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It Takes a Village: Using Collaboration to Enhance Interactive Learning and Improve the Employability of Liberal Arts Students

 

November 16-17, 2012
Dillard University and Xavier University of Louisiana
New Orleans, Louisiana

Rhonda McCoy, Paine College

Elizabeth Siciliano, Paine College

Marva Stewart, Paine College

A degree in the liberal arts has long been regarded as the thinking degree. In the past, students who obtained these degrees often went on to traditional careers such as teachers, social workers, academics, and members of the clergy. However, in the 21st century, as the economy and the world have shifted, and jobs have become scarce, people have had to reinvent themselves and market these degrees. In a world where technical skills have seemingly overtaken liberal arts degrees, we have to help students see the value in a liberal arts degree.

To this end, faculty members can collaborate with colleagues to reach millennial students and teach the skills needed in a global workforce. Mentors can help students achieve both academic and employment success, and interactive teaching methods can keep students more engaged. Working together, everyone at an institution of higher learning can affect changes in their institutions that will produce graduates who are both learned and highly employable.

New Challenges

As a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), Paine College, like most independent (private) and majority institutions, must address the changing milieu of student populations. While millennial students comprise the group referred to as having “new faces and new expectations,” a portion of these students at institutions such as Paine College come with issues all too familiar to educators.

While these students may be referred to as millennials or the “net generation” due to their facility with technology and social media, many are first-generation college students who come to campus with challenges. From studies such as Owens, Lacey, Rawls, & Holbert-Quince (2010), we know African-American students lag in high school and college graduation rates in comparison to majority or Asian-American counterparts. These students may be products of impoverished backgrounds, are underprepared for collegiate life and studies, and may be lacking in key basic skills such as reading, writing, oral communication, and computational skills. While lacking in these academic skills, these students come to college with the same expectations as other millennial students, including the desire to have skills that will appeal to employers upon graduation.

As studies indicate, first-generation students with “limited resources and opportunities” encounter obstacles that they have to overcome (Owens et al.; Mehta, Newbold, & O’Rourke 2011). If African-American first-generation students are to succeed in life and in an academic setting, they will need assistance in negotiating the collegiate process, from adjusting to this new environment to planning for life, graduate study, and careers. With these problems confronting first-generation students, institutions such as Paine College must develop a means to guide and mentor students through the educational and life skills process to success. At Paine College, we have implemented programs that will make it possible for our students to have the skills they need to be well educated and employable. Through the collaborative efforts of faculty, staff, and administrators, we mentor students in skill building, knowledge-building, and employability.

Keys to Success

In studies and surveys across professions, in addition to job-specific skills, employers say that they want employees who possess critical thinking skills, noncognitive skills, practical skills, and acquisition skills.

Critical thinking skills were voted the number one skill employers look for in job candidates. An employee who possesses these skills will be able to make thoughtful evaluations and search for solutions based on real information. Highly valued noncognitive skills include diplomacy, good manners, and self-control in stressful situations. Practical skills include valuable real-world skills such as mastery of Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint applications. Acquisition skills are the demonstrated ability to grasp new information.

The teaching of these skills can be incorporated into a liberal arts education and are especially valuable for students coming from challenging backgrounds. To increase employability, all graduates should be able to collaborate and to read, write, and speak well. They should be able to analyze information and be financially literate. They should be able to control their impulses and know how to show restraint.

All students should graduate with strong information literacy skills; they should be able to recognize bias in language, be able to find credible sources, distinguish between fact and opinion and know how to do research in libraries, in the field, and on the Internet. They should know what is going on in the world and have an understanding of history and geography. They should know how to make discriminate decisions, know how to advocate for themselves, and know how to talk to people who intimidate them. To this end, faculty can address these issues by making assignments that do double duty. When choosing essays or articles to read, out-of-class projects or literary readings, research writing and in-class discussions, all members of the faculty can help students build these valuable skills.

Mentoring Programs

Students cannot see themselves clearly. Because parents have an inherent bias, students also need objective guides. Faculty mentors can help students identify their strengths and show them how to build on those strengths; students become engaged and thrive when they succeed. Faculty mentors can collaborate to help students find opportunities and areas of pursuit that match their strengths and interests. If the members of the college team work together to anticipate the real world students are entering, help them match their inherent strengths to their areas of pursuit, and understand what the expectations are beyond the classroom, students will graduate better prepared for the professional or academic world.

Students, especially millennials, have the desire to succeed; however, they do not necessarily know how to get from step A to step Z. A mentoring program is designed to provide students with the skills necessary to make it to Z. Students should figure out what their underlying desires are. Taking interest inventories is helpful. Using social networking sites for professional networking also helps; joining professional organizations is another way to network. Students should get experience by volunteering and completing internships. They should identify the profession they want to enter and ask to shadow someone in the field. Students should also be encouraged to look for vacancies in their chosen profession and find out how to fill them. Faculty members should be encouraged to include students in their research.

In mentoring programs, students should be paired up with a faculty mentor to help guide them and make sure they remain on the right track. Often, students reveal their desires early on in writing class assignments. Writing professors can be asked to share this information with mentors and the career center. Students who are encouraged by their mentors to do things while they are in school that can help advance them professionally have an advantage over others when they graduate. Without mentors, they are often not aware of the value of these experiences.

Interactive Learning

It may be necessary to help first generation students understand the world of work and professionalism they aspire to enter. Some of these students have unrealistic expectations about careers and career choices and it is up to educators to paint the real world for them. For instance, as digital natives, young adults are used to a fast-paced world of Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. To use an old expression, they write, tweet, and post first, and may or may not think and proof second. We as professionals must enter their world to demonstrate that what they do socially via social media may be inappropriate for the professional world.

In the classroom, instructors may use interactive learning activities to illustrate this point to mentor students to professionalism. For instance, one English professor had students introduce themselves to their classmates by presenting their Facebook pages. Of course, to the instructor’s chagrin, inappropriate activity and behavior were displayed on these pages. These digital natives were shocked to learn that prospective employers and even prospective graduate program advisors would find the content on the pages inappropriate and more importantly may find them (students) unsuitable for employment and admission to graduate or professional programs. The students were instructed to create a more professional profile with a resume and a professional looking photograph. Digital natives need to be aware of the longevity of their social media pages and of the potential consequences of the images and information they post in the cyber world.

Preparing Students for the Future

As mentioned previously, Paine College has programs in place that address cognitive and noncognitive skills that prepare students for graduate study, the professional world, and careers. Similar to most institutions, we have a course built into the curriculum to introduce students to collegiate life and Paine College. Aptly, this course is called Prep for Excellence (Education 101).This course is buttressed by the revamped and retooled Academic Center for Excellence and Success (ACES), which houses all the elements students will need to ensure their success. This center is the result of the institution wanting to take a united and focused approach of ushering students from advisement through leadership development. From the webpage, one can see that the college has consolidated efforts to provide guidance, information, and support for first-generation and college-generation students.

ACES’s core function is “making student engagement and academic success a reality of ALL students.” In the ACES model there is an activity director, academic advisors, academic support, student support specialists, faculty liaisons and peer tutors. The advising process is shared among two core groups: professional advisors and faculty mentors. The role of the professional advisor is to give information on programs of study while providing specific discipline support. Faculty mentors compliment the effort of the professional advisors by providing guidance on specific discipline activities, opportunities, research, study abroad, and other scholarly activities and opportunities. The purpose of the ACES program is to support students in maximizing their educational opportunities, connect them to the academic projects of the faculty and vice-versa. In an effort to promote these ideals, workshops are held on topics such as motivation, time-management, organization, note taking, textbook reading, test preparation and taking, research skill development, professional networking, opportunities in the global environment, and academic coursework.

To further prepare the students for success in the workforce, leadership development is honed by providing support to students during their engagement in experimental learning activities, working with academic departments on programs to graduate schools, and helping students prepare competitive applications for graduate/professional school.

Before they graduate, all students are required to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) or a comparable professional placement test. Even if they have no immediate plans to attend graduate school, they are prepared if their plans should change. Having to take the test before graduation will encourage them to enter graduate programs later. Students who are graduating with education degrees are required to take and pass the Georgia Assessment for the Certification of Teachers (GACE). Because of this requirement, they will graduate not only with a degree in education, but also with the credentials to teach immediately after graduation.

Through on-campus programs and collaborations with external entities, college personnel help students find and secure opportunities for internships, study abroad programs, presentation and research opportunities and travel to conferences. They can help navigate applications for graduate school and secure fee waivers for national examinations. Collaborations with entities such as the National Urban League’s Black Executive Exchange Program (BEEP), which provide mentoring by professionals in the corporate world, and Automatic Data Processing (ADP), which offers scholarship opportunities for students, provide instruction and incentives that young people need for growth and maturation.

In addition to shepherding students through the collegiate process in order to groom them while providing real life experiences and offering realistic views of the corporate world and life outside of academia, processes are put in place to offer academic and experiential skill sets, from tutoring to volunteer work to internships.

While it may seem clichéd to say that it takes a village, it does take innovative, interactive, and collaborative efforts to provide students with the keys to success and to produce graduates who are highly equipped to handle the challenges of a modern workforce in a complex world.

References

Owens, D.; Lacey, K. Rawls, G., & Holbert-Quince, J. (2010). First-Generation African American Male College Students: Implications For Career Counselors. Career Development Quarterly, 58(4), 291-300.

McMurray, A. J., & Sorrells, D. (2009). Bridging The Gap: Reaching First-Generation Students In The Classroom. Journal Of Instructional Psychology, 36(3), 210-214.

Mehta, S. S., Newbold, J. J., & O'Rourke, M. A. (2011). Why Do First-Generation Students Fail? College Student Journal, 45(1), 20-35.

National Urban League (n.d.). Black Executive Exchange Program (BEEP). I Am Empowered. Retrieved January 11, 2013, from http://www.iamempowered.com/departments/black-executive-exchange-program-beep

Paine College. (n.d.) Academic Center for Excellence and Success. Retrieved January 16, 2013, from http://www.paine.edu/academics/ACES/default.aspx

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