By Allison Eck ’12
What, really, should students get out of college? And how can that lay the groundwork for a successful career? Those are questions that Hamilton is busy rethinking — both academically and as it redefines the mission of the Maurice Horowitch Career Center.
“Entrepreneurship, building a network, using LinkedIn and social media — the whole idea of a ‘career’ is undergoing a huge change, and it’s happening underneath us,” says Mary McLean Evans ’82, interim executive director of the Career Center.
In an era of mounting pressure from parents and prospective employers, many liberal arts colleges have nevertheless adhered to the core of their original mission: to model a life of inquiry and engagement by teaching students to think critically and creatively. In practical terms, that has meant educating students in those subjects that exist outside of the vocational domain. Strong endowments and increased selectivity have helped sustain this tradition, particularly at schools like Hamilton; other colleges and universities, less cushioned by reputation, prestigious faculty and a strong financial base, have been forced to realign their philosophies.
But Hamilton and its peers are not wholly immune to changing realities in the workplace and the demands of a tough economy; professors are being asked to redefine, contextualize and generally “pitch” the liberal arts mission on several fronts. Nor are faculty members the only group on campus being encouraged to re-articulate Hamilton’s traditional “brand.” At the heart of the debate over professional planning is the Career Center, which has recently taken major steps to coordinate such planning with liberal arts values.
During the 2010-11 academic year, a task force appointed by President Joan Hinde Stewart and convened by Richard Tantillo, vice president of communications and development, studied the Career Center’s operations. Made up of trustees, alumni and administrators from the center and the Office of Communications and Development, the task force was led by George Baker ’74 and included Greg Hoogkamp ’82 and Julia Cowles ’84, who now chairs the Career Center Advisory Council.
The idea was and remains to raise the Career Center’s visibility, efficiency and sense of priority to match that of other recent College initiatives. “We’re encouraging the entire College community, including alumni and parents, to embrace student outcomes in the same way that we embrace the admission process,” Tantillo says. “We’re all stakeholders in what happens to graduates after Hamilton.”
Evans is now working with her colleagues to guide the center through what they believe will be an unprecedented period of transition. As a result, six Task Force Implementation Groups are pushing toward the Career Center’s overarching goal: to engage more students earlier in their time at Hamilton as they apply their liberal arts education to career exploration and development.
“What we’re envisioning for the Career Center at Hamilton really doesn’t exist anywhere else,” Evans says. “Most of our peer colleges are looking into initiatives like these, but we expect to be the first to actually do it, and we hope Hamilton will be the leader.”
Work on six fronts
Six Task Force Implementation Groups are at work to redefine and extend the Career Center’s mission — to create a campus culture that makes career exploration a significant part of each student’s Hamilton experience:
CAREER COMMUNITY: To create a strong network of engaged alumni, parents and faculty members who support the career needs of students and alumni by facilitating connections that lead to internships/job listings, job shadowing, career presentations, practice interviews, advice, etc.
PEER ADVISORY NETWORK: To expand the on-campus reach of the Career Center by identifying and training 25 students to serve as peer advisors (similar to Writing Center tutors) who will counsel first- and second-year students on resources for career exploration and serve as ambassadors for the center, enhancing its visibility and reputation.
FACULTY ENGAGEMENT: To encourage campus-wide support for the importance of “outcomes” as part of the Hamilton experience by creating a partnership with faculty members that includes programming specific to academic majors, enhanced support for students interested in graduate and professional school, and broader access to the Career Community database.
EMPLOYER RELATIONS: To build an employer development plan to customize connections with potential employers that address student career interests in new and diverse fields.
COMMUNICATIONS: To develop a marketing campaign and communications reaching all constituencies across all media channels.
ASSESSMENT: To introduce outcomes and participation metrics to determine whether the Career Center is successfully meeting its goals.
Re-articulating liberal arts goals
The first step is to analyze exactly how a liberal arts degree might serve career goals. For example, first-year students at Hamilton often encounter new subjects and professional paths they had not previously considered. This would be less likely at a larger, profession-oriented university where early specialization is encouraged. “The world of knowledge is exploding and the world is flat,” Evans says. “We’re helping our students feel facile about that and open to that — they might very well build a lifetime career out of something that was not around a few years ago.”
In fact, that’s what Geoffrey Garin, president of Hart Research Associates, once identified as the chief responsibility of higher education today: to prepare people for jobs that do not yet exist. Cultivating a campus culture that rewards this kind of progressive, adventurous education is not easy, though; it requires both faculty members and career counselors to think more expansively about how different academic “recipes” might lead to uncharted career territory. Instead of sending students in predetermined directions, the Career Center plans to work with professors in becoming more attentive to individual students’ potential paths.
Melissa Kong ’08, an account manager at Outbrain and editorial director at Technori, left the Hill with a very close relationship to the Career Center and with half-a-dozen internships already under her belt. She agrees that career planning should be executed in a way that resonates with students’ sensibilities as well as with the faculty. “People aren’t textbook- or survey-like in nature — people are compelling, lovely and fallible,” she says. “The question is: What is it that students want? The faculty and the Career Center should synergize to meet that purpose.”
Not everyone, of course, is convinced that a marriage between liberal arts values and career messages can — or should — work. “I am not opposed to having a Career Center on campus, and I have great respect and affection for the people I know at the Career Center,” says Professor of History Doug Ambrose. “I believe they care about our students and try their best to help them. Nonetheless, we must be careful to never let the Career Center tail wag the liberal arts dog. We must not allow this institution to become a means to any end other than education — education understood in the liberal sense, as an end in itself, not as a ‘utilitarian’ product that serves some practical end.”
Katherine Brooks, director of liberal arts career services at the University of Texas at Austin and author of You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career, is one of the prominent voices in the movement to close the gap between the liberal arts and career planning. In a 2009 commentary in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Brooks wrote: “Contrary to fears that a career class will detract from the educational mission, my experience has been that students approach their other liberal arts classes with newfound enthusiasm when they understand why they are there.”
At UT Austin, students create “major maps” by writing their major in the center of a blank page. Then they surround it with their favorite subjects or theories within that field, skills they’ve acquired, related coursework from other disciplines, fruitful experiences like research or internships, and personal traits or interests. Students then draw lines connecting these ideas by looking for common themes.
Hamilton’s new list of educational goals (right) plays a similar role in that it fuels conversations about how academics can foster post-graduate success. The goals, adopted a year ago, came out of the faculty’s Mellon Curricular Leaders group, which, after visiting other campuses with open curricula, determined that Hamilton needed a more comprehensive, updated set of goals. Associate Professor of Music Heather Buchman, who studied the issue from the perspective of creativity and performance, and Professor of Philosophy Todd Franklin, who studied advising, formulated these goals.
Buchman hopes that a better advising system will result. “We want incoming students to be thinking about the educational goals before they even arrive for orientation, so that their first conversation with their advisor can be in a broader context of thinking already about what they want to get out of college, what being liberally educated means, and the thinking capacities they are going to need to thrive after college and to make a difference,” she says.
Building a ‘career community’
In that spirit, one crucial message the Career Center wants to deliver to students is that major doesn’t matter — or at least it’s not the only thing that matters.
“There’s a perception that if you’re going into finance, you must be an economics major,” Evans says. “But being a creative writer might give you a more interesting story for the interview. We encourage students to major in what they care about, and we help them work on the other pieces of their experience pool to make themselves as well prepared and broadly educated as possible.”
The Career Center staff also hopes to start talking to students as early as the spring of their first year. But they also don’t want to overwhelm anyone. “We don’t want students stressing out about jobs their freshman or sophomore years,” Evans says. “We just want them to test their thinking about the things they care about by participating in internships and other career-related experiences.” Programs like HamiltonExplore (which offers more than 200 shadowing opportunities during January of the sophomore year) allow students to sample professions in which alumni and parents have found happiness and success.
To engage students as early as possible, the Career Center is revamping its communication strategy. What messages do students, faculty and parents need to hear? What part should newer channels such as social media and LinkedIn play in delivering those messages? What messages are they hearing now, true or false? One way to build a sense of possibility around the Career Center is to make these constituent groups want to be a part of it. That entails substantially expanding the number of peer advisors (there are currently only six), making those jobs coveted and adding an outreach component to their job descriptions. “In quadrupling the number of peer advisors and asking them to reach back into their own communities — whether through their majors or their extracurricular organizations — we can design the right program to help us involve students earlier,” Evans says.
Associate Director of Employer Relations Abby Taylor says the scale and purpose of Hamilton’s professional bonds need to improve as well. That includes adding more types of programs, positions and employers to the Career Center’s focus, targeting a diverse but not unwieldy list of employers, and collecting data on where students have completed internships. “We can use these resources [repeatedly] instead of trying to reinvent the wheel,” Taylor says.
Ultimately, though, a trip to the Career Center isn’t just about finding a job; it’s about developing one’s sense of self with respect to a larger community. Networking with Hamilton and Kirkland alumni and alumnae involves learning how like-minded individuals view their liberal arts mindset in the context of a professional environment. And it requires students to think creatively about how to construct a support group out of the Hamilton network. Evans calls this family the “career community” — a lifelong gateway to nearly 20,000 (and counting) alumni who, in varying degrees and capacities, give back to Hamilton.
“If we build a community where all of our alumni have a general awareness of the importance of outcomes, we can ask people specifically to help us in various ways,” Evans says. Alumni could look at résumés, help find internships, serve as mentors, even offer to house a student participating in an internship away from home, and more. Similarly, a Hamilton alumnus or alumna who is laid off or wants to change professions 10 or 15 years out of college can draw on the career community, too. Sometimes even students themselves can provide career insight and advice — no relationship is a one-way street.
‘People who want to support you’
“You need to open your eyes.”
That’s what Torrence Moore ’92 said to Veronica Allen ’01 when she was just a first-year student. His comment planted the seed for Allen’s understanding of the richness of the Hamilton alumni network; soon the buds and brambles of connectivity would begin to germinate.
Moore and Allen were both beneficiaries of the LINK Unlimited program, Chicago’s oldest mentoring and college preparatory organization, long directed by Art Massolo ’64. Since its inception in 1966, LINK has helped 1,700 economically disadvantaged African-American students attend college by providing academic support through their high school years.
Moore, who mentored Allen through the LINK program, continued: “There are people here who can help you,” he told Allen. “Start talking to people and get as much information as you can.”
And she did. Allen, an English major, would routinely visit the Career Center and speak to staff about certain areas she was interested in pursuing. The career counselors guided and assisted Allen in her search for a concrete direction, and she responded with an eager and open mind. “It was helpful that I didn’t have an ulterior motive — I wasn’t looking for a job,” she says. “And I started early.”
In 2001, with help from scholarship sponsor Kevin Kennedy ’70, who also helped Allen network, she secured her first job as a legal assistant at Skadden Arps, working with Tom Schwarz ’66. Since then, the Hamilton connection has never ceased to bring her new opportunities; she received a Hamilton College Fellowship established by James Coupe ’71 for graduate school at Vanderbilt, and eventually landed a job at RocketLawyer, the rapidly growing online legal service, with the help of Dan Nye ’88, president and CEO of the company.
Nye knows what it’s like to be on both the giving and receiving ends of the Hamilton career community. Before hiring Allen, Nye built his own leadership skills: He served as the president of the Delta Upsilon fraternity, president of the Intersociety Council and led the Senior Gift campaign in its formative years. He also got to know many teachers, administrators, trustees and alumni. “It was an incredibly wonderful experience getting to know these people and feeling their confidence in me,” Nye says.
So even though a job-seeking trip to New York City during the fall of his senior year coincided with Black Friday’s 508-point drop in the stock market, Nye was feeling fairly confident about his future.
Through the Career Center, he lined up a number of interviews with prospective employers and received an offer to join Procter & Gamble in brand management, embarking on a career path from P&G to Intuit, Advent Software, LinkedIn (where he was CEO) and beyond. Now he’s a Hamilton trustee.
“I give Hamilton credit for many things,” Nye says, “but the most valuable for me was the opportunity to get involved in so many organizations on campus. Through these organizations, I developed leadership skills that I’ve leveraged throughout my career. Hamilton’s size, community and resources made that possible.”
Nye gave a talk about LinkedIn at an alumni event in San Francisco in 2008. Allen, who was in the audience, remembers that he spoke of the importance of “the three R’s of successful career management: results, relationships and reputation.” They chatted after the lecture and immediately hit it off. Just two years later, Moore and Nye were at Hamilton together and got Allen on the phone in the middle of the night. She interviewed and got a job — just like that. Now she’s associate general counsel at RocketLawyer. If it weren’t for Hamilton’s career community, Allen would have had fewer options.
“Many students don’t have the natural networks before coming to Hamilton,” Evans says. “Here you have this built-in network of people who want to support you.”
The Career Center can play a crucial role in igniting those initial connections and ambitions. Ultimately, though, the responsibility for career planning falls on the student. Few people understand that better than Allen.
“You can’t say that the Career Center is a failure if you don’t know its purpose,” she says.
Life’s work: Making connections
Perhaps as the innovations envisioned by Hamilton help bridge the divide between career centers and the traditional liberal arts, students will better understand what to expect from their advisors and career mentors.
“The problem with career centers is that they are charged with helping place graduates into jobs,” says Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology Dan Chambliss. “But that’s not what we’re doing. Our goals, implicit or not, are more about the long-term growth and development of our students as people.” That is as it should be, Ambrose says: “Our primary responsibility is to help students discover who and what they are and ought to be as persons.” But that kind of education can lead to professional satisfaction as well.
Melissa Kong says she came to understand the relationship between the two at Hamilton. She calls it “the art of the spin — the ability to take any given situation and have it make sense to people, to explain something complex in a simple way, to draw connections that other people don’t see, to take things from different courses and see how they connect.”
In that way, Hamilton coaches students to think in different registers and operate on different planes. It’s not the sort of intellectual work that entry-level positions often require. “If we’re training them for jobs,” Chambliss says, “it’s for upper-level general management, cross-discipline organizing and the kind of broad thinking that becomes much more relevant in leadership positions.”
Regardless, a place like Hamilton is not geared toward instant gratification, and, as Evans points out, the concept of “career” is rapidly mutating anyway.
“Students know they’re going into a world of constant change — more than seems possible,” she says. “And I think Hamilton can play a lifetime role in that — you will always return to the Hamilton career community, be a giver or a taker or somewhere in between.”