Innovative Program 1

“Liberal Arts Career Week” Helps Students Envision the Future

By Joel Vogt

More than a decade ago, Tina Loudon attended a workshop presented by longtime career guru Richard Bolles, author of the widely popular job hunting guide, What Color Is Your Parachute?

“I’ll never forget it. It was very compelling” says Loudon, now director of the Career Services Center at Western Washington University. “But somewhere near the end of the whole thing, someone in the audience raised their hand and said, ‘Well, this is all well and good, but when I’m dealing with liberal arts students, what can they really do with their majors?’”

“Bolles looked this person straight in the eye,” Loudon remembers, “and said, ‘My answer is that liberal arts students can do what a 1,200-pound gorilla does on his birthday – anything they want!’”

That, of course, can be a blessing and a curse: a blessing in that liberal arts students have many options, and a curse in that, well, liberal arts students have many options – which can be overwhelming and anxiety-producing.

That’s why Loudon and her staff at WWU have developed “Liberal Arts Career Week,” a series of seminars geared specifically toward students whose majors may not suggest an explicitly defined career path.

“It’s often hard for students with liberal arts majors to see how their academic preparation can be applied in the workplace,” says Loudon. “It’s not as obvious as it is for, say, accounting majors or computer science majors. So it’s particularly valuable for them to have the opportunity to talk to other liberal arts grads and learn about their career paths and experiences in the workplace.”

Students get that chance during Liberal Arts Career Week, which features several “Alumni Panel” discussions in which WWU alums with liberal arts degrees return to campus to share their career insights with current liberal arts students. The discussions are moderated by faculty members – “a nice way for us to collaborate with a department and build relationships with faculty,” Loudon points out – who often require their students to attend and convince their fellow faculty members to do the same. As a result, a typical Alumni Panel draws between 30 and 50 student participants.

“Informal but Informative”

Each Alumni Panel features three or four alumni/ae speakers, who talk about their careers by responding to basic questions posed to them. The idea, Loudon says, is to eliminate any “prep time” for the presenters and keep the interactions informal but informative.

The panels generally last about 90 minutes. Most of the time is devoted to the panelists’ observations, reflections, and advice, though there’s time at the end – and, often, afterward – for students to ask specific questions.

Low-budget affairs, the panels take place over the noon hour so that students can bring something to eat if they’d like. Afterwards, the alumni/ae guests are treated to a meal at a local restaurant, compliments of the WWU Alumni Office.

“Since it’s a very low-budget program, we aren’t able to pay the alums a stipend or mileage,” Loudon says. “So we try to find people who are local and who won’t have to travel a long way. But we do want to make sure we do something nice for them, and so the Alumni Office picks up the tab for a nice lunch to thank them for their time.”

Each panel focuses on a particular “grouping” of liberal arts-oriented careers, Loudon says. Past programs, for example, have focused on “Communication Careers” (for English, journalism, and communication majors) and “Social Science Careers” (for psychology, sociology, political science, and history majors). For this year’s Liberal Arts Career Week, slated for the week of May 7, Loudon and her colleagues plan to involve a foreign language (Spanish) graduate for the first time, along with graduates who majored in English, journalism/political science (combination degree), sociology, and history.

The week’s events won’t be limited to Alumni Panels, however. Students will also be able to participate in a session called “Finding Jobs Outside the Mainstream,” which focuses on career paths in nonprofit and “alternative” organizations. “It’s been an enormously popular workshop when we’ve offered it at other times of the year,” Loudon says, noting that the last one drew nearly 50 students.

“What Have You Done for Me Lately?”

Every career services professional has probably run into a liberal arts student whose perception is that “the career services office is for business and computer majors, not me” (sound familiar?). Loudon says that Liberal Arts Career Week helps to dispel that common myth, all while helping WWU’s liberal arts students see that career paths doexist for them – even if those paths may ultimately wind back and forth somewhat.

“Sometimes when students are about to graduate, all of a sudden they become real linear,” Loudon says with a chuckle. “That’s why it’s so marvelous for them to hear from the alums about how everything has unfolded for them, often not in a straight line. That would be valuable for students in any major.”