of a liberal arts education to potential employers is not limited to traditional liberal arts majors. Students in diverse disciplines need to be able to reflect on and voice how their integrated learning experience of coursework and co-curricular opportunities relate to their work lives. A student named Mary, who met with one of our career advisors recently, began her appointment by stating that she did not have anything to include on her resume. Instead of accepting that Mary had no valuable skills or experiences, the career advisor asked Mary about her campus involvement. As it turns out, Mary oversees the marketing function of a campus organization. When asked how she got involved in her marketing role, Mary explained that learning more about human behavior and motivations in her human relations coursework had piqued her interest in marketing. As the conversation continued about experiences from her coursework as well as her campus leadership role, the career advisor was able to discern that Mary had learned communication and analytical skills, though she wasn’t identifying them in that language. Not only had she learned these skills, she was actively using them. The career advisor and Mary worked together to identify her skills and explore strategies for communicating her skill-set to employers. By naming her skills and expressing the worth of her on-campus experiences, Mary was making sense of and integrating her education in a way meaningful to others, including prospective employers.

A similar situation happens almost daily in our work with students. Students collect valuable skills through their university experiences and liberal arts education, yet do not process the significance of their campus contributions and often lack the language to label and communicate their skills to potential employers.

Succeeding at the Work

Our role as advisors entails helping students find meaningful vocations and assisting them in discerning and articulating their employment value. Although we cannot follow students into their everyday work lives, hearing from many successful graduates leaves no doubt as to the professional implications of their holistic liberal-arts-oriented education. No matter their major, the liberal arts can lend students a broader perspective in their working lives. As just one example, students must complete foreign language coursework and a religion course, two aspects of the curriculum that can enhance a graduate’s intercultural knowledge and competence in the workplace. Study abroad experiences also help students develop this competency. In an increasingly global economy, an understanding of a diverse range of cultures is an asset to global organizations. Through completing a holistic, liberal-arts-oriented education and processing the impact of such an education, students graduate from High Point University with a comprehensive, communicable skill-set that promotes success in the world of work.

Our Ongoing Work

Our experiences working with students give us hope that with the help of faculty and student support staff, students will process the significance of their holistic liberal arts education. As career advisors, our work entails assisting students with determining their vocational goals and interpreting their professional value. We recognize the importance of not only learning a skill or talent, but also processing and reflecting upon the growth that occurred through learning. Students who have processed their strengths, interests, and values while learning to communicate their worth are better able to tackle the complex problems of determining what work to undertake, how to attain this work, and how to succeed at it.

Works Cited

  • Jay, Paul, and Gerald Graff. “Fear of Being Useful.” Inside Higher Education. IHE, 5 Jan. 2012. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.
  • Landon, Paula, and W. Kerry Hammock. “Planned Happenstance: Preparing Liberal Arts and Social Science Students to Follow Their Hearts to Career Success.” Academic Advising Today. National Academic Advising Association (NACADA), 33 Mar. 2010. Web. 23 Mar. 2015.
  • “Top 10 Skills Employers Want to See on Your Resume.” National Association of Colleges and Employers. NACE, 19 Mar. 2015. Web. 23 Mar. 2015.
  • “What Is a 21st Century Liberal Education?” Association of American Colleges and Universities. AACU. Web. 23 Mar. 2015.