It’s a story that plays out in many families. Emily Hill’s parents were getting concerned about the dollars they were investing in her education while she struggled to figure out what major she wanted to pursue, as the student from Bloomfield Hills, Mich. took a range of courses hoping to find inspiration. “During my freshman year at the university, I took courses like biological anthropology, world politics, astronomy, philosophy, and Greek literature, because I had no idea what I wanted to major in, and I thought that by taking courses like these, something would stick,” Hill, now a senior, says.
Then she heard of a new course titled A User’s Guide to the Liberal Arts, and she jumped on the opportunity to learn about the value of her education, in order to better explain its merits to her family.
“I learned the liberal arts teach you critical thinking, communication and writing skills that vocational studies tend to fall short in. When that was brought up, I remember feeling relieved that everything I had previously done was validated,” Hill says. Helping students to have a positive, open-minded and expansive sophomore year, one that encourages exploration and discovery, and reduces anxiety about selecting a major or career direction, is a central goal of the innovative Sophomore Initiative. To support it, a range of courses, including the User’s Guide, has been created, and select College of Literature, Sciences and the Arts (LSA) courses across disciplines have priority registration for sophomores.
A related goal is for sophomores to develop a deeper understanding of and appreciation for their liberal arts education and to begin to connect the dots between academic learning and their early career interests, through internships.
The roots of the initiative stem from a realization about the level of support freshmen and juniors traditionally get, compared to sophomores. For example, it’s traditional for freshmen to have access to plenty of academic and social support services from the start. In the third year, students with junior class standing also pick up a significant support network through their academic departments or programs, given they are expected to formally select a concentration by the end of their sophomore year.
But what about sophomores? That second year can be tough for this group of students. “You drop your high school friends but haven’t made lots of new ones; move out of the residence halls; are in less frequent contact with your advisor; realize that you’re not ‘pre-med’ after all, and — on top of all that — have to declare a concentration at the end of the year,” says Philip J. Deloria, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg Collegiate Professor of History and American Culture and associate dean for undergraduate education in LSA. Many sophomores have yet to determine what academic focus best fits their interests, and have even less developed ideas about what career paths may suit them well.
“We have learned from the university’s Career Center that articulating what their education has prepared them for is more challenging for LSA students, in part because our students are not in a pre-professional program such as business, engineering, nursing, or public policy, for example,” says Marjorie Horton, LSA assistant dean for undergraduate education.
Deloria agrees. “A major is a focused area of study; that doesn’t necessarily translate into a vocation. The 30-some credits in a major matter a great deal, but what matters just as much is the full range of experiences students acquire across the 120 credits that make up their LSA education.”
“It is crucial for our LSA students to know how valuable their liberal arts skills are to employers for internships, summer jobs and volunteer positions, and for jobs once they graduate and join the workforce,” Horton says.
KNOW YOUR LIBERAL ARTS
As the User’s Guide class opens many are surprised by the full range of disciplines in the liberal arts.
“I remember a student who was concentrating in neuroscience, with a minor in Asian language and culture, and a potential second minor in the Program in the Environment,” Deloria says. “An honors student and scholarship recipient involved in community service, he did not identify himself as a liberal arts person, and yet he was the very personification of the liberal arts.” The example helped encourage LSA to create the course.
Margot Finn, a lecturer in the University Courses Division who recently taught in American Culture, LSA, is the instructor. “We explore how you use what you learn in your liberal arts classes to get a job you’ll find rewarding,” she says.
Some assignments are tailored to get students thinking in new ways about how to discover a career path. In one such assignment, Finn asks students to find people outside of their families pursuing a career, and to talk with them about how they found their vocations.
“It doesn’t have to be a job they plan to do personally, just one they find interesting,” she says. The exercise helps students to discover the value of networking in meeting career goals. “Students see that they should be talking to people. For example, if you’re thinking about applying to law school, maybe you talk to a couple of lawyers before you apply and ask what they do before assuming that’s the path,” she says, also noting the resource students have in the university’s alumni network.
The course also introduces students to the notion they may need to be resilient. Finn recruits alumni to share with the class an experience of career plans going awry, and how they rebounded.
Marzuq Haque, a sophomore and business administration major from West Bloomfield, says he took the class to learn more about liberal arts as an approach to education, in contrast to vocational training. “The most important thing is to always keep learning, to not just stop at your degree requirements,” Haque says.
GETTING THE MOST FROM AN INTERNSHIP
To support the Sophomore Initiative, Deloria and Horton partnered with the Career Center to offer sophomores an Internship Readiness Program, and enlisted a pilot group of 80 LSA sophomores. Its goals were to help students define their interests and skills, prior to searching for internships, learn how to search for and obtain an internship through hands-on training and skill building, and get exposure to different industries.
“Personally I think the Internship Readiness Program prepared me the most in terms of professional presentation,” says Angel Ting, a junior from Malaysia. “Meeting with IRP advisers helped me to remake and tailor my resume according to the needs of the internships that I wanted to apply to. I learned how to phrase my experiences with professional and tailored words to fit the job descriptions and the qualities that the employers are searching for. Also, I learned a lot of tips and tricks to search for internships from different resources.”
The successful pilot program sparked the creation of the mini-course Positioning Yourself for a Successful Internship, offered by LSA both fall and winter terms. A key class objective is getting students to be able to tell their stories effectively or present who they are professionally to prospective employers, skills that also are central in the Career Center’s work with undergraduates. Horton says reflecting and building on one’s story encourages better choices about industries or organizations to explore. The exercise also builds confidence and knowledge about employment opportunities, so students are excited, more informed and see potential.
“We also wanted our students to understand how their internship experience could be an excellent opportunity to explore interests that might help define their academic program during their remaining years in LSA and that their internship experience was one step in a process of exploring, refining, and focusing in on their professional aspirations,” Horton says.
The course opens with frameworks for understanding oneself and for exploring the vast array of possible careers, says Aileen Kim, the course’s instructor and an LSA academic advisor. One of her current students is Cindy Yu, a sport management and communications major from San Diego.
“One day in class, Aileen told us her life story, and how originally she planned on being one major because that’s what her parents wanted her to do, but then she switched multiple times to figure out what she was truly passionate about. When I heard this, something in my mind just clicked and I realized everything was okay in that I was really happy in pursuing the career that I myself truly wanted to do,” Yu says.
Follow faculty and students as they write about their experiences with the Sophomore Initiative at sophomoreinitiative.tumblr.com.