Matthew Peterson remembers feeling a bit intimidated at a University of Minnesota career center last spring.
He was a liberal arts student in a sea of business majors, all vying for the same summer internships. Even as an economics major, he said, he felt like he was at a disadvantage.
“It was hard,” he admits, “to build up the confidence to talk about what makes me of value to a company.”
To Ascan Koerner, a professor of communication studies at the university, that’s an all-too-common complaint. For too long, he says, critics have belittled the liberal arts as an academic luxury while touting business, science and engineering degrees as the tickets to success.
Now, Koerner is heading a fresh attempt to prove to students — and skeptical parents — that their investment in a liberal arts education will pay off. Called the Career Readiness Initiative, the project aims to give students in the College of Liberal Arts a psychological edge when they enter the job market.
The goal, says Koerner, isn’t to change what’s taught in the classroom, but to talk more about its relevance to the outside world.
“I think it’s for us to make the case why the liberal arts matter,” he says. Most colleges, he argues, simply aren’t doing a very good job of that.
It’s long been a matter of faith, on college campuses, that a liberal arts degree is valuable training for life. But that’s not always obvious to students, says Koerner.
Michelle Leonard, a senior, admits she was never sure why she had to take so many classes outside her speech major. She knew she wanted a career working with the elderly, she said, so why bother with courses like Greek mythology? “I always thought, ‘Why am I wasting my time with this?’ ” she said.
Professors rarely stop in the middle of class to explain, for example, how studying Shakespeare or anthropology or art history can help students develop skills — as writers, thinkers, problem solvers — that can prepare them for a career. Or how they might use those skills in a job interview to impress a potential employer.
Koerner thinks that students would benefit from such blunt talk.
So does John Coleman, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts. “We’re in a time where students are very nervous and very concerned about job prospects,” he said. “We’ve been trying to tackle it head on.”
The initiative is an effort to make sure that students “go out with confidence and, yes, market what they bring to the employer,” said Coleman.
Initially, the U had toyed with another idea, called “career bundles,” to help liberal arts students become more marketable. But Koerner, who was tapped to head the project in 2015, quickly scrapped the idea as unworkable. (It would have implied that certain classes were more career-friendly than others, he said, a surefire way to alienate faculty.)
Instead, he did some research with employers, grad schools and others about what they look for in new college graduates. In February, his team came up with a 92-page “career readiness guide,” distributed throughout the College of Liberal Arts, that promises to offer students “an indisputable competitive edge in today’s changing, complex world.”
Among other things, the guide contains a list of 10 “core career competencies” that, in theory, students should be able to put on a résumé by the time they graduate. The idea, according to Koerner, is that students should be able to describe how specific classes — as well as internships and other college experiences — helped them develop a palette of skills, such as ethical reasoning, analytical thinking, teamwork and digital literacy.
It’s another way for students to “make meaning out of their education,” says Koerner, and more practically, to “articulate it in a way that’s clear and convincing” to an employer.
But it all hinges on the willingness of professors to have those conversations in classes about art or literature or music. So Koerner has spent months going from department to department, like a traveling preacher, trying to win converts among instructors.
“I’ve heard from a lot of faculty, ‘isn’t this debasing us when we talk about employment?’ ” said Koerner. His response: Most students “don’t have a trust fund,” as he told a recent gathering. “We kind of owe it to them to provide an education that they recognize as useful.”
Like many professors, Jane Blocker, the chair of art history, says she’s wary of any attempt to cast the study of the humanities as vocational training. But this project doesn’t fall into that trap, she says, and that’s what she likes about it.
“It’s not changing us,” she said. “I think it’s more about increasing self-awareness for students.” In fact, she said, she thinks it’s totally appropriate to spend some class time helping students reflect on the skills they’re learning. “That’s totally within the wheelhouse of faculty members,” she said. Looking back, she added, “I would have loved to have had that as an undergraduate, but didn’t.”
Michael Bennett McNulty, an assistant professor of philosophy, thinks the timing is right. “Right now, philosophy in particular and also the liberal arts in general have something of a PR problem,” he said. “We’re kind of under attack, it feels like, and I think we need to do a better job of communicating.”
In a sense, he said, this is about packaging the liberal arts “in a way that is palatable for students and palatable for employers, too.”
If anyone doubts the need for this kind of program, Koerner suggests talking to students like TJ Gupta, vice president of the College of Liberal Arts student board.
“There’s not one student that doesn’t want this,” said Gupta, 20, who graduates in May with a double major in economics and psychology. “I would have loved to get my hands on [this] as a freshman.”
Peterson, the economics student who once thought he couldn’t compete with business majors, agrees. “Yes, we do value our education, but we also need to know how to market and promote ourselves,” he said.
Peterson graduates in May and has already landed a job with a management firm. But he thinks the career initiative could give future grads an advantage he didn’t have. “It’s very difficult and stressful to get a job,” he said. “This focus is going to, I think, help a lot of students realize that they are valuable.”
Koerner is counting on it. “At the end of the day, your career is not going to be based on a narrow skill set,” he said. “I truly believe we are in a prime position to prepare students for the future.”