What’s College For Anyway?

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It’s a Saturday afternoon in Milwaukee and parents gather around the room at Danceworks, Inc., eager to watch their children perform. They’re doing hip-hop routines they learned from their dance instructor, TraVon Haase, a business student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“They’re the shining stars,” Haase said. “So I want to help them and groom them to be what my generation is. That’s the most important thing you can do because we always need to advance as a society.”

Haase would like to open his own dance studio, which he imagines will be bigger and teach a variety of dance genres. However, like many students at UWM, his greatest challenge will be finding a job in a lousy economy.

Universities like UWM tend to provide students with a liberal arts background and some job training skills. For many students, however, having work experience is just as important as getting a liberal arts education in helping them succeed. It’s an ongoing debate at UWM and universities around the country: should colleges emphasize job training or a liberal arts education?

Michael Liston, Associate Dean of Arts and Humanities for the UWM Graduate School, said that focusing solely on job training at a university is a problem.

“If you train students for a certain job, the way the economy’s been going there’s no guarantee that what they learn from the training might be relevant in five years,” Liston said. “The job might be gone.”

Liston said it’s more important for students to learn how to be lifelong thinkers so they can adapt to the changing job market and digital landscape.

BENEFITS OF LIBERAL ARTS

“The liberal base gives you the ability to be flexible later on if your career becomes too narrow,” said Liam Callanan, the chair of the English Department at UWM.

He explained that a liberal arts education is like working out at the gym, where you’re training yourself to be strong, but in versatile ways. Knowing a variety of topics is important, because most employers aren’t looking for someone who’s only trained in one thing, Callanan said.

Rebekah Smiltneek, an English major at UWM, said that the liberal arts skills that she learned in college were valuable to her because they taught her how to analyze books for her internship at Curt G. Joa Company. She said that liberal arts courses help students who are undecided about what to do after college.

Still, Smiltneek said that having an internship was just as important as her time in school, and that just having a liberal arts background won’t get students jobs.

“The things you memorize aren’t going to apply to your job, but the actual program and internships are,” Smiltneek said. “With internships I’ve learned just as much, if not more than I did in the technical writing program.”

WHAT EMPLOYERS ARE LOOKING FOR

Wade Krogwold, Campus and Community Manager for the eldercare company Direct Supply, said there are skills reinforced in the classes students take that provide a strong foundation for students to learn to lead and develop, and that sometimes it’s not possible to have the work experience before getting a job.

Krogwold said that most students get caught up in simply balancing their schoolwork with part-time jobs and a social life without giving much thought about how to make themselves more marketable to employers.

“Sometimes it’s about sacrificing short-term jobs for internships, an unpaid role, or volunteering to get competitive advantages, and not just about being qualified,” Krogwold said.

Many students don’t realize the value of volunteer work and being part of a student organization. Involvement with either one can give students valuable leadership skills and work experience that could help them with getting a job.

Eric Anger, Director at the Center for Student Involvement at UWM, pointed to the Japanese Anime Association (JAA), which is one of the largest organizations on campus. Anger said that one of the things JAA does is hold an anime convention every year at the Hyatt Regency Milwaukee Hotel.

In order to hold these anime conventions, JAA organization members use business skills related to marketing, recruiting people, and running their own business, he said.

“Those are some very important skill sets that folks at the Japanese Association are getting,” Anger said. “That probably wasn’t their intent or their goal, but they’re picking them all up.”

Laurie Marks, Director of the Center for Volunteerism at UWM, said there’s no perfect organization for students to be involved in.

“What’s important is that they get involved in something where they build relationships while they do it, and how they can articulate that experience into qualities and skills that employers are looking for,” Marks said.

For example, Brittany Peckels, marketing major at UWM, said that her role as vice president of the soccer club at UWM was a valuable experience for her.

“I have a lot of administration work to do,” Peckels said. “Like scheduling games, keeping everyone in line, doing finances and grants. It helps me with the business aspect because I’ll eventually be doing things like that.”

LIBERAL ARTS AND JOB TRAINING EQUALLY IMPORTANT

Ultimately, when it comes down to what college should really be used for, Tom Bachuber, Director for the UWM Career Development Center, said that job training needs to be supplemented with liberal arts because society needs both.

According to Bachuber, a good example of a job that requires both liberal arts knowledge and job training skills is that of a technologist. Bachuber said that technologists need job training skills to fix things, but it helps if they have a bit of liberal arts education, too. The liberal arts education helps them interact with people better, solve problems, communicate ideas, and in other useful ways, Bachuber said.

“A university like UWM tries to be all things to all people, but when resources and money are limited, that can be difficult,” Bachuber said. “Therein lies the challenge for not only places like UWM, but all universities.”

Bachuber said that liberal arts colleges like Carroll have fewer requirements for majors, so their students can take a broader variety of courses. However, they wouldn’t have as much job training as students at UWM would.

CAREER ADVICE 

Get more involved with social media sites, especially LinkedIn.  It’s the Facebook for job seekers.

  • Have a digital portfolio to show employers.
  • Think of creative ways to market yourself, instead of spending too much time on your resume or applying for jobs.
  • If you want to work in a certain geographic area, you need to live nearby to get contact info and references.
  • Avoid asking employers whether they’re hiring. It’s the kiss of death. Instead, ask questions that show interest in them and they will take an interest in you.

For students worried about getting a job based on their major, Bachuber said he wouldn’t persuade anyone to change their major for fear of not being marketable.

“If you’re really passionate about something, do everything you can to make yourself more marketable,” Bachuber said. “Get experience, take other classes, minor, double major, and have a backup plan.”

UWM will always have a place for humanities. The only reason a certain major might be thrown out is because of low student enrollment or faculty size, Bachuber said.

Michael Newman, Assistant Professor of Journalism, Advertising, and Media Studies at UWM, said that it’s important for students to understand that the major they choose as an undergraduate doesn’t dictate their fate in the job market.

“There are people who work as journalists who are political science majors,” Newman said. “I think that sometimes a sense of college as a time of learning for its own sake is lost because of the very practical considerations people have in mind.”

GRAD SCHOOL

Many students go to graduate school after they finish their undergraduate degree, like Melody Firkus, a UWM student studying Women’s Studies and English.

“The economy is bad,” Firkus said. “So I’m going to go to school until it improves.”

However, Rachael Jurek, who manages internships in UW-Milwaukee’s Department of Journalism, Advertising, and Media Studies, said that there are a few risks of going to grad school that student’s might not be aware of.

“I went to grad school and it was good for me because I love to teach, but it can turn you into someone who’s over-educated and under-qualified,” she said.

Jurek said that employers won’t pay someone a master’s salary if they don’t have enough experience to know what they’re doing.

Kathryn Kinter, Career Counselor at the Career Development Center, said to avoid making this mistake, and that grad students need to make sure that they gain real-world experience while taking classes.

LIFE AFTER COLLEGE

For many students, the ultimate test won’t be a horrendous final exam. It will be finding a job after graduation.

Rebekah Smiltneek, who majored in English at UWM, was fortunate to be offered a job at Curt G. Joa Company, where she interned last summer.

“The two biggest things for me were having an internship and being proactive,” Smiltneek said. “It doesn’t matter how smart or how great you are. Someone has to offer you the opportunity.”

TraVon Haase, the business major who wants to open his own dance studio, isn’t relying on luck.

Haase said that perseverance, taking the initiative, and knowing that self-fulfillment is coming keeps him optimistic about the future.

“I’m worried,” Haase said. “But the most important thing is that you have to think uniquely to put yourself ahead of everybody else.”

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